19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 3 — Egypt
We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
—James Elroy Flecker
Disembarkation at Tewfik as ‘Dawn’s left hand was in the sky’ allowed no pause for idle dreaming, and with the sunrise over Sinai came a morning cry new to most of us. Soon the Suez-Cairo train took up the theme. Iggery-iggery-iggery-iggery went the wheels while the train sped out into the desolate desert. That rhythm of the rails was to be repeated again and again during the days which followed until service in Egypt and ‘Iggery’ became synonymous. Train to get fighting fit—iggery. Dig anti-tank defences in the Western Desert—iggery. Move to the Balkans—iggery. Go to the relief of Tobruk—iggery. Take up a defence line in Syria—iggery. Race back to the Western Desert—iggery. Hurry, hurry, hurry; for 19 Battalion it all began that morning, 12 February 1940.
The drabness of the sun-scorched desert, unrolling on each side of the railway, did not dismay the troops. Each carriage window framed a crowd of eager faces anxious that they should miss nothing of this new land. At the small stations en route stood ragged crowds of natives with ‘Oringees verree sweet’, ‘Eggs-a-cook’, ‘Limonade’, but trade was poor. A series of talks on the dire diseases of the East given by the unit medical officer, Lieutenant Boyd, NZMC,1 were too recent to be disregarded. Those who may have been tempted lacked the money to buy, for pay in piastres had not yet been drawn. The insistent cry for ‘Baksheesh’ could be answered only with coins in New Zealand currency which the natives received with suspicion rather than gratitude.page 15
That four-hour journey was full of interest; for the first time all were under the magic spell of the East. The train passed through Heliopolis, site of the New Zealand camp in the last war, and soon the spires and minarets of Cairo came in sight. Round the Abbassia loop and through the Dead City it went. When all the wonders had been left well behind and the scenery was desert again, the train stopped. The battalion had arrived.
A reception committee including members of the advance party, sun-tanned and smiling, was there to meet the battalion, which detrained and, forming up behind the pipers of 2 Battalion Cameron Highlanders, marched to its new camp, guided en route by men of the Rifle Brigade.
It was the skirl of the pipes which carried the unit in good order over the short but excessively tiring distance. Soft from seven weeks of luxury living, trussed up in hot New Zealand serge, loaded with obsolescent impedimenta—for the troops that march across the soft sand seemed interminably long. When the order to halt was given and arms and equipment piled, sweaty brows were mopped and each man took stock of his surroundings. A few tents, a mud-walled wooden building, miles and miles of drab, sandy ground without a trace of vegetation—this was our new camp. To the north-west the Pyramids squatted immobile and massive on the horizon. To the north the slender minarets of the Mahomet Ali mosque poked their fingers into the sky. To the east a rocky, flat-topped escarpment frowned, while some three miles away the green oasis of Maadi village was set like a jewel in the sandy waste.
The outlook was not as dismal as it might have been, for the Rifle Brigade had acted as hosts to the 19th, preparing a much-needed meal and erecting a few tents for preliminary accommodation. Some years later the battalion was able to return their kindness. This introduction to the men of that famous unit was a forerunner to a very happy association. The 19th settled in: 41 officers, 48 warrant officers and sergeants, and 678 other ranks, crowding together, bedded themselves down for their first night in Egypt.
Next day, 13 February, camp layout and company lines page 16 were fixed and soon the desert all around was sprouting tents. The 19th Battalion area was sandwiched between that of 18 and 20 Battalions, while 4 Infantry Brigade headquarters was set on the small rise just across the road. The rest of the units of the First Echelon lined both sides of the road beyond 18 Battalion. The battalion’s advance party rejoined, and never were six men more in demand as they were plied with questions on their experiences.
Their answers were full of warning. The native dealers were adept at roguery and deception. The filth and degradation in certain areas of the city were indescribable. Official confirmation soon followed; routine orders that day carried several paragraphs on such matters. Rifles and other arms, it was laid down, must never be left unattended; at night they must be chained to tent poles and locked, the bolt removed and placed for safety under the owner’s pillow. A caution was given regarding spurious coinage, notably twenty-piastre pieces, which the natives were wont to palm off on unsuspecting soldiers. In camp and on leave it was necessary to walk and talk circumspectly. Health, wealth, and security were all at stake. Few disregarded the warnings.
Running concurrently with camp construction, training courses for officers and non-commissioned officers began. Mortar, Bren, Bren carrier, anti-tank rifle, and Intelligence courses all started during the first week. Throughout the months which followed the battalion strength states showed a large total of men away on courses of instruction.
There was little organised company training at this time. Camp duties, courses, and lack of equipment made a co-ordinated programme impossible and all energies were directed to completing camp and quarters to give maximum efficiency and comfort.
As in New Zealand in the early days of mobilisation, now in Egypt the units of the First Echelon were doing the spade work for the units which would follow. Maadi Camp, no longer an empty desert, would house some 75,000 of our countrymen before the war finished. The collection of tents and the few wooden buildings would in a few years’ time page 17 grow to a camp the size of a large town. Huts would replace the RD tents. Tracks would become paved roads, and trade, entertainment, and comfort would be catered for on a scale never thought possible in 1940.
The hot days and the cool nights made the institution of precautions against chills and pneumonia imperative. Serge jackets were worn until after breakfast and at 4.30 p.m. all ranks changed into full serge uniform. Much to the disgust of the troops the wearing of shorts was not permitted, and denim slacks and shirts constituted daytime working dress. Other health precautions included compulsory disinfection of hands on leaving the latrine and when queuing for meals. Despite all efforts to prevent it, however, a severe outbreak of diarrhoea set in on 19 February. Many fell ill of this malady, which was known among the troops as ‘Gyppy tummy’. To the sufferers the fabled plagues of Egypt became a painful reality. Even the most rigid standards of hygiene and sanitation had failed to prevent the entry of the virulent flyborne germs of Egypt into healthy but susceptible New Zealand bodies. Sick parades were large and the unvarying, if inelegant, answer to the routine question was, ‘Crook in the guts Doc.’
The arrival of the first fourteen vehicles for the battalion transport pool coincided with arrangements for leave and sightseeing. Thus the problem of those three dusty miles to the Maadi railway station was solved. The leave scale was generous, 20 per cent per company being allowed passes daily from Monday to Friday. The passes opened at 5 p.m. and expired at 1.30 a.m. the following morning. One third of the battalion was allowed leave each Saturday and Sunday from noon to 1.30 a.m. the following day. Companies had no difficulty in filling their quotas. Fares were cheap, one piastre being paid for the eight-mile trip to Cairo, which was made in fast time by modern diesel railcars running a twenty-minute timetable to and from Bab-el-Louk station.
Much of Cairo was officially out of bounds, but with appetites whetted with old diggers’ tales, many spent their first leave following the touting infants who promised public exhibitions of the unspeakable and unexpurgated page 18 real life versions of the Arabian Nights. One visit was usually sufficient, for salacious anticipation soon gave place to squalid queasiness, and thereafter most men were content to avoid those areas colored red in the guide maps issued by Headquarters 2 NZEF.
The members of the First Echelon were fortunate to have seen the city before the entry of Italy into the war robbed it of many of its most attractive divertissements. The Egyptian museum, a veritable Ali Baba’s treasure house, attracted many, and most members of the battalion took the opportunity to see its unique and wonderful collection.
Amusement, too, was well catered for and the continental page 19 style bars and cabarets were ideal spots for a night’s entertainment. ‘Stella’, the locally brewed beer, was palatable and reasonably cheap, while in those early days food was plentiful and menus varied and exciting.
Though the food in town was satisfying and plentiful, there was discontent in the New Zealand camps because of the inadequacy of the ration. Always used to a lavish scale, it was found difficult to satisfy healthy colonial appetites on the British Army allowance. The unit cooks, without reserves upon which they could draw to supplement meals, found that their quotas did not go far. Men began to complain of hunger. After a series of conferences at high levels a special cash allowance was made for New Zealand troops in the Middle East. The grant was to be spent by the battalion messing officers in purchasing supplementary stores from the Naafi, at that time a well-stocked emporium which placed no limits on purchases.
Once the food situation was in hand again there were few growls, and with the opening of a camp cinema and a Naafi canteen in the battalion lines, life in Maadi became very pleasant. Laundry arrangements, too, were completed and another ever-present problem, that of personal washing, was ended. This ‘dhobi’ establishment was run entirely by natives, and visitors were intrigued by the methods of the man with the flat-iron. He dampened the garments before pressing by squirting a mouthful of water over them. After a visit from the medical officer this method was abandoned in favour of a sprinkler-topped bottle.
Whatever the shortcomings of the Egyptian laundryman’s methods when compared with New Zealand standards, the results he attained were nothing short of miraculous. The vast amount of clean, crisp drill which was washed and pressed for a few piastres made it possible for the poorest private to turn out freshly starched and smart for occasions official and unofficial. The dhobi business must have been a major industry in Egypt at this time, and at least one enterprising tradesman had a printed business card which he would produce with the appropriate flourish on the slenderest excuse.page 20
A general order that all officers must master the intricacies of the motor-cycle, and the arrival of fourteen Nortons from Ordnance, enabled a school of mechanical equitation to be set up. Company Sergeant-Major Wroth was the ringmaster and the course he ran was popular. The desert provided plenty of hazards and the runs were exhilarating. Though there were a few spills there were many thrills for both rider and spectator. The Padre was a distinguished performer and caused havoc in the tent lines before he got his mount under control.
All troops in camp carried out daily route marches across the sand to harden feet and keep up the general standard of fitness. Night training, too, was a regular feature and despite carefully plotted compass bearings many parties managed to get lost. One platoon commander arrived back in camp with his bunch of disgruntled and sarcastic soldiers at 2 a.m.—only five hours late. It was as well that the desert surrounding the camp was not as featureless as parts of the Western Desert the unit was to encounter later. This preliminary training in keeping direction was later turned to good account and every effort made to attain proficiency was worth while.
A knowledge of the stars was necessary for night work and in an attempt to locate instructors in that sphere Routine page 21 Order No. 93 featured the following notice: ‘Companies will forward to Battalion Headquarters by 0900 hrs Saturday the 2nd March a return of men capable of giving instruction in elementary astrology.’ This was maliciously interpreted as a forlorn attempt to throw some light on the battalion’s future, but no soothsayers were forthcoming and the following day the order was amended to read ‘astronomy’.
Despite a natural anxiety for a more active role, the unit’s shortcomings as trained soldiers were admitted by even the most eager. The Highland Light Infantry and 2nd Cameron’s, troops seasoned to tropical service and as efficient as tradition and training could make them, staged many demonstrations for our instruction. The New Zealanders were interested spectators and assiduous students. The company sergeants-major of the battalion did a special course under a warrant officer from the Scots Guards, while other officers and NCOs were sent on attachment to neighbouring British units. British Army schools of instruction each took their quotas of New Zealanders, and selected representatives from the battalion did specialist courses. Senior and junior tactics, weapon training, signals, motor transport and cooking were all taught at separate establishments, and the successful candidates on return to the unit became instructors for the subjects in which they had qualified.
March 1940 was a big month for 19 Battalion—it marked its official ‘coming out’. Careful drilling and coaching by the Adjutant, Lieutenant Errol Williams,2 prepared it for its first public appearance overseas. On successive Saturdays units of 2 NZEF in Egypt were reviewed in turn by General Freyberg, the GOC-in-C British Troops in Egypt (Lieutenant-General H. Maitland Wilson), and the British Ambassador in Egypt (Sir Miles Lampson). A ceremonial parade under the hot Egyptian sun proved a trying and uncomfortable performance, yet probably no other military function imparted to the individual soldier that shoulder squaring feeling of pride which suffused the whole unit as page 22 each man felt himself to be part of ‘a good show’. The battalion acquitted itself well on every occasion.
With the approach of spring, the temperature was steadily rising, but in spite of this a Rugby football competition had been established and midweek matches were now played regularly. In the ranks of the 19th were some fine players. Coached by Captain Geoff Bedding,3 the battalion team with ex-All Black Jack Griffiths4 as captain won the Freyberg Cup with an unbeaten record for the season. The final game was played at a shade temperature of 95 degrees F.5 Probably the most outstanding match, certainly the game which created most interest, was that against 1 Battalion Welch Regiment on 6 April. A tremendous crowd of British and Dominion troops lined the field and a description was broadcast to England and New Zealand. Our team that day was: forwards, Crawford, Hart, Riley, Robertson, Aitken, Coull, Phillips, Fleming; half-back, Littler; backs, L. Arnold, N. Hunter, Griffiths, R. Arnold, R. Hunter; full-back, Vernon. A hard, willing match was won by 19 Battalion 11—9.
Sport was allotted an important part in the unit programme and almost every platoon had representatives in one of the battalion teams. Football, cricket, and hockey were all played on the sandy fields. On the Nile 19 Battalion oarsmen competed with those from other units and with the members of Cairo clubs who had so generously made their facilities available to the New Zealand troops. Swimming, a necessary relaxation in the hot weather, was catered for by the opening on 7 April of the divisional swimming page 23 baths. The baths became the most popular rendezvous in the camp, and with the Maadi Tent adjacent there was no more pleasant place to spend short leave hours. The tent was run by a stalwart band of Englishwomen, residents of Maadi township. Their generous and arduous efforts were typical of the British hospitality enjoyed by the 2 NZEF overseas.
By this time the battalion had settled in well and, due largely to the efforts of the Pioneer Platoon commanded by Lieutenant Latimer,6 everybody was fairly comfortable. Messes had been constructed and the battalion orderly room was housed in a wooden building. After the first few dust-laden breezes, each man mastered the art of pitching a tent on the sand in a manner that ensured it would remain standing. Maadi Camp was slowly taking shape.
In addition to normal war equipment which was coming to hand in exasperatingly small quantities, some other items not on the G1098 (war equipment) table also came into the possession of the unit. Perhaps the most famous of these unofficial but greatly prized trophies was the large sheet-iron tourist poster bearing the slogan ‘Germany for Holidays’. This sign had been filched from its hoarding on Bab-el-Louk station and placed secretly, in the dead of night, in the officers’mess. It remained with the unit for many years, and the flaxen haired fraulein it depicted smiled invitingly down on many a hilarious mess gathering. Those who did the souveniring kept their secret well. At this late date it can also be revealed that only a concrete base weighing several tons kept the huge bottle which is a landmark on the Mena Road from joining the poster as a 19 Battalion possession.
The Easter leave period 22-25 March provided an excellent opportunity for the tourists among the troops to see Egypt, and the generous leave arrangements were greatly appreciated. Organised tours covered both Palestine and Egypt. The more adventurous, however, preferred to make their own arrangements and one small party hiring a felucca page 24 and crew took a three-day trip up the Nile. The battalion lines were empty except for some few on duty and others who stayed at home and spent the days pottering round the bazaars and shops of Cairo. At this stage goods were cheap and plentiful, and ‘George’ the native stallholder, always a sportsman, was quite prepared when the bargaining had come to an end to toss, his price or yours, and abide by the result.
Training had by now progressed steadily through the stages from individual soldier instruction to section, platoon, and company training. Battalion operations had welded the work together; the Easter leave had evaporated any signs of staleness, and all were eager for work once more.
April opened with a tactical exercise, the first of several to follow during the next two months. These exercises, involving the whole brigade, were a thorough test of training. Despite hard work and honest effort this first five-day stunt revealed many weaknesses. Leaving camp in the early morning, a march of 21 miles in front of them, the units of 4 Brigade learned quickly the necessity for rigid water discipline. The 19th left thirty-two march casualties on the roadside, for the gruelling heat took its toll. On arrival at the destination, the most popular institution was undoubtedly the water truck, and the least popular the despatch rider who brought orders for the continuation of the exercise at an early hour next morning. An unpleasant sandstorm clouded the operations of the next day when the unit provided the advanced guard for the brigade. The exercise finished on the third day with an attack, then back once more to Maadi where results were analysed. The battalion lost some equipment, gained experience, and made ready for a more ambitious scheme when divisional troops, too, would be involved.
The week which followed was marked by another outbreak of ‘Gyppy tummy’ and the issue of the long-awaited tropical kit. Thereafter, clad in Wolseley helmets, shirts and shorts, we felt more in tune with our surroundings.
On 22 April the Division moved by motor transport to Nag Hassan for another four days’ exercise in the desert page 25 behind El Saff. This operation, which has since become almost legendary, was known as ‘Milesia versus Puttigonia’, the names given to the forces commanded by Brigadiers Miles7 and Puttick8 respectively. A good time was had by all, and in the main the mistakes made on previous exercises were not repeated, though a few new ones cropped up. During these exercises it was evident that some important sub-units had not yet received sufficient equipment to permit them to function properly. The ‘signals’ suffered badly in this regard and there were difficulties through lack of adequate communication; the consequent loss of control was serious. Taken all in all, however, the unit gave a convincing display. A highlight of this exercise, which finished on Anzac Day, was the impressive service held in the Wadi Wirag. Led by the GOC and attended by almost the whole of the 2 NZEF in Egypt, this service was broadcast to New Zealand.
Back in camp the following evening the troops, as a protest against inferior programmes, constant film breakages and high prices, wrecked the flimsy camp theatre. Despite vociferous protests from the owner—Shafto—and the official displeasure which this action incurred, the desired result was attained. Quickly rebuilt on better lines, the cinema thereafter put on improved programmes. A levy to pay for the damage which, it had been decreed, would be collected from every man in the Division was vetoed by the GOC.
A sudden order received during the month put the battalion on its toes: anti-aircraft and gas defence for Maadi Camp were to be hurriedly prepared. It was evident that Italy would soon declare openly for the Axis, and from her bases in North Africa Cairo was vulnerable to air attack. On the last day of the month General Wavell, the GOC-in-C page 26 Middle East Forces, visited the battalion to inspect its work. All now felt that at last things were moving.
The 1st May 1940 added to the excitement: suddenly the 19th was allotted an operational role and placed on twelve hours’ notice to move. Anti-aircraft LMG posts were hurriedly completed, the camp dispersed against air attack, and thereafter, on tenterhooks the whole time, the battalion awaited further exciting events.
The Division’s role as part of the Cairo internal security scheme was designed, in the event of war with Italy, to checkmate possible fifth column activities in the capital. It was also thought that in Libya Mussolini had a parachute unit as well as aircraft capable of lifting 2500 troops. The protection of Cairo became the responsibility of 4 NZ Brigade, which was required to prevent sabotage and to deal with airborne attack. Tasks were secretly assigned and quietly carried out. Ball ammunition was issued when, in turn with 18 and 20 Battalions, the 19th moved to Kasr-el-Nil Barracks as inlying picket.
On 10 May Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, while in England Winston Churchill succeeded Mr Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Three days later Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Italy, the blackout came into force, and practice air-raid warnings kept everyone constantly on the alert.
While the battalion stood by, waiting tense and uncomfortable in the hot khamsin, events in Europe were swiftly moving towards their climax. General Weygand hurriedly left the Middle East to take over from Gamelin the tottering armies of the French. Holland capitulated, Belgium followed, and as the Allies limped from one ‘prepared position’ to the next, the 19th too were put to work digging defensive posts. Red Mound in the Wadi Tih, outside Cairo, excavated, wired and sandbagged, became the New Zealand Division’s first prepared defensive position. In the early morning hours of the 25th, 26th and 27th, sudden orders to ‘stand to’ kept excitement at fever heat.
A new twist to training was an exercise in assault bridging, Headquarters Company establishing a battalion record by page 27 constructing one hundred feet of bridge, and sending fifty-six men across one of the irrigation canals in seven and a half minutes. This and a tactical exercise without troops for officers were signs that the situation was easing, and on 31 May, all indications of belligerence left behind, the battalion went to Helwan to prepare camp for the York and Lancaster Regiment.
The hot uneasy month of June was memorable for by the 5th the situation in the Middle East had again deteriorated. The unit moved into Cairo to Kasr-el-Nil Barracks, relieving 18 Battalion and sharing quarters with 2 Battalion Scots Guards. Trouble was expected in the weekend and, true to prediction, on the 10th Italy declared war on Great Britain and France. At 2 a.m. on the morning of the 11th the 19th ‘stood to’, while in the city the Cairo police rounded up Italian residents. The expected trouble, however, failed to materialise and on the 12th the battalion returned to Maadi. In Libya the Royal Air Force opened hostilities by bombing Italian aerodromes but Mussolini’s eagles kept clear of Cairo.
News of the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk was a welcome relief but the future presented no reassuring prospect. Hitler and his latest ally were already boasting of their future conquests and it was believed that the invasion of the Nile Valley by Axis forces was well up on the agenda. All ranks waited impatiently. Then came a sudden warning order on 17 June, and the following day, amid much rejoicing, the battalion moved to the Western Desert. Gone, no address.
|2 March v Divisional Cavalry||Won 8-nil|
|6 March v Divisional Headquarters||Won 18-3|
|9 March v 4 Field Regiment||Won 12-nil|
|13 March v 20 Battalion||Won 30-nil|
|16 March v Signals and Engineers||Won 26-nil|
|20 March v Army Service Corps||Won 9-3|
|27 March v 18 Battalion||Won 5-3|
|30 March v 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion||Won 11-nil|
7 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO* and bar, MC,* m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914-19 (Bty Comd and BM); CRA 2 NZ Div 1940-41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; escaped Mar 1943; died in Spain 20 Oct 1943.