18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 4 — Garawla Interludes
Mersa Matruh, apart from a luxurious tourist hotel or two on the waterfront, is a most insignificant little town. But placed where it is, on the only good harbour for hundreds of miles along that unfriendly coast, and near one of the few sources of water, it is of great strategic importance. No army invading Egypt along the coast can afford to neglect Mersa Matruh. That is why it was to be surrounded with a ring of defences, and why 18 Battalion went there to dig.
The battalion, for the time, was reasonably happy about its role. It would have preferred to be right up at the front taking a more active interest in the Italians on the border but in the meantime it had to make the best of its menial job. It was a good long step forward from Maadi, anyway, and the general feeling was that if the war on the frontier flared up they would probably be into it.
The spot where the battalion ended up was called Garawla. Nobody knew why it was called anything. There was a tiny railway station there, but nothing else to distinguish it from any other patch of desert: a dirty, sandy, stony hole, with a few stunted bushes poking up here and there. The coast in this region was cut by occasional steep-sided wadis running down to the sea, and it was in one of these, Wadi Naghamish by name, that 18 Battalion was to work. The wadi was to be transformed into an obstacle for tanks, with a five-foot ditch twelve feet wide at the bottom, and the spoil piled up into a long mound alongside.
There were two free days before the job began, but they were free in name only. To begin with, fifty unfortunates went off on 20 June and toiled through a hot afternoon on a new runway for the RAF, up on the escarpment some 15 miles east. Next day another party of fifty left for Sidi Haneish, on the coast 30 miles east, where they spent four unpleasant, hot, dusty, nearly waterless days clearing a landing ground. The rest of page 49 the battalion spent the two days digging slit trenches round their tents, digging the tents in, and, of course, popping in for frequent swims.
There was a major upheaval after lunch on the 20th, when a shocked battalion received orders to move inland away from its lovely spot on the coast. This would have been a catastrophe, but luckily the order was countermanded later in the afternoon. The reason given for the order was that the camp was visible from the sea; the reason for the later change, that the risk wasn't so very great. Whoever thought up these bright orders, 18 Battalion considered, was pretty jittery. It must be remembered that Italy's entry into the war was still very recent, and that the British had not yet acquired their later contempt for Italian military prowess and daring. But the battalion was to suffer more from the same cause within a few days.
Admittedly, the unit was in the danger zone, even if only in theory. While it was at Garawla there were air raids on Mersa Matruh almost nightly, and sometimes during the day. All the battalion usually got was disturbed sleep, noise, and the distant sight of tracer and gun flashes. But once or twice the Italians paid attention to the railway line not far from camp, and the odd formation of bombers flew overhead. Then everybody grabbed rifles and whooped off a few rounds at the planes for luck. Occasionally a few trigger-happy soldiers, overcome by the novelty of the proceedings, fired on low-flying British planes, but this novelty soon wore off, and the battalion began to treat the fireworks displays with indifference.
The air raids had their uses. The battalion drew canteen supplies from a NAAFI dump near Mersa Matruh. Occasionally while the trucks were loading at the dump the air-raid alarm would sound; all the Egyptian attendants would immediately go for cover, whereupon the drivers would load up the trucks and leave, plus a few extra items.
The battalion soon found that being up the blue wasn't all fun and games. It was terrifically hot, and you couldn't rush off to the NAAFI for a bottle of cool beer as you could in Maadi. The Matruh drinking water was warm and brackish, the food uninspiring. The company cooks did their best with it, but you can't do much with tinned bully, M & V, and herrings, especially when fresh vegetables are short. One thing, however, page 50 made up for a lot, and that was the Mediterranean. The men spent every spare minute in the water. There was plenty of opportunity for swimming; after a heavy digging session it was particularly delightful.
The Wadi Naghamish job began on 22 June. Despite the heat, and a fierce sandstorm that brought work to a standstill for two days, the battalion worked fast, and by 2 July had finished two-thirds of the 1200 yards allotted to it, more than had been expected in the time. The digging site, just inland from the coast road, was about a mile from camp. Working hours were from 7 a.m. until about midday, which left the worst heat of the day free for swimming or relaxation. The sun blazed down during working hours too, of course, but they were made more bearable by daily visits from the water cart and by a 10 a.m. break for a cup of tea. For the job the battalion borrowed extra picks and shovels from the Royal Engineers. At first mechanical tools were forbidden, with the idea of keeping the men fitter. Later this rule was relaxed, and 18 Battalion managed by some means to acquire a compressor and drill, which helped a lot, even though there was only about one man who could use it. Lieutenant Mackay1 and CSM George Andrews2 of B Company also brought off a good stroke by commandeering a tractor from Mersa Matruh during an air raid; with the addition of a home-made scoop this greatly eased the labour of removing the spoil.
For their next attack of the jitters the authorities chose a fine time—just after midnight on 24 June. The battalion was suddenly dragged from its sleep, ordered out with all its machine guns, and pushed into the semblance of a defensive line along the beach. Nobody knew at the time what it was all about, but it transpired later that somebody had seen, or thought he had seen, a mysterious ship off the coast, and that an Italian deserter (probably mythical) had said that it contained an invasion force. At any rate, nothing happened. Poor excuse to haul us out of bed, thought 18 Battalion bitterly, as it stood down after several hours of waiting.page 51
The affair didn't just blow over. On the 26th more orders came through. The battalion was to provide a protective force, a company strong, to defend Garawla, the coast and the railway, against any attack from air or sea. This idea had its good points—the duty company had a day off digging, and stayed in camp on an hour's notice to move wherever the Italians might come. One catch was that the company had to stand to from 4 to 5.15 a.m. and from 6.45 to 7.45 p.m., but by and large it simply meant a whole day free for swimming and loafing. If any trouble had blown up the company would have been able to give quite a good account of itself; not only did it have signallers and medical orderlies permanently with it, but it was specially allotted mortars, carriers and anti-aircraft machine guns from HQ Company, and the whole combination would have made a useful force had it been needed. But, as usual, nothing exciting happened, and it is doubtful if anyone really expected it.
On the 26th, too, 18 Battalion camouflaged its tents by the primitive method of throwing sea water over them, followed by sand and dirt. The idea of this was to give a rough surface to the canvas, and thus reduce reflection from the sun. It worked fairly well, too.
This duty company arrangement lasted for four days, and then there was a general switch round. Nineteenth Battalion took over, handing over to 18 Battalion its own previous task of running the prisoner-of-war camp at Mersa Matruh. At 10 a.m. on 30 June A Company left camp, and returned on the morning of 3 July, after quite a strenuous time guarding five times its own number of Italians and Libyans, supervising their working parties, distributing their food, and acting as their agents, postmen and nursemaids. ‘Owing to the inadequacy of the wire around the compounds and the disregard by prisoners of the sanitary arrangements,’ wrote Captain Kelleway in his report, ‘sentries had to be provided on a scale of one sentry to ten prisoners and a very close watch kept.’ This meant hard work for the three days. It was the first time anyone from 18 Battalion had come in contact with the enemy, and a scruffy, weedy bunch they looked. Italy, thought A Company, would have to produce something better if she was to win the war.page 52
The last day of the digging was 2 July, and on the morning of the 3rd the battalion struck tents and packed to leave for Maadi, this time by train, as the ASC trucks were not available. The battalion's own trucks, with the anti-aircraft platoon for protection, set out immediately after lunch, carrying tents, heavy equipment and kitbags. The rest of the men spent their last afternoon in the water, and at 6 p.m. marched to Garawla station, about a mile from camp.
This train trip was no better than the last one for comfort— worse, because it was longer and lasted overnight. Some men slept on the floor, others made themselves as comfortable as possible on the seats, others slung blanket hammocks from whatever projections they could find. Whichever way they slept, it was a long restless night.
The train passed through Alexandria in an air raid as day was breaking, then headed south through the Nile delta (delightfully green and fresh after Garawla). After some messing about between Cairo and Abbassia it reached Maadi at 11.30 a.m., and back up the hill to camp straggled the men through the midday heat, weighed down under rifles and packs. Some ASC trucks from the camp were borrowed to help the battalion's trucks bring up the heavy gear, weapons and ammunition.
From one point of view 18 Battalion was glad to see Maadi again. It meant more leave, more comfort, better food. But it also meant a return to the dreadful round of security duties that had palled so badly before. There was no time to sit and think about it, for the duties began again the same afternoon.
They hadn't been back in camp three hours before orders came in. One company to take over a defence job at Heliopolis and Helwan aerodromes; another company to the Gezira Sporting Club on an island in the Nile just across from the centre of Cairo. The detachments set out at once, without even waiting for a meal—11 Platoon of B Company to Heliopolis, the rest of the company to Helwan, C Company to Gezira. What was left of the battalion re-erected its tents and prepared for another spell of the dreary Maadi routine—reveille at 5.30, early morning PT and route marches, weapon training and drill. Plenty of afternoon leave, which most men could better afford now that they had had the chance of accumulating a little credit in their paybooks.page 53
At Heliopolis and Helwan B Company took over sectors of the airfield defences. The platoons had to man anti-aircraft Bren guns day and night; the men were free in their off hours during the day, but spent the nights patrolling their sectors, guarding hangars and petrol dumps. It was the same old story—nothing happened to disturb the peace. But apart from the long hours of night duty these few days were very pleasant. The men had their meals with the RAF, and had the run of the canteens and amenities. A number of them scored sightseeing trips by air over Cairo and the country round it. It was with a certain regret that they went back to Maadi on 10 July, when 19 Battalion, newly back from Garawla, took over the airfield jobs.
At Gezira Sporting Club, C Company found itself in different circumstances. This job was longer, and so was arranged on a more permanent basis, with afternoon and evening leave, and parties to the swimming baths at Kasr-el-Nil. The company slept in the grandstands of the Gezira racecourse. Its main job was to guard the sacred person of General Wavell, who lived next door. For this purpose the company kept a guard on the main gate, and three permanent anti-aircraft posts scattered round the grounds. From 6.30 to 7.30 every morning ten men patrolled the racecourse in pairs, with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets, while the General took his daily exercise on horseback round the ground.
C Company was ready for other jobs too. If there was an air raid or a riot, if the Italians came, the company had its course of action all planned to carry out at short notice. But none of these things happened. After three weeks the company was relieved by 19 Battalion and returned to the fold at Maadi.
These detachments had the best end of the stick in July 1940. So did some of the signal platoon, who went to the Divisional Signals on 14 July on a course of instruction that didn't finish until the end of November. For the rest of the battalion at Maadi it was a pretty dull month. Training had lost its appeal now that there was more serious business not so far away—even new work like assault bridging and river-crossing exercises was carried out half-heartedly. The heat got everyone down, and another outbreak of diarrhoea didn't help. The battalion was in the doldrums. About the only bright spots page 54 in the month were all-day picnics to the Delta Barrage and the Grotto at Gezira, where at least the men could see and feel a little grass. Even those excursions had the edge taken off them by the fact that everyone had to wear full web and carry rifle and ammunition.
As always happens under such conditions, discipline suffered. More men than ever before found themselves on the mat for drunkenness, insubordination, and the other minor offences that crop up when a unit is bored. Tents became untidier, rubbish was tossed into the slit trenches; even a sharp reminder in routine orders didn't help matters much.
From 5 July the battalion was back on the old Cairo security routine, but nobody was very interested in it any more. The companies left in Maadi took day about as an ‘inlying picket’, at short notice to move into Cairo to protect a couple of wireless stations; of this picket company one platoon stood-to morning and evening, but the only effect on the rest of the company was that it couldn't have leave on those days. From 8 July, when 19 Battalion came back from Garawla, the two battalions divided the duty day about.
On 19 July it was D Company's turn to get away from Maadi for a spell. It was detailed to accompany an ASC detachment, under command of the Division's DAAG (Major Maxwell3), up the blue, and establish one of a chain of desert dumps of food, petrol and water. The spot chosen for this particular dump was almost on the edge of that vast sand swamp, the Qattara Depression, 22 miles south of a little insignificant wayside railway station which nobody had ever heard of. Its name was El Alamein.
This detachment (‘Maxforce’ by name) moved on 19 July to Burg el Arab, near the coast about 50 miles west of Alexandria, and set up camp beside the bulk supply dump from which its stores were to come. There it loaded its trucks up every morning, moved off along the coast road at 5 p.m., and after dark turned down south across the desert to the dump, where the men dug huge pits 15 feet square, filled them up with the stores, and covered them with sand. This went on page 55 for six nights. Each morning after work the convoy moved back up to the coast road before daylight, then headed for home, where the men relaxed once the trucks were reloaded, or made for the beach and cooled off in the water.
This was a good week, even though bouncing round over the desert by night in 3-ton lorries without lights may not be regarded as an ideal holiday. But in July 1940 anything away from Maadi was fine, particularly if it took you within reach of the coast.
On 28 July Maxforce went back to Maadi, where D Company found the rest of 18 Battalion getting ready to leave for Garawla again. There was just time for the company to have a wash and a brush-up and a night's rest. After breakfast on the 29th the battalion's convoy headed for the blue again, and reached Garawla at 2 p.m. on the 30th.
Once more the men pitched their tents beside the Mediterranean, grabbed picks and shovels, and got stuck into the work in Wadi Naghamish. There was still plenty to do.
Morale went up again with a bound. Everybody was glad to be back by the sea, and the atmosphere was more free and easy than that of Maadi. There was more comfort, too, because the battalion, profiting by its June experience, brought with it such luxuries as bed-boards, and organised its canteen and beer supply better.
The food, as in June, was inclined to be monotonous, nearly all out of tins. Even vegetables were very scarce up the blue— vitamin pills were handed out to make up the deficiency, but who can feel that he has dined well on a vitamin pill? C Company had one grand and glorious windfall when a well-fed calf wandered (or was enticed) into its lines from a nearby Wog camp. It found a gory grave and provided the company with roast dinner that evening. Unfortunately the owner located the remains, and his subsequent protest cost the company £20, but it was generally looked on as worth it.
So August came and went, in scorching heat and dust-storms, while 18 Battalion sweated and raised blisters on its hands in Wadi Naghamish six mornings a week, dozed off in its tents after lunch, spent the rest of its afternoons in the water, and its evenings on the beach with a bottle or two of beer. During the moonlight period working hours were at night, which everyone page 56 considered a good idea, as it dodged the terrible heat. Most of the senior officers were away for a week or two on courses of instruction, their absence making the camp atmosphere even more free and easy. Mussolini's airmen weren't so annoying this time. There were very few raids, and those a long way off, except very early on 24 August, when the ‘Ities’ paid a surprise visit and threw down a lot of bombs close by without hitting anything—18 Battalion lost a couple of hours' sleep, but nothing else.
Every second week the battalion had to provide a protective company, with mortars, carriers and machine guns, just as in June. But the chances of the Italians arriving seemed more remote than ever, and, though the protective company was always there geared for action, it would have been most surprising had anything happened.
There was a record crop of rumours when it became known late in the month that the battalion was to go back to Maadi, pick up the gear it had left behind, and strike camp completely before heading for the blue once more. Some people had the battalion really in action this time; others had it sailing to join the Second Echelon, which was reported to be having a lovely holiday in green, civilised English surroundings. Others doubted that they would ever have to do anything but dig ‘dirty big holes’ in the desert. The matter wasn't decided when, just after midday on 29 August, the battalion formed up in convoy and drove away eastwards. It bivouacked that night among the sand dunes of Burg el Arab, and reached Maadi late next morning.