18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 5 — ‘Freyberg's Wogs’
The Lines of Communication Sub-Area East was a high-sounding name given in 1940 to the stretch of road, railway, sand and scrub along the Egyptian coast from Alexandria some 130 miles west to Qasaba. Fourth Brigade was ordered at the end of August to take over the command, protection and administration of this unexciting district, and it was to the western end of it that 18 Battalion, all unsuspecting, was directed. Once again hopes of action were to be frustrated.
The sector to be ‘commanded, protected and administered’ by the battalion lay between Fuka and Qasaba, a distance of 25 miles. It is clear from the size of this sector that the battalion wasn't expected to have much heavy work to do. There had to be someone there just in case, and that was about all.
The most prominent feature on a map of this new domain is Ras el Kanayis, a long sharp point of land sticking out into the Mediterranean. But militarily this is not very important. The focal point of the sector is at Maaten Baggush and Maaten Burbeita near its western end, where groups of wells provide the only reliable water supply for miles. At Baggush the whole battalion was to be concentrated, except for a company at the airfield at Sidi Haneish (2½ miles to the west) and one at Fuka, right at the other end of the sector, where another airfield had to be looked after.
Eighteenth Battalion, after a grand final weekend spree in Cairo, finished packing at Maadi on 2 September. An advance party left that day for the new sector to find out what was what, and to direct the main convoy when it arrived. Next morning, after an early breakfast, the battalion handed its base-kit bags in to be stored, took its last look at Maadi for many months, then headed north again with few regrets. A small rear party stayed behind for a couple of days to give the place a final clean up. As usual, the carriers (the battalion now had six) went up by train.page 58
There was no Reinforcement Company to leave behind this time. This unfortunate company, after months of being cannibalised to fill the gaps in the battalion's ranks, had now been disbanded, the fittest men going to the rifle companies and the rest to the new Northern Infantry Training Depot at Maadi. Many of the latter found their way into 18 Battalion later on, but for the time their ways parted.
Before leaving Maadi, the battalion exchanged its felt hats for solar topees. This was a well-meant exchange, but the topees were neither popular nor comfortable, and were left off as much as possible.
Early on the afternoon of 4 September, after dropping D Company off at Fuka, the battalion reached Baggush. A Company went to Sidi Haneish, and the rest of the men piled out of their trucks and took stock of their new surroundings. There was a reasonably good beach near by, they were pleased to note. Not so good as the one at Garawla, but quite adequate.
The battalion was by no means the only New Zealand unit at Baggush. An assorted crowd, artillery, Divisional Cavalry, machine-gunners, had been in the vicinity for a week, digging up the desert round the Baggush and Burbeita wells. This was all right with 18 Battalion. Let them dig, was the attitude; we've had our whack of digging, we're quite happy to get on with our job of protecting the place.
For the first few days it looked like being a holiday. The men took their time putting up the tents and digging the camp in, but apart from that there wasn't much to do for nearly a week. The signal platoon set up a telephone office, and kept up communications to the companies and 4 Brigade Headquarters. The carriers, when they arrived, were split up between Fuka and Baggush. D Company spent its time patrolling the beach at Fuka, as much in the water as out of it. The rest of the battalion had the usual morning and evening stand-to, and manned the anti-aircraft machine guns round the camp, but that was about all.
They might have known that such a state of affairs wouldn't last. On 9 September the dream came to an end. Those in authority (much higher authority than 18 Battalion) weren't satisfied with a narrow ring of defences round Baggush and Burbeita. This ring was now to be expanded to a big semi- page 59 circle about eight miles across; 18 Battalion was to take over part of it, unship its picks and shovels, and dig.
This wasn't according to 18 Battalion's ideas at all. The men had ‘had’ digging by now. It looked as if their fate for the whole war would be to dig holes in the desert. ‘Freyberg's bloody Wogs’ they called themselves with some bitterness. The officers had to do their best to counteract this attitude, but it was a half-hearted best; they weren't any keener on the idea than the men. However, there was no help for it. The battalion spat on its hands, cursed, and began once again to dig.
It dug, and it dug, and it dug. Six days a week, with no end to the job in sight. The terrible July and August heat had slackened a little now, but it was still hot and dusty. There were three miles of desert to cover, three back-breaking miles of rock guaranteed to test any pick. The battalion's sector was on the eastern side of the Baggush ‘box’, facing south-east, with its northern end two miles from the coast. The distance from camp (two to five miles) was vexing, as it slowed up the work— it didn't take long to get there in trucks, but there weren't enough trucks to go round, so most of the men had to walk there and back daily.
D Company's beach patrol at Fuka ended on the 15th, when it handed over to C Company. Back it came to Baggush, and next day it was digging too. B Company had a few days off later in September, manning anti-aircraft guns round Headquarters Western Desert Force on the coast near Baggush.
Once again the Italian airmen began to take a hand in the game. On 6 September 18 Battalion had its first battle casualties, when Privates Jimmy Roiall1 and Reg Buckingham2 were caught in an air raid while collecting petrol from Mersa Matruh. Their truck was damaged and both were wounded.
The Italians had a new ace up their sleeves now. One night (14 September it was) a bomber came flying low over Baggush, and next morning there lay on the ground dozens of small round things like Thermos flasks. The difference from ordinary Thermos flasks was that when you touched these they were apt to explode.page 60
These were the moonlight nights, when the Ities might be expected to turn on more raids. All the sentries were specially alerted. Battalion orders were brief and clear: ‘Paste hell out of the bastards.’
Again next night the lone Itie was on the prowl. In obedience to orders, every machine gun and rifle in the vicinity opened up at him, with an enthusiasm that can be judged by next day's amendment: ‘The order to paste hell out of the bastards must not be interpreted as justifying uncontrolled fire. Platoon commanders held responsible for wasted ammunition.’ The battalion had not yet had many chances to fire at a real live enemy, and it was apt to overdo things a little.
Unfortunately, the results were not too good. The Italian got away, leaving another cargo of his lethal Thermos flasks scattered round. The problem now was, how to get rid of them?
Eighteenth Battalion's ingenuity found a way—carrier crews exploding the bombs with rifle fire from the shelter of the carrier. This was much more to be recommended than the method of a local Arab, who came along tenderly bearing a bomb in his hands, and wondering why all the people he met had such urgent business elsewhere. For three days this shooting went on. Then there were no more bombs left to dispose of, and the marksmen reluctantly went back to their digging.
Considering the boredom and frustration of those weeks in the Baggush Box, 18 Battalion did its work well. The defensive system to be prepared was a complicated one, with dugouts and underground fortifications capable of holding a whole battalion. The rock resisted stoutly, and much of it had to be blasted. This caused an unfortunate accident in the closing stages of the job, when an officer and a private were badly burned by a charge of blasting powder which somehow ignited.
Health was surprisingly good during this period in the Baggush Box; there were no more bad epidemics like the summer ones. But the dull routine of digging didn't suit 18 Battalion, particularly after the Italians began their push from the frontier in mid-September. The men were listless, fed up with what they considered this futile digging so far from the scene of action. ‘Almost invariably,’ said one, ‘I page 61 reckon tomorrow as being so many days to mail day or pay day, the only two days of any real importance in our present existence.’ A spark of excitement was kindled in them whenever squadrons of British bombers flew overhead on their way to Libya, but that was about all that could rouse any enthusiasm.
From 23 September a handful of men went off each week to Palestine or Sidi Bishr on leave, but it was the end of the year before everybody in the battalion had had a week off. Palestine and Alexandria were welcome rests from the Baggush dust, but no leave is ever long enough, and when the men got back it was only an hour or two before they were as dirty and gritty as ever.
Until early October the same old daily routine went on. It was a thirsty time, with water scarce and strictly rationed. The food wasn't bad, but lacked greens and potatoes. The beer supply, though fairly regular, was never enough to satisfy seven hundred robust thirsts.
From 7 October digging stopped for a few days while 18 Battalion moved camp inland to be nearer its work, but this was a busman's holiday. The new camp had to be organised and dug in, and then back went the battalion to its defences again. It couldn't go swimming now, but that didn't matter so much, as the weather was cooling off. B Company alone stayed in the old camp for beach defence, going to the digging site by truck every morning and back in the afternoon.
Things have to be pretty grim before a unit welcomes a return to training, but it was quite a relief for 18 Battalion to have a little of this in late October.
First there was a two days' manoeuvre out in the desert, with tanks attached for the first time. Real textbook work, this—the tanks moving majestically into the attack, followed by carriers, with the infantry in trucks coming up 200 yards behind, then debussing and rushing forward when the tanks joined action—very nice, so long as there is no real enemy there to mess things up.
Then, on 28 October, to everyone's pleasure, digging was suspended, and a full fortnight of training began. For a week the companies trained independently, then the whole battalion (except for beach and anti-aircraft guards) spent several days page 62 travelling about over the desert on battalion and brigade manoeuvres. If there was any man in the unit who hadn't realised what foot-slogging meant, he now knew. One morning the battalion tramped 14½ miles, which is more than enough over rough, stony desert. Some of the moves were made in trucks, but bouncing round in the back of a truck among the dust stirred up by dozens of other trucks is not much more fun than walking. Nights were cold now, too, and sandstorms much more frequent.
On 28 October the battalion exchanged its summer clothes for winter ones, and was quite glad to do so. A week or two later the despised topees were exchanged for a new type of cap, a funny little fore-and-after, peculiarly uncomfortable, known officially as the ‘cap F.S.’, but unofficially by a less respectable title. These caps were tolerated, but there were still sighs of regret for the old New Zealand felt hats.
The manoeuvres ended, and for the next fortnight work on the Baggush Box alternated with exercises and bivouacs out in the desert. These exercises, though they were pretty strenuous and kept everybody busy, were much more to the men's taste than the dreary daily round at Baggush, particularly if they involved field firing or live anti-aircraft shoots. Food arrangements were free and easy. Everybody took his own rations (supplemented in many cases with tinned food from the canteen), and as a rule the sections got together to do their cooking. Most of them had by this time pooled their funds and bought primus stoves; those who had not had the foresight to do this now regretted it, and took the first opportunity to remedy the deficiency. Through the campaigning ahead primuses were to prove indispensable items of every section's equipment, as indispensable as the Bren gun. Their official fuel was kerosene, but they seemed to go just as well on petrol, which was much easier to get.
Each of these exercises saw the teamwork a little better, the whole unit functioning a little smoother, the men a little more self-reliant and capable of taking active campaigning in their stride. ‘Battle procedure’ is the official name for all this. It is the ‘know-how’ of soldiering, the culminating point of training, the putting into practice of the knowledge laboriously built up over months of hard work.page 63
For the exercises the battalion had to do without D Company and the carriers, which had gone back to Fuka on beach patrol. The 18th at last had its full complement of ten carriers and the platoon could now function completely. The carriers were not in the same street as tanks, but they were fast and well armed and the crews well trained. They made up quite an effective little striking force within the battalion.
On 18 November Mussolini's airmen scored their second success against the battalion, but only accidentally, many miles from home, at Siwa Oasis, deep in the desert to the south. Here one of the battalion's anti-aircraft trucks, complete with gun and crew, had gone as escort to a stores convoy, but hardly had it arrived when it got a pasting from Italian bombers, which missed the trucks but wounded Corporal Norm Forrest-Brown3 and Private Frank Nathan.4 CSM Fred Bowes, the commander of the detachment, also collected a few scratches, but not enough to put him out of action—he got the other two to safety away from the scene, an exploit which later helped to earn him the BEM.
On the night of 26 November the heavens above Baggush opened. This was the first real rain 18 Battalion had seen for months, and it poured down in torrents. Daylight revealed desolation in camp, tents flooded out, gear soaked and covered with mud, trucks half drowned in their protective trenches. The RQMS's and armourer's marquees suffered particularly heavily—they had been pitched, somewhat incautiously, at the bottom of a wadi, which was transformed in a few hours into a rushing river five feet deep. It took two days of solid work to fix the damage and get everything cleaned up, and two more to repair the defensive positions, most of which were half silted up.
However, Egypt doesn't know the meaning of moderation. If it isn't flood it is dust. Following the downpour there were weeks of intermittent sandstorms, vicious and penetrating. Tempers, already frayed, were blown to tatters by the dust-laden wind. The will to work diminished. Even the arrival of page 64 a big draft of reinforcements, over ninety of them, didn't stir 18 Battalion to any heights of enthusiasm. The drivers got a mild pleasure out of the new Ford trucks they received on 1 December, but even these soon became just part of the furniture, representing more work for their owners—until 9 December, when the news of General Wavell's westward push brought fresh anticipation. Surely the Kiwis couldn't be left out this time.
Then, as day followed day with no sign of a change in the usual routine, disillusionment crept in once again and grew and grew till the men were, to quote one of them, ‘hopping mad at not being in’. All they could do was raise a passing interest in the RAF bombers going overhead at all hours of the day and night, but that was due to envy rather than anything else, and soon palled. There were no more Italian airmen, even during the full moon period in the middle of the month. The Baggush Box, despite the resentment glowing beneath the surface, was very placid externally.
The men couldn't even work off their anger on the unresponsive desert now. The digging was finished, the positions wired, and from 12 December the 18th went back to company training, which meant a struggle by the officers to keep their men from boredom. The beach patrols were finished, too. Early in the month A and C Companies had taken over the patrol jobs from B at Baggush and D at Fuka, but three days later the whole crowd was back in camp, and 19 Battalion took its place on the beaches.
A few men, mostly transport drivers, managed to see a little of the fun, though from a safe distance. Twenty of the battalion's trucks, loaded with supplies, left Baggush for Sidi Barrani, just short of the frontier, and came back a week later with truckloads of Italian prisoners. Lieutenant Green5 took a small party of twenty-five men up to the frontier to drive captured trucks back. A few more drivers went off to tow heavy anti-aircraft guns up to Sidi Barrani, and a week before Christmas all men who could drive diesel trucks (plus a few who said they could) were let loose on a park of captured Italian diesels at Garawla, and got enough of them going to page 65 take another load of supplies to the frontier. These men were the lucky ones, envied by all the rest. True, they didn't get near the fighting, but they saw where it had been, and went to places such as Sollum, Capuzzo and Halfaya (Hellfire) Pass, whose names shed a sort of temporary romance over that unromantic frontier. And they gathered up a certain amount of loot. Not the best of the loot, which had already had the eyes picked out of it, but plenty of Italian clothing, tinned food, and the neat, light little triangular groundsheets which were so much handier than the cumbersome British ones for making up a bedroll. In 1940, as always, the word ‘loot’ had a special magic for all New Zealanders; and this haul, being the first that had fallen into 18 Battalion's lap, was particularly valued.
Worthy of special mention is the master-stroke brought off by Private Colin Urry,6 who came back from one of these expeditions driving a huge Italian 10-ton lorry containing signals equipment, destined for a salvage dump at Mersa Matruh. By some strange accident he missed the dump and ended up in 18 Battalion's lines, truck and all. This ended the battalion's chronic shortage of signal cable, and provided enough telephones for nearly every platoon to have one.
Then came the first overseas Christmas, and things brightened up temporarily, under the influence of a huge parcel mail from home, a fine Christmas dinner, and enough alcohol to put everybody in a pleasant frame of mind. New Year was fittingly celebrated, too; at midnight on 31 December 1940 Baggush was lit up by a pyrotechnic display of flares and tracer bullets with a discordant accompaniment of rifle fire and Italian hand grenades. There were no casualties, but for a little while the air was full of flying metal.
These two celebrations brought only temporary relief to the general discontent. Just before the New Year the Kiwis had another smack in the eye—19 Australian Brigade, a much more recent arrival in the Middle East, was ordered off up to the front, and, to add insult to injury, it was 4 Brigade that had to provide transport for it. Not only 18 Battalion, but all the New Zealanders, shook with fury at this. What were these Aussies doing getting in on the fighting, while they themselves page 66 sat on their behinds hundreds of miles away? Public opinion blamed the Second Echelon, still half the world away in England, which was quite unjustifiably despised by the old lags of the First Echelon. ‘If those … were here,’ was the growl, ‘we'd be in all right.’
The 18th was a little mollified by Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, who came back from a visit to the Libyan front and told the battalion all about it. The theme of his closing remarks was, ‘Don't be disappointed at not having been in the fun. Enjoy yourselves while you can. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow—well, tomorrow won't be long now.’ The men were a little sceptical, and understandably so; they had heard it all before. But not as sceptical as sometimes, for now there were, at last, signs pointing to something more active. The battalion was under a warning order to move back from the desert to Helwan, where, according to the CO, it would train for a month or so, including a trip to the Suez Canal for bridge-building with the engineers.
This sort of thing was good for a crop of rumours any day. Abyssinia and the Sudan were tentatively mentioned, but the most persistent was Europe. Life began to hold some interest and anticipation again. There might yet be some action shortly. And whatever happened, thank God, they would be getting away from that wretched Baggush Box, with its flying sand and rationed water. They wouldn't have to bear the stigma ‘lines of communication troops’ for very much longer.
The battalion's departure from Baggush was, for some reason, delayed until the end of the second week in January, and the companies filled in the time with more day-to-day training, including a little live shooting on the beach. On 10 January they struck tents, packed their heavy gear, and sent it off to Sidi Haneish to be loaded on the railway. On the 11th the transport set out for Helwan. After breakfast on the 12th the men shouldered their heavy packs, tramped the short distance to the railway line, and climbed on to the train. It was no more luxurious than the usual Egyptian train, with square wheels and slat seats, but to 18 Battalion it was the loveliest train in the world, as it bumped them across the desert, back towards civilisation, away from the Baggush Box.