18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 12 — Reconstruction
There is an old axiom that a soldier will always moan, and that there's something wrong if he doesn't. That is true, certainly. But it is also true that the ‘moaning’ is nothing but a pose, a veneer covering the fact that soldiers are really a light-hearted, resilient race, accepting what the day brings and shrugging off disappointment, hardship and discomfort. So it was with the men who came back from Crete. They had been through very trying times, they had lost many of their friends and had seen the bitter day of defeat; but all they needed to bring them back to their old pitch of spirits and efficiency was a few days' rest, food and drink. And that is what they got.
From the moment they landed at Alexandria their most urgent bodily needs were attended to, effectively and without undue fuss. The welfare organisations, the YMCA and the Patriotic Fund people, excelled themselves. On the wharf, and at Amiriya transit camp, there they were, with the tea urn perpetually boiling, handing out cigarettes to men starved for a smoke, shaving gear and soap and toothpaste to men forced to go dirty and unshaven. A clean-up, a smoke, some food inside you, and it's wonderful how quickly your self-respect comes back, particularly when your worst rags are replaced on the spot with new clothes.
Little more than twenty-four hours after 18 Battalion's arrival in Egypt it was on the move again, crammed on to a train clattering its way south to Cairo. Only twenty-four hours, but what a difference! Crete was already something to be forgotten. The next campaign was somewhere hidden in the mist of the future, not to be thought of yet. In the meantime, they were still alive, and life was to be enjoyed.
Back in their old lines at Helwan they set about enjoying it. They had three days' holiday. Cairo beckoned, of course; there was general leave, and the boys had credits in their paybooks. So, like the Israelites of old, they sat by the flesh pots, page 170 and did eat bread to the full. Eating and drinking were the most important things in life just then.
They also made their first real acquaintance with the South Africans. When the New Zealand Division went to Greece there had been few South African troops in Egypt—now the place was alive with them. South African trucks had carried 18 Battalion from Alexandria to Amiriya camp, from there to the train, from Helwan siding to the camp. Now in Cairo began a friendship and rivalry that was to outlast the war. There the mythical book on rugby had its origins, the first international scrum went down in a Cairo bar, the first argument over the shapes of South African and New Zealand girls took place. The ‘South Afs’ were beyond a doubt the most exhilarating colleagues the Kiwis had so far met.
On 5 June 18 Battalion, as Corporal Dick Bishop1 recalls, was ‘brought back to earth with a thud & given 2 hours drill’. Probably this was intended to knock some of the rust off its parade-ground technique for the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, who next morning addressed the assembled remnants of 4 Brigade. ‘According to him,’ says Bishop, ‘we are real heroes and he certainly put across a great line. He told us that he would do his very best to see that we had adequate air support next time we went into action and it's to be hoped he succeeds.’ It was to be hoped, indeed!
But on the following day (7 June) nobody thought any more about such remote things as action or air support, for nearly everybody in the battalion drew pay and went off on a week's special ‘survivors' leave’. Some went no farther than Cairo and revelled in its manifold luxuries; some, braving the air raids, went to Alexandria to escape the June heat and spend their time swimming; those with a taste for sightseeing went on tours to Palestine, or to Luxor and Aswan. For that week the battalion's lines were all but deserted. Then the holiday-makers came back and real training began.
The 16th June might be regarded as the birthday of the new 18 Battalion—that day more than 400 reinforcements arrived, and the old hands found themselves outnumbered. Some of the reinforcements were old members returned to the fold, page 171 but not many, and for the first time the unit numbered a sprinkling of South Islanders in its ranks. Among the officers was an old friend of HQ Company, Major Peart, who took temporary command of the battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray being away on special duty for three months.
The new 18 Battalion did not spring ready-made into being without birth pangs and growing pains. At first some of the old hands were, naturally, apt to be a bit cliquey, and to treat the reinforcements with some reserve. The barriers crumbled quickly, however, and by the time the unit next went into action, four months later, a stranger would never have picked the ‘originals’ from the reinforcements.
The programme of work from mid-June (mornings only) was not too strenuous. It couldn't be made very exacting in Helwan in June; it goes without saying that it was fiendishly hot, and the flies were abominable. The killing programme of route-marching of 1940 was not repeated, but there were two night marches a week, hard enough on the system even in the comparative cool of the evenings. On the off nights there was the good old NAAFI canteen well stocked with beer, and the picture theatre was right next door. You could still get Friday or Saturday evening leave if you wanted it. If you wished to explore farther afield, there were day trips to places like Fayoum and the Saqqara pyramids. And for a lucky few (about thirty-five at a time) there was seven days' leave; this was for men who had been in Egypt for over six months, and was quite separate from the Crete survivors' leave.
This routine went on for two months, with the emphasis always on weapon training, more and more of it. Little variety can be instilled into weapon training, and interest and attention are apt to get a bit perfunctory after a while. But there was small relief, except air defence duties (an air raid on Cairo in late July was faintly audible at Helwan), route marches, one or two company manoeuvres towards the end of July, and the occasional ceremonial parade.
These provided a few minor highlights. There was the church parade on 22 June, when Bishop Gerard 2 (the New page 172 Zealand Senior Chaplain) conducted a memorial service for those killed in Crete. Two days later there was an inspection by King George of Greece, who paid the battalion a special visit to pin ribbons on those who had escorted him out of Crete.3 Then early in August there was a farewell brigade parade for Brigadier Puttick, and a marathon for Brigadier Inglis, who kept 18 Battalion on parade for three hours and was then sharply critical of its turnout. Somewhere in the ranks the remark was heard that this was a ‘fighting unit, not a bloody spit-and-polish outfit’.
These two months, June to August, saw the New Zealand units gradually re-equipped. First, summer clothes (including ‘Bombay bloomers’) and the indispensable parts of a soldier's kit, big packs and haversacks, web equipment and groundsheet, and cooking gear; then, as they came to hand, more Bren and Tommy guns, mortars, tools. The first few Brens (shades of Hopuhopu!) were kept in the quartermaster's store and lent out to the companies only for training.
Transport was scarcer still. At first the battalion had none, and daily needs were supplied by ASC trucks. In due course a few motor-bikes arrived, and then, gradually, new vehicles. Lovely new 3-ton and 15-cwt Fords and Chevrolets, fitted with the four-wheel drive that is essential for desert work— though some of the luckier of these trucks survived to give faithful service in the gluey mud of Italy more than two years later. One carrier reached the battalion in late July, and the other nine at the end of August.
The ‘sigs’ were starved for gear at first, but finally it arrived— telephones and line equipment, and (for the first time) wireless sets for use between Battalion Headquarters and the companies. These were No. 18 sets, carried on the operator's back, clumsy to lug round but simple in operation, with a working range of two to three miles. In Africa and Italy they were to prove their worth many times over.
On 14 August units of 4 Brigade handed in base kits preparatory to leaving Helwan for the Combined Training Centre at Kabrit, on the Little Bitter Lake, to practise beach landings in assault landing craft from an invasion ship.page 173
Everyone had been looking forward to this. Nearly all of the Division was already beside the Suez Canal, and reported to be having an interesting time, with this novel type of training, less red tape than was thought necessary in Helwan, and lots of good salt water to get into and dodge the heat. Rumour had it that the combined training was in preparation for a return visit to Greece or Crete, but North Africa was more likely, for the enemy had pushed forward into Egypt and was gathering for a further advance.
On the evening of 16 August 18 Battalion left Helwan with pleasant anticipation, hardly even spoilt by having to carry its gear the best part of four miles to the railway. The trip was painfully slow, and there was the usual epidemic of aches and pains after a night in uncomfortable carriages, but at 10 a.m. next day 4 Brigade reached Kabrit to be met by trucks and taken to a new home, just vacated by 5 Brigade.
The training at Kabrit (even though interspersed with less popular items such as route-marching, digging and wiring) was fully up to expectations. The Combined Training Centre at Kabrit Point, two miles from camp, was equipped with a 9000-ton invasion ship (the Glenroy), a number of powered landing craft, and an assortment of other little ships and big rowing boats. The units practised first by companies on dummy landing craft known locally as ‘mock-ups’, then on the craft themselves. In the second week the battalions went on to practise as self-contained units, with Vickers and anti-tank guns and medical detachments all complete. One day was spent landing on a beach near Kabrit from rowing boats and launches towed by a Canal tug, and later in the week the battalion went aboard the Glenroy for a 24-hour cruise which included two landings (one at night) from the assault craft. Finally there was a landing by the whole brigade, with all weapons and equipment, attached artillery and a few carriers, on the eastern shore of the Great Bitter Lake. All this was most interesting, an enormous improvement on ‘square-bashing’ at Helwan.
Apart from the training, living conditions were only middling. The camp was reasonably well appointed, with water laid on and a picture theatre in the lines, but the flies and mosquitoes were damnable, and the Kabrit dust had a page 174 penetrating quality above that of any other dust. You couldn't get away from the place much, as (apart from the handfuls of men still going off on seven days' leave or for a few days at the divisional change-of-air camp) there was leave only on Sundays, for limited numbers, to Suez and Ismailia, both involving long hot truck rides. Even the swimming was not really good, because the lake was shallow for a long way out, with a soft muddy bottom, and a cut or scratch from a shell or sharp stone was all too apt to turn septic. On top of these disadvantages, the local Wogs had theft down to a fine art, and rifles, equipment and personal gear vanished like magic from the lines. So, after three and a half weeks of Kabrit, the news of a move away from the Canal was greeted with some satisfaction, mixed with dismay when the men heard their destination.
The rebirth of the New Zealand Division was now almost complete. Losses in Greece and Crete had been made good, both in men and equipment, and reinforcements had been well absorbed into their units. The Division was more completely mechanised than ever. All that remained was to polish it up as a fast-moving, self-contained force probably soon to operate in the vast desert spaces of Libya. So early in September the Division began a gradual move away from Helwan and the Canal, back to its old 1940 stamping ground, the Baggush Box, to train in the finer points of desert lore.
The prospect of going back to dirty, sandstormy Baggush failed to raise a cheer. Those who hadn't been there heard luridly embroidered tales from those who had, tales of the dust and the digging and the boredom. Baggush's only virtue seemed to be that it was several hundred miles nearer the enemy.
On 15 September (the transport had left two days previously) the battalion had an early morning march of a few miles to the huge ordnance camp at Geneifa, where it was herded on to the train for the 24-hour ride to Baggush. This trip for the first time gave some idea of the immense build-up of stores pouring into Egypt—beside the railway there were other camps which were nothing but giant dumps, chock-a-block with everything from tanks to toilet paper, from shells to shirts. If there wasn't some trouble brewing up in Libya, with all this stuff streaming into the country, there ought to be.page 175
But nothing could have been much more peaceful than the Baggush scene; even the military convoys moving ceaselessly up and down the main road, and the planes (Hurricanes and Tomahawks) buzzing back and forth on patrol from nearby fields, could not remove the sense of remoteness that always seemed to hang over the desert and the Mediterranean coast. This was all the more pronounced because the Box had now gone underground. The tent settlements that had flourished in 1940 had disappeared, replaced by dugouts hewn from the rock, laboriously sandbagged up, most of them roofed with whatever scraps of material the architects could ‘pinch’. Here and there weapon pits were still open to the sky, and in front of them tired-looking wire entanglements or the ominous single wire that denotes a minefield; but mostly it was only the vehicles that showed above ground to give evidence of occupation— especially on windy days, when everyone went down under if possible, to dodge some part of the flying dust.
The battalion went straight into the eastern sector of the Box quite near the coast and its 1940 camp site, and felt reasonably happy with this. But not for long. On the 18th it was rudely uprooted and transplanted to a much less desirable locality on the western side of the Box, a good two miles from the sea and horribly exposed. ‘This,’ said one man, ‘is definitely the worst piece of desert we have yet been camped in…. The immediate environs of the cookhouse are particularly ghastly with dust lying inches deep and just waiting to be blown hither and yon by the veriest puff of wind.’ The companies were scattered over a square mile of country, cut halfway by a cliff (‘escarpment’ in desert language); on top of this were B and C Companies, with the rest at the bottom.
The training during the battalion's seven weeks in this dust bath, luckily, was interesting and enjoyable, and had the great virtue of taking it away from camp for much of the time. The essence of desert fighting is ability to move swiftly and to be in the right spot at the right time; so 18 Battalion practised and practised desert navigation, the art of finding its way across the featureless wastes by compass, or at night by the Pole star, or in the daytime by the sun compass (a sort of sundial fixed to the mudguard of a truck). Sometimes the battalion rode out to these exercises in comfort, while the page 176 drivers practised ‘desert formation’, a system specially adopted for the wide open spaces, all the transport moving in neat, regular parallel columns, with carriers and anti-tank guns in front and on the flanks making a screen for the more vulnerable ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in the middle. At other times the companies marched a dozen or so miles inland from camp, an exacting distance over the rough stones, and took up practice positions or made night laagers, or simply followed their leaders as they wrestled with the complications of a three- or four-day compass march. These marches, by a strange coincidence, often seemed to bring the unit out to the coast road at Daba, away to the east of Baggush, where there were hot showers. Occasionally a platoon or company got lost, and then there was a certain amount of ‘slinging off’ by everyone else, but it all went to show how necessary this training was, particularly where night moves were concerned. These were nightmares for the drivers, groping their unlighted way over bumps and boulders, and also for the passengers, jolted and shaken from side to side until their joints felt loose. But this was what they had to expect in action, and it was no good growling about it.
The other big item in the syllabus was training with tanks. It had been emphasised in training directives that in the next scrap there would be tanks, hundreds of tanks, on both sides. You can't learn all about tanks until you have actually been in action both with and against them; but 18 Battalion was given a brief introduction to them. How to recognise your own and enemy tanks; how to co-operate with infantry tanks (I tanks for short) in an attack; what enemy tanks could and couldn't do, and how to deal with them. The officers and NCOs visited an armoured squadron at Garawla to look over the cruiser tanks that then comprised the main British striking force in the desert. One officer went to live for a week with 44 Royal Tank Regiment, two others went off on a course at the Royal Armoured Corps depot, and tank officers came to live with the battalion for a while. As if to drive home the lessons, 18 Battalion from its camp could see trainloads of tanks and carriers heading away up westward towards the battlefront.
It must be admitted that a lot of the training with tanks was wildly optimistic, especially the bits about lying low in your page 177 slit trench while enemy tanks passed over you and then popping up and bowling them out with home-made bombs. Even in the safety of Baggush most men felt that there would be no future in that. The co-operation with our own tanks, too, was very nice in theory, but it didn't always work out that way, as the New Zealand Division was to find out at the end of November. Detailed infantry-tank training, mutual support, and intercommunication were hardly thought of in 1941—what co-operation there was was a hit-and-miss, affair. The capacity of infantry and tanks to work together was, it would be unjust to say taken for granted, but certainly overestimated, and we had to learn the hard way.
The training, though vigorous, was a bit sporadic, and sometimes left 18 Battalion in camp with nothing much to do except a little guard duty on the railway, or maintenance of the Box defences. Divisional Headquarters, remembering the boredom that had taken a lot of the ginger out of the work at Baggush in 1940, had tried with some success to see that the same thing didn't happen again. This time Cairo newspapers were brought up daily by air, and the recently established NZEF Times kept the men abreast of home and divisional news. Better still, a mobile cinema toured the units, coming round every fortnight or so. This later came to be an accepted practice in the Division, but in those days it was revolutionary, and immensely popular. Best of all, the change-of-air leave (which had stopped when the units left the Canal) began again in mid-October. As usual, this was for comparatively few people. Most of the rest, whenever they had free time, headed for the coast for a swim or a spot of gelignite fishing, a highly illegal sport back in New Zealand, but perfectly in order in the free-and-easy atmosphere of the ‘blue’. By this simple means men regularly supplied themselves with a welcome change of diet.
The food at Baggush, as was inevitable away from the base camps, was a bit uninteresting, but there was no shortage. On 3 October, the second anniversary of 18 Battalion's entry into camp, there was a magnificent dinner, followed by a party which was to become a byword in the unit. There was obviously no shortage of beer or more fiery liquors. Next morning a dummy wooden tank made by the pioneers for page 178 target practice was found high and dry on the roof of the orderly room, and quite a number were feeling decidedly uninterested in the day's programme.
There was one bad shortage, and that was water. The unit had been short of water before, but only for a few hours at a time. Now here at Baggush, for the first time, water was rationed strictly over a long period, and in October the supply was cut still further to a gallon a day for each man, of which the man himself got a bottleful. This naturally caused some growling, but nobody could do anything about it, and the growls gradually died away as the men became used to husbanding their supply. Later everybody could exist quite happily on a water bottle a day (or less), and got quite expert at having a bath in half a mugful. It was just a matter of getting acclimatised.
From 14 to 16 October the training reached its peak in a full-scale brigade manoeuvre, a night move to an assembly area, an attack under live shellfire, and consolidation on two ‘enemy’ positions. The battalion, as reserve unit throughout this show, didn't see much of it or know much of what was going on, except for the mortar platoon, which was attached in turn to each forward battalion. The mortar boys were very pleased at the prospect of showing what they could do in action; but both times the exercise was called off when they had got only one or two rounds away. The finer points of the exercise, such as the co-ordination of a brigade in action, the timing of moves, the keeping of direction at night over rough routes lit only by dim lanterns widely spaced, the correct marshalling of a unit in an assembly area, were all lost on the men, whose opinion for the most part was that these big shows were apt to be ‘fizzers’; you just tore round here and there without knowing why, frenziedly dug slit trenches whenever you stopped, then sat for a long time waiting for something else to happen.
It was about this time that two of the unit ‘rebels’, Privates Doug McQuarrie4 (one of those who had escaped from a prison cage on Crete and crossed the Mediterranean in a small boat with a few other bold fugitives) and Cassidy Brown,5 page 179 deciding that they had had enough sham warfare when the real thing was not so very far away, made history by going aboard a ship on the Matruh-Tobruk supply run, and at Tobruk played a vigorous part in the unloading of stores under shellfire and air attack. A most illegal proceeding this, frowned on by those in authority, who at the same time probably felt a certain envy at not being able to do the same themselves. In the end no official action was taken against the pair, but the word went round that nobody else had better try the same stunt.
What little training there was in late October and the first few days of November was rather an anti-climax. More desert navigation; more night moves; wire obstacles; attacking and defending positions; as much range firing as possible, on a nice little range set up by the pioneers in the safety of a deep wadi. But these weren't strenuous days for anybody. The effects of the battalion's desert training were now obvious. Convoy drill was better than ever before, with all the fiddly details automatically attended to and done right. It had some idea how to act as a self-contained force with supporting arms attached. It ‘had sand in its ears’, which means that it could cope with desert conditions which would baffle a raw unit. It was trained along with the rest of the New Zealand Division for the mobile, mixed-up desert war which is like no other type of warfare.
Like all operational moves, this was a strict secret, and as usual nobody was fooled. The Division was to assemble in the desert south of Mersa Matruh, ostensibly on manoeuvres; but who could have failed to grasp the meaning of all the preparations that had been going on, the differences between the make-believe and the real? The air had been sizzling with excitement for weeks. Nearly half of the battalion's officers had been up to have a look at the battlefront. Only the exalted few knew just where the Division was going, though there were lots of rumours, the most popular being that the South Africans were going to make a push in Libya with the Kiwis in support. Maps that seemed to cover about half of North Africa had been handed out to units. Last-minute issues of kit had been made, including winter woollies, and shortages had page 180 all been made up. And on 11 November the first LOB6 camp was established at Baggush, under the second-in-command, Major McGregor.7 The purpose of such a camp is to form a nucleus for a new unit if the existing one is wiped out—though of course it is always unthinkable that such a thing might ever happen to your unit. But you wouldn't go to the trouble of establishing an LOB camp just for a manoeuvre, would you? No, 18 Battalion was off into it all right this time.
And the battalion was leaving behind it the man who had done more than any other to make it what it was. On 8 November Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, very much against his will, was sent off to hospital, and the reins were now in Lieutenant-Colonel Peart's hands. Gray left with the forcibly expressed intention of being back in time to lead 18 Battalion into action, but the coming campaign was long past and done with before he saw the unit again.
The personality of John Gray had been the paramount influence in 18 Battalion from its first day, and his imprint lingered in the unit long after he was gone. He couldn't help playing the star part—his rare drive and leadership were unquestioned. Twice he was midwife to the battalion. In the early days he drove his officers to breaking point, bullied his battalion and shouted at it, sometimes led it into trouble. Very few men did he ever recommend for decorations—he expected superhuman deeds as a matter of course, and such was his personal force and example that those deeds were done. Fierce and infectious was Gray's pride in 18 Battalion.
After Crete the guiding hand, though just as firm, was more tolerant. Out of those dark days sprang a new, better relationship, a greater mutual respect between Gray and his battalion. ‘He'd found 18 Battalion,’ said one subaltern, ‘to be as good as the other units; we'd learnt to admire his bravery.’ The same men who had cursed him when he marched them off their feet at Maadi in 1940 were his great admirers after Galatas and the Sfakia trek. Nobody who was there will ever forget his ‘Remember, you're the 18th!’ coming when things were at their blackest, encouraging worn-out men to rise above their weariness.
2 Rt. Rev. G. V. Gerard, CBE, MC, m.i.d., Rotherham, England; born Christchurch, 24 Nov 1898; Lt, The Buffs 1918-19 (MC); SCF, 2 NZEF, May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 1 Dec 1941; repatriated Apr 1943; SCF, 2 NZEF (IP), Apr-Dec 1944.
3 2 Lt Ryan was awarded the Order of King George I and other members of the escort received gold, silver and bronze medals of the same order.
4 Pte D.N. McQuarrie, MM; born NZ 12 Jun 1918; timberyard hand; wounded 25 May 1941; escaped Jul 1941; died of wounds 2 Dec 1941.
5 Cpl I.N .Brown; born NZ 9 Jan 1914; labourer and shearer; wounded May 1941; killed in action 23 Jul 1944.
6 Left out of battle.