19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 15 — Infantry Into Armour
Infantry Into Armour
Wherin old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruel markes of many a bloudy field.
TheMaadi bivouac area of early 1940 had grown by 1942 into a military metropolis of the size and population of many of the suburbs of Cairo city. During the final phases of the battle for Egypt Maadi’s inhabitants, however, were of dire necessity few in number. The remnants of 4 NZ Infantry Brigade comprised the largest formation in residence, and during the last months of the year many of its members began to fear that their occupancy had become permanent.
The rest of the Division, busy fighting and sometimes weary of the thin existence and the uncompromising hardness which the desert campaign imposed, were wont to gibe at ‘Groppi’s Light Horse’, as the Cairo-dwelling 4 Brigade was contemptuously, if somewhat enviously, dubbed by the troops in the field. The units of the brigade, however, found no satisfaction in their enforced absence from the Division; they soon tired of the delights of Cairo and became unappreciative of the comparative luxury to be found in Maadi Camp. For 19 Battalion life there was bearable because of the absence of the petty restrictions and wearying formalities usually associated with Base.
There had been many changes in the unit, but most of the principal posts were still held by old originals, and many former NCOs and men who had left New Zealand with the battalion in 1940 now held commissioned rank. At this time the chief appointments were:
|CO: Lt-Col S. F. Hartnell||OCA Coy: Maj H. G. Wooller|
|2 i/c: Maj D. K. McLauchlan||OCB Coy: Capt F. P. Koorey|
|Adjt: Capt D. A. Caughley||OCC Coy: Maj C. A. Latimer|
|QM: Lt A. R. Lucas||OCD Coy: Maj A. M. Everist|
|RSM: WO I D. Rench||MO: Capt C. K. Swallow|
|RQMS: WO II D. Brown||Padre: Rev Fr E. A. Forsman|
|OC HQ Coy: Capt F. M. Stewart|
Insufficient numbers robbed training of its collective appeal, and competitive sport suffered for the same reason. Duties were few, food was plentiful, and for the first month the unit was free to fatten—for, as ever, there was ‘Corn in Egypt’, and the lean days spent in the Desert had left their mark on the men. Rumours and speculation over the future of the battalion naturally found ready listeners, for there was plenty of time to gossip. The probable, improbable, and even fantastic were expounded, and with or without any reasonable basis every rumour in its turn provided an intriguing topic of conversation among the troops.
After a short period at Maadi, when accumulated pay was spent and prices were rocketing, the weekly pittance of piastres barely covered one quiet eight-hour leave to the city. Camp amusements, too, were somewhat curtailed: beer was rationed, and a crusade against gambling had increased the already heavy odds that the two-up and Crown and Anchor enthusiasts would cheerfully accept, by the addition of a stiff fine and the inevitable period of discomfort which lasted as long as the paybook remained in the red.
Remembering the desert days with their easy companionship, the strong hand of fierce loyalty which ruled each section and platoon, the sharing of carefully hoarded luxuries from the section tuckerbox and the spice of healthy hunger which flavoured the infrequent food, the Benghazi burner and the hissing brew consumed by twos and threes while crowded into an inadequate slit trench or sheltering beside the wheel of a briefly halted truck, the older hands were restive. They hankered to return to the Desert, even though the fearful face of danger would be there to welcome them with wounds or worse.
The recruits, too—some with two years of non-combatant service in New Zealand behind them—shared the restiveness of the veterans. They spoke a different language, the language of camps and not of campaigns. They would fall silent when in mess or canteen the talk turned to war. Seeing only the loose-knit, almost careless, appearance of soldiering in the battalion to which they had been posted, they were puzzled. Prepared to learn, they would willingly face battle page 303 to be able to break into the steel ring of unspoken friendships, inside which the older men of the unit lived and moved.
During August great changes were afoot in Eighth Army. On the 13th Lieutenant-General B. L. Montgomery assumed command and Lieutenant-General Freyberg, returning to duty on the 10th after convalescing from his wounds, resumed his appointment as GOC 2 NZ Division. The following day he temporarily succeeded Lieutenant-General W. H. E. (‘Strafer’) Gott (killed in action) as commander of 13 Corps. Mr Churchill visited the Alamein Line, and as the month ended Rommel launched a heavy attack along the whole front. Montgomery’s famous taking-over order, ‘NO WITHDRAWAL and NO SURRENDER’, had by this time been bolstered by extensive material preparations, and by 5 September Rommel’s offensive had been thoroughly beaten. During the fighting 5 and 6 Brigades added further laurels to the proud record already held by their Division.
But the successes of the New Zealand Division had been bitter fruit; the desert battles had cost it dearly. The heavy losses sustained in the stand at Alamein, when both 4 and 6 Brigades had been overrun by enemy tanks, could have been avoided by adequate armoured action. The Division had made its name as a hard-hitting, highly mobile formation, and General Freyberg felt that it required its own armoured brigade if it was to undertake future battle commitments with full efficiency and confidence.
This view was represented to the New Zealand Government and to General Headquarters, Middle East Forces. The British Army was at the time reorganising formations; the mixed division combining infantry and armour was already planned on paper, and agreement was reached at all levels to allow the New Zealand Division to reorganise on this already approved basis, which provided for a division of two infantry brigades, each of three battalions, and an armoured brigade of three regiments and a motor battalion, together with corps troops.
The choice of 4 Infantry Brigade as the formation to be converted to armour was dictated largely by circumstance. page 304 The 5th and 6th Brigades were still committed to the desert battle while the 4th, reinforcing and refitting in Maadi after its mauling at Ruweisat Ridge, was available immediately for reforming. On 17 September General Freyberg, in an address to officers and NCOs, gave the first official advice of what was afoot.
At the beginning of September 19 Battalion mustered a strength of 29 officers and 571 other ranks, but in the middle of the month cherished hopes that the unit would soon be fit to fight again were dashed when 198 men were transferred to 22 and 25 Battalions in the field, and the persisistent rumour that 4 Brigade was about to be converted into an armoured formation was confirmed by the CO. Now began a period of renewed activity, a period when novelty successfully competed with all other attractions and completely routed the lethargy brought on by the unaccustomed high living and lack of hard work. Though the first reaction of all ranks was one of wistfulness over the abandonment of their traditional role, the men now comprising 19 Battalion tackled their new training with eagerness.
Fortunately all the oldest hands had been spared to remain with the unit, but now, after almost three years’ overseas service, the number of original members had dwindled to but one-fifth of the total establishment. Some of the men transferred to units in the field had survived three campaigns with the battalion, and it was a sad occasion when they left the battalion lines. There was no time for brooding, however, and even before the official announcement which changed the title of the unit from 19 NZ Battalion to 19 NZ Armoured Regiment, conversion courses had begun.
Over a hundred NCOs and men were enrolled at 9 Infantry Brigade School and at the New Zealand School of Instruction for elementary courses in signals, while all officers undertook a radio-telephony procedure course (held in unit lines), and a number of officers and other ranks left for the Middle East Royal Armoured Corps School at Abbassia to attend a course on Matilda tanks. The R/T courses naturally included long periods of ‘procedure’, a page 305 dry subject which was sometimes enlivened by disputes on obscure points and situations between the two principal instructors, Second-Lieutenant John Arlidge,1 signal officer, and his corporal, ‘Kingi’ Best.2
In the midst of all this unaccustomed brain work the 19th found time to put away its notebooks and enjoy the customary celebration which marked a further unit anniversary. This was a unique occasion, for within a few days of its third birthday the battalion was to lose its identity. Also it was the first time that the event had taken place other than in the Western Desert. Many of the troops on courses contrived to get leave and to come back to Maadi for the evening. A count of heads revealed that of the 768 men who originally sailed from New Zealand, only 171 now remained. ‘Fallen comrades’ and ‘absent friends’ were poignant toasts honoured in all messes.
On 5 October a new series of routine orders commenced, and the first paragraph in issue No. 1 read: ‘It is notified that as from the 5th October 42 the name of this Unit is the 19 NZ Armd Regt and this title will be employed in all correspondence, etc. No public comment however will be made regarding the reason for the change.’
Of that change there were no outward and visible signs. As yet the 19th had no tanks, and three months would pass before the black beret, distinctive head-dress of the Armoured Corps, was issued. Meanwhile courses continued in tented classrooms, and almost every man in the unit possessed a collection of carefully kept notebooks. Many found themselves back at school, swotting willingly, if laboriously, and sweating under unaccustomed mental stress while striving to master the perplexities of wireless operating procedure, the intricacies of the internal combustion engine, or the technicalities of tank maintenance. There was keen competition among the men for the tank-crew posts, and in the main the various jobs went to the volunteer who felt that he had found his particular niche in driving, wireless page 306 operating or gunnery. Reports from Abbassia were consistently good and many men—former infantrymen—in the newly formed New Zealand armoured units gained marks which were well up to those earned by men whose whole service had been in armour.
Everyone was active, and 19 Armoured Regiment as a unit was at the top of its form. True it had much to learn, but willingness and zest were characteristics carried over from old battalion days. The newly acquired rank of trooper seemed to fit the general air of jauntiness, and though the stiffer style of private was still often inadvertently used, the absent-minded NCO or officer was quickly reminded that that rank was now obsolete. The conversion to armour was almost religious in its fervour.
A Royal Armoured Corps sergeant was posted to each of the new regiments, and, together with those who had done well at the Abbassia school, pepped up the unit courses. Regiments were made responsible for their own initial tactical training, and the 19th, using 15-cwt trucks as tanks, made good use once more of ‘Sunstroke Plain’. Batches of trainees went across the Nile and camped for a week at a time on the ground over which the unit had trudged during its first overseas tactical exercise as an infantry battalion. Though the truck-tanks were frequently bogged in the soft sand, those who had been there before were unanimous that all in all armoured training was a good deal less irksome than that of the infantry.
In addition to conversion courses, senior officers in the unit attended high-level discussions on the new ‘mixed division’ and studied its complex organisation and tactical possibilities. Its establishment was a radical change from the traditional composition of the British infantry division. It combined armour and infantry, arms of the service which had hitherto been handled separately. The 2nd NZ Division was in the process of transition and, once the armoured brigade was trained and equipped, would take its place as a mixed division and retain this organisation until the war ended.
The year was within two months of closing. It had been page 307 a fateful one for the Allies, but now the Axis tide of invasion had begun to ebb. In North Africa on 3 November Rommel began to withdraw from his positions in front of El Alamein. In the Eighth Army offensive which drove him off, 2 NZ Division, consisting now of 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades and divisional troops, had played a leading part. It now began to prepare for the most satisfying role of its career: the pursuit of a retreating Axis army. Back in Cairo 4 Armoured Brigade followed the fortunes of Eighth Army as it returned over the ground the brigade knew so well, towards final victory. The daily news bulletins kept excitement at fever heat. On 5 November Fuka was encircled, but the enemy escaped. On 7 November delay at Sidi Haneish because of heavy rain enabled the quarry to avoid battle. On 9 November Mersa Matruh was passed and 2 NZ Division approached Sidi Barrani. On 10 November New Zealand troops passed Buqbuq; on the 11th they crossed the Libyan frontier; on the 12th they halted near Bardia.
With the news of each advance the excitement in Maadi Camp mounted steadily, but a feeling of frustration tempered the jubilation of the newly formed armoured brigade. As yet without tanks and still practically untrained, 18, 19 and 20 Armoured Regiments, unaccustomed to their long confinement to Base, developed bed sores. When 22 Battalion—sadly depleted in numbers—marched in fresh from the battlefield to join the new armoured brigade, the ‘base wallah’ stigma was keenly felt. The older hands resented the changeover, for they felt that it was robbing them of a share in the desert victory, which as members of the senior formation in the Division, and by reason of their long service, was rightfully theirs.
On 27 November General Freyberg flew from Bardia to Maadi and spoke to his armoured fledgings. In his description of the operations which had led up to the present Eighth Army offensive he did not forget 4 Brigade’s share. The GOC still held his veteran units in high regard, and his promise for an active future instilled fresh confidence.
Despite an official preference for the peaked hat with a black pugaree, berets were at last issued to all ranks, and page 308 during December, as the rest of the Division swept triumphantly towards Tripoli, the armoured tyros in Maadi seemed to catch something of the tempo of their comrades’ advance and exorcised their consciences by working harder than ever. The change was now fully accepted and its advantages began to be recognised. At this time, too, the 19th got its first tanks—two Covenanters and a Crusader—and practical work in the unit lines became a reality. Many men found themselves possessed of unexpected skills in the trades required of trained tank-crew members. Some, with an eye to the future, took every available opportunity to improve both theory and practice in such subjects as motor mechanics and radio repairing. In civvy street, when the time came, these trade skills would mean satisfying jobs for those who were previously unsuited or untrained.
Reinforcements arriving in Egypt from New Zealand on 8 January 1943 brought all of 4 Brigade’s units up to comfortable working strength once more. The 3rd Army Tank Battalion was absorbed by the armoured brigade, and the addition of these trained and keen troops was welcomed. B Squadron was posted to 19 Regiment, and the marchings-in during the month brought the unit strength up to 28 officers and 585 other ranks. Of this total, 21 officers and 400 other ranks had taken part in one or more campaigns, and 13 officers and 150 other ranks were First Echelon troops. Complete armoured organisation was now adopted, and as this provided for only three squadrons, the 19th dropped its four traditional provincial designations and the squadron titles became A, B, and C respectively. The last vestiges of the old order had now gone; only the spirit remained, and as an armoured regiment the former 19 Infantry Battalion looked clear-eyed and expectantly from beneath black berets towards a future spiced with fresh experiences.
The few tanks on regimental strength were worked overtime, but courses still continued, and after the Christmas and New Year break intakes to schools of instruction claimed a good proportion of the unit strength. By February the regiment was able to publish the following impressive figures:page 309
|Completed courses at Middle East schools||45||181|
|Completed courses at local schools||61||824|
Having passed well out of the recruit stage and with the unit again strong numerically, all ranks looked forward to operational employment on armoured work and waited impatiently for the full quota of tanks and administration vehicles to be issued to the regiment. Lack of full equipment imposed irksome restrictions, particularly in tactical training, and commanders and crews fretted for full possession of a tank they could call their own. The day when the regiment could turn out in complete battle array was still seven months away, however, and many startling changes would take place in the 19th before then.
Meanwhile the Maadi dwellers were making the most of their life in Base Camp. Fresh ventures were tried and proved successful. A regimental library was established and immediately became popular. A brigade choir attracted a select few with the necessary talent; its performances added dignity to church services and colour to less solemn occasions. Sporting contests and competitions, debates, concerts, and even dances were regular functions. With the posting of the new reinforcements, the unit’s early enthusiasm for sightseeing was revived. Cairo attractions long treated with a blasé indifference took on a brighter complexion as the old hand introduced the open-mouthed new arrival to the sights, sounds, and smells of that intriguing city. At work and at play ‘Groppi’s Light Horse’ struck the peak of form during those early months of 1943.
In 19 Regiment several changes in the senior appointments took place. Major McLauchlan left to command Headquarters Squadron of Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, and Major Wooller3 replaced him as second-in- page 310 command. Padre John Somerville4 took over from Padre Forsman. The unit’s second overseas marriage was solemnised when Captain F. M. Stewart, OC Headquarters Squadron, was wedded to Miss Paddy Levin, a member of the NZ WAAC who were doing such a fine job in the New Zealand general hospitals. Decorations earned in the desert campaigns were presented by the GOC to the following members of the unit: the DSO to Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell, and the MM to Lance-Corporal Clark5 and Troopers Rieper and Trye.
Among the drab hutments of 19 Regiment’s camp, flowers began to bloom. Messes were made comfortable and attractive by purchasing furniture, and if the amateur and solely male attempts at decoration gave the messrooms a somewhat rakish touch they were at least distinctive. During the off-duty hours a proportion—a good proportion—of the unit was at home to all callers, and until the beer supplies in the Middle East almost ran out, organised and spontaneous parties were nightly functions in canteens and messes. A rare storm on 22 February wrecked many of the outside improvements in the unit lines, but enthusiastic voluntary labour repaired the damage and added more and more fancy touches until 19 Regiment’s area, neatly marked out in paths, gardens, and decorative work in white limestone, took on an almost Gezira-like appearance.
Armoured training progressed steadily. One demonstration of the proficiency attained caused the CO a good deal of awkward paper work. One of the unit’s few precious tanks ‘brewed up’ and became a complete write-off. The cause: a Bren-gun bullet fired from a regimental invention on another tank. This invention consisted of a Bren mounted on the 75-millimetre gun of the Sherman, set at single shot and electrically fired. Its use had enabled the unit to test the efficiency of its gunners by a convincing and satisfying practical demonstration, the official method of going through the motions of firing being considered a page 311 barren pastime. Tangible evidence of marksmanship was required, and this specially mounted Bren provided the answer. On the undulating desert at the back of the camp 19 Regiment’s two tanks rattled and bumped—pursuer and pursued. Each time the commander of the leading tank heard the smack of a bullet against his armour plate he signalled a hit to the attacker. Gunnery in the unit improved —until this unlucky hit penetrated the tool-box louvres and ignited the hot petrol fumes in the Crusader. The crew abandoned ship smartly. From then on all gunnery practice took place on the armoured fighting vehicle range.
On 22 March the New Zealand Minister of Defence (Hon F. Jones) inspected 4 Armoured Brigade. A few days before this inspection the Division, as part of New Zealand Corps commanded by General Freyberg, had begun its highly successful ‘left hook’ attack which was to force the enemy to withdraw from the Mareth Line. After three weeks of heavy fighting the Division in early April was now getting its second wind for the advance north. In Tunisia the pincers were closing on the Axis, and the end of the campaign was in sight.
In April the regiment had a change in command. Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell had been required to spend an ever-increasing number of hours at Headquarters 4 Brigade as administrative problems mounted. It was with little surprise, therefore, but with genuine regret, that the unit learned that he would soon leave it. His promotion to second-in-command of 4 Armoured Brigade meant, however, that he would still be closely associated with his old regiment, where his tall figure and cheery grin had become well known and popular.
For the first time in its history command of the 19th passed to an officer whose service had been entirely outside the unit. On 19 April Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell introduced his successor, Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin,6 at the Pall Mall Theatre and said goodbye to the men he had page 312 commanded with distinction in the two Western Desert campaigns.
Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin, who flew from Tunisia to take over, was not a complete stranger, however; he had had long service with the Division. He was a First Echelon officer, and his original unit was 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, whose companies the 19th had good reason to remember with affection for their excellent support in many actions. After taking part in the campaigns in Greece, Crete and Libya, Colonel McGaffin had attended the Armoured School at Abbassia and was selected as one of the officers to return to New Zealand for training in armour. In November he came back to the Middle East in command of 3 Army Tank Battalion, a big proportion of whose members were absorbed into 19 Armoured Regiment; he then rejoined 27 Battalion as commanding officer. The new members of the 19th all knew him personally, the older hands knew him by repute, and he received a ready welcome and had the co-operation of all ranks from the start.
The other principal posts in 19 Regiment remained as before, except that RSM Dave Rench handed over again to Bert Steele,7 who had returned from New Zealand. NCO appointments increased as from time to time vacancies in the new establishment were filled by those men whose skill and experience made them eligible. During the early training considerable thought was given to the NCO position, and few appointments had been made. It was significant that the former infantry soldiers did well and by keenness and aptitude justified appointments as NCOs for which long service had fitted them.
Throughout April the regiment, by rostering its few tanks to squadrons for two days at a time, concentrated on practical handling and on tactical exercises. The promise that regiments would soon be able to muster a full establishment of Shermans quelled the discontent caused by having to make do with so few tanks, and when the first tanks arrived from Abbassia there was great jubilation and increased interest. The first intake included tanks of both British and American page 313 manufacture; the contrast in finish was most marked and, though there was no difference in performance, the latter type found immediate favour. With the interior finished in white enamel, the American Sherman was cleaner and seemed much more spacious than its British counterpart. Keen competition was expected among the troop commanders when the time came to allocate vehicles.
With the approach of summer battle dress was replaced by shorts and the cool and comfortable bush shirt. Long leave also began during the month and with it came the welcome news that a sustenance allowance of three shillings a day would be paid to all ranks spending their leave at other than transit camps or official leave centres. A visit from the 2 NZEF Broadcasting Unit gave fifty men of all ranks from the regiment the opportunity to record a message to their folk at home, and most of those who broadcast were First Echelon men with three or more years’ service overseas. Other matters of note during April were the depressing shortage of beer and the institution of regular programmes of summer sport among the squadrons, who soon developed a keen rivalry. Some good games of cricket were played. On the lighter side, entertainment continued to be well catered for, and at least two official items contributed to the amusement of the troops. The first was the visit to the area of a Chinese military mission and the second a fatuity originating at Headquarters British Troops in Egypt and published in the routine orders of all units. Over the signature of a female soldier the following notice appeared:
The unofficial abbreviation AMEN for anti-personnel mines will not be used in the ME Comd, as it is considered unsuitable.
[Sgd] Margaret D….
for Brigadier GS.
May 1943 was a momentous month for the whole of the 2 NZEF in the Middle East. It marked the final overthrow page 314 of the Axis forces in Africa, the return of 2 NZ Division to Maadi Camp, and the announcement of a furlough scheme for long-service personnel. In the regiment there were 190 officers and men whose service entitled them to return to New Zealand in the first furlough draft. In a new organisation which depended so much on men whose long experience fitted them for important commands and key posts, this gap would be serious. Similar situations existed in all the armoured units.
The code-name for the first draft was RUAPEHU, a singularly apt choice, for the repercussions of the furlough scheme were almost volcanic. The ties of home were a powerful attraction, yet the majority of the men whose overseas service entitled them to consideration for return to New Zealand stoutly resisted all persuasion to go; they preferred to remain with their units as long as their services were necessary—until hostilities ceased if need be. The unselfish creed of the volunteer, the esprit de corps which bound each unit, and the general belief that the war would soon be won were in conflict with the principles on which the furlough scheme was based. In 19 Regiment thirty men were warned to stand by to move when the word came; and finally as more and more men became eligible to return to New Zealand, lots were drawn to fill unit quotas, and when even this method failed to produce the required numbers those eligible were sent home without the option.
On 6 June the GOC himself left Egypt by air for New Zealand, where his brief visit would provide an opportunity for discussions with the War Cabinet on the future of 2 NZ Division. At Maadi Camp Brigadier Inglis assumed command, and as the homeward-bound troops left reinforcements arrived to replace them. The 1st Tank Battalion, fresh from New Zealand, joined 4 Armoured Brigade, as its sister battalion had done earlier in the year. With the posting of these men and of the 9th Reinforcements, regiments reached battle strength, and for the first time regimental rolls showed full establishments.
Now that the men had reached the peak of training signs of staleness began to appear, and with July came the least page 315 esteemed anniversary on 4 Brigade’s calendar: the formation had been a full year in Maadi Camp. True, it was now once more in company with the rest of the Division, but it had been a sad and sore reunion, with the brigade to a man more than eager to erase the bar sinister of ‘base wallah’ from the newly acquired escutcheons of the armoured regiments.
At this time, too, a series of incidents took place in Cairo between New Zealand and American troops. The result was a general tightening up of discipline. The check rein of the Army Act inevitably caused further fretting, and news of a fresh campaign, opened by the Allied landings in Sicily, made the troops even more than usually restive. At the end of July General Freyberg returned from New Zealand and resumed command of the Division amid a feeling of relief brought about by portents of a probable move from Maadi.
This move, however, did not eventuate for another two months, and meanwhile in 19 Armoured Regiment there were many marchings-out of men going on furlough and marchings-in of reinforcements. Tanks, too, were on the move, and the worn-out Crusaders on which A Squadron had spent so many enthusiastic hours were replaced by Shermans. These new tanks arrived on the same day as three officers and fifty-five other ranks left the regiment as part of the Wakatipu draft, bound for New Zealand, and eighty-three men of the 10th Reinforcements were posted. There were now only twenty in the regiment who could claim the distinction of being original echelon men, all of them senior officers, WOs or NCOs. Some of them figured in the list of mentioned in despatches published during August. Those of 19 Regiment so honoured were Major Wooller, Captain Stewart, Sergeant Agent,8 Sergeant Grennell,9 Sergeant Collett10 and Private Gibbons,11 each of page 316 whom had earned the distinction by devotion to duty during the earlier part of the Battle for Egypt.
An operational role for 2 NZ Division now seemed certain, and General Freyberg, flying to Sicily at the request of General Sir Harold Alexander, learnt that the New Zealanders were required for projected operations in southern Europe, and agreed to have the Division in readiness by October. The consent of the War Cabinet in New Zealand was readily obtained, and in preparation for a mobile role with Eighth Army, equipment began to arrive. The 19th received twenty-two Sherman tanks and seven scout cars. This completed the table of fighting vehicles, and the regiment was now fully equipped with Shermans. There was great satisfaction all round when on 10 September a regimental advance party moved to Burg el Arab. The excitement of other- days returned. In the bustle of the following week, when the whole unit moved out by squadrons to join the rest of the Division in the Desert, all staleness evaporated. The tank crews, looking down along the long lines of sweating infantrymen who covered the whole hot route from Maadi to Burg el Arab on foot, had their first practical demonstration of the advantages of their new role.
Brigade and divisional exercises began at Burg el Arab on 17 September and continued until units began to embark for their unknown destination in southern Europe. The main exercise had as its object ‘to practise co-operation with an Armd Bde Gp in attack’. Aptly code-named TECHNIQUE, this manoeuvre took place in the Wadi Natrun area and occupied the week from 24 September to 3 October. It involved an attack on a brigade front to penetrate enemy infantry and anti-tank defences, clear gaps in minefields, and exploit success with armour. During its progress the GOC met units and told them of the imminent change of operational theatre, stressing the great importance of security during the initial stages of the move. Shortly afterwards the New Zealand insignia were removed from vehicles, badges and titles withdrawn from issue, and all leave cancelled.page 317
For 4 Armoured Brigade the stay at Burg el Arab was intensely busy. Working at last as a complete formation, the brigade faced for the first time the complex problems of the tactical handling, mechanical maintenance, and routine administration of a large mobile force. Not the least important feature was the smoothing out of communication difficulties, and may hours of practice, plus several full-scale signal exercises, were held to this end. Important recommendations for the allocation of wireless sets, made as a result of experiment and practice within the regiment, were later embodied as standard throughout armoured formations. The 19th took its ‘R/Toc’ seriously.
On 3 October the regiment’s advance party, comprising the second-in-command, Major Wooller, and RQMS MacRae,12 left for Amiriya, and for the following week the unit prepared for departure. On the 9th the advanced vehicle party (ten trucks with one officer and eleven other ranks) pulled out. Two days later Captain Reid13 left the unit lines with the scout cars and jeeps. On the 12th the second-flight vehicle party, including tanks, each with a crew of two men, and transport (73 vehicles in all) went, and then the regiment’s quota for the Division’s personnel flight (424 all ranks) marched to the embarkation camp, where the regiment was further split up. It would be several weeks before it was able to function again as a corporate body.
At A, B, and C camps at Ikingi Maryut the troops of 19 Regiment made the most of the five days yet remaining of their long sojourn in Egypt. The usual transit camp distractions were well in evidence. Sandstorms and swimming, fatigues and route marches, beer issues—three in four days—and unexpectedly, rain. Then at last, after an early breakfast, the move to the embarkation point became a reality.
It was a memorable morning, fresh and dustless after the rain; the grim old desert turned on its best behaviour as a friendly farewell to the troops it had known now for almost four years. As the convoy of ten-tonners rolled over the salt page 318 marshes and desert flats between Ikingi Maryut and Alexandria, many men beneath the khaki canopies, though joining in the general joyful chorus of ‘Goodbye Egypt’, felt the parting to be almost personal. They had had tremendous experiences in these arid wastes. They had known elation and fear, joy and sorrow, well-being and pain. In the anxious hours they had spent sweating in hot slit trenches or shivering in chill winds, chords of memory had been spun, chords too strong ever to sever cleanly. This was —this had been—home.
6 Col R. L. McGaffin, DSO, ED; Wellington; born Hastings, 30 Aug 1902; company manager; 27 MG Bn 1939–41; comd 3 Army Tank Bn (in NZ) Mar-Oct 1942; CO 27 MG Bn Feb-Apr 1943; CO 19 Armd Regt Apr 1943-Aug 1944; CO Advanced Base, Italy, Aug-Oct 1944.