19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 6 — Helwan
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures:
—Shakespeare (King Richard III)
Helwan, with its standing buildings and large comfortable tents, compared more than favourably with the Maadi Camp the battalion had left seven months previously. The weather was clement and it was a relief to be free from the depressing dust-storms which had plagued the troops during the last two months at Baggush. Settling in, refitting, and reorganising among civilised surroundings once more was a pleasant experience. The battalion’s personal appearance, however, was a problem. The unit was sorely ragged, and one of the first items in routine orders read: ‘The wearing of Italian items of uniform will cease forthwith.’ Lack of replacements and the cold weather had caused the men’s uniform to degenerate into the comic opera variety.
When, on 17 January the first issue of battle dress was received, Ali Dit, the tailor, and others of his ilk began to reap a mighty harvest, for the new uniform was the official walking-out dress and leave to Cairo was sweet. Speed was the main consideration, therefore the normal quartermaster channels were bypassed and officers and privates alike flocked to the native tailors. All ranks had the piastres to pay for their alterations, and though later events proved this to be an ill-starred investment, it was a treat to feel smart once more.
Leave allocations were ample and paybook accumulations permitted lavish spending. In a welter of hot baths, clean clothes, good food and entertainment, drab days in the desert were soon forgotten. The pleasant spots of Cairo were like a taste of Heaven, and the bars and cabarets saw many reunions when First Echelon men met for the first time page 52 members of the Third Echelon. Reunion dinners became the order of the day and in the city hotels the Stella flowed freely when ex-members of schools; lodges, clubs and business concerns got together. Every issue of routine orders carried notices arranging for such functions. The New Zealand Club in Cairo, opening on 5 February, immediately became a popular rendezvous for all ranks.
Naafi parties were a noisy nightly feature in unit lines and the tropic nights echoed to new tunes and songs. ‘Oh Farida’ and ‘Saeeda Bint’ replaced ‘Samuel Hall’ and ‘The Woodpecker’ as topical favourites in the repertoire of ditties for convivial occasions. Thickly strewn with soldier Arabic, ironical and unflattering to the land, the people and the local potentate, these songs were evidence of the contemptuous feeling which Egypt’s part in the war engendered among those who kept her frontiers.
Golfing one Sunday on the grass course at Gezira Club, a party of four from the battalion, fumbling their unpractised way round, sat down to let a lone player through. Dressed in civvies, General Wavell was not recognised until he came abreast, then springing up in response to his ‘Good afternoon’, they watched him play a strong, true, iron shot. This stocky, tanned, competent man, whose forces were grossly outnumbered, whose equipment and supplies were dangerously thin, against an enemy who had the advantage of years of defensive preparation, had dared to attack. His successful offensive had given point to our strategy, heart to our own armies, and prestige to our people at a time when all these were most sorely needed. There were hard years ahead yet, but the 1940 campaign in North Africa was the first step towards final victory. As he strode rapidly round the course, those who were watching felt proud to have played a small part in Wavell’s Army of the Nile.
Work during the early stages at Helwan was novel and not very strenuous. Bridging exercises, classification shooting—for which companies moved to Maadi for a week at a time—combating dive-bombing, street fighting, and a not too vicious version of battle inoculation made a varied and interesting programme.page 53
The inter-unit football tourney was reinstituted and the 19th opened the season with a win against 20 Battalion. The Freyberg Cup, however, passed to 32 Battalion, for in the semi-finals the 19th were decisively beaten. A regatta on the Nile, and a boxing tournament in which Private McLaughlin1 won the divisional bantamweight title, were the sporting highlights of our sojourn at Helwan.
As February progressed it became apparent that a more purposeful programme was being planned. Gradually the pressure was put on and work increased. Night training played a large part. On the 10th senior NCOs began a solid course, while bayonet training and route marches were the daily dose for all troops. On 18 February the unit welcomed two sergeants and sixty-four other ranks from 22 Battalion. This group comprised the advance party and anti-aircraft personnel of our brother battalion in the Second Echelon. Their arrival heralded the day when the New Zealand Division would be united for the first time and would function as a full formation.
After much preparation, careful checking, and some borrowing from 18 Battalion, the 19th staged an impressive demonstration of an infantry battalion (higher establishment) at full war strength in men, weapons, vehicles and equipment. Spread over an acre or so of desert, with each individual and each truck correctly loaded down to the last official items in the G1098 table, it stood for hours in the sun and was inspected by officers from 5 and 6 Brigades and cadets from OCTU. For the first time the unit was able to see itself as in a full-length mirror. The reflection was gratifying; it looked, and felt, fit to play its full part in any future operation. On the 28th 200 reinforcements were posted to the battalion and the rolls once more showed the unit at full strength: it comprised 32 officers, plus Medical Officer and Chaplain attached, 741 other ranks, with 7 officers and 44 other ranks as first reinforcements. Halcyon days at Helwan were drawing to a close; the unit was now ready for the fray. There was not long to wait. Day and night crossings of the Nile in rubber boats and collapsible page 54 pontoons were portents of a changing role. The Division was soon to leave the arid land of Egypt.
Commands and appointments in the battalion had undergone some changes, but most of the original officers were still serving. Wellington Company was now commanded by Captain Clive Pleasants2 Major Alan Ross3 having been transferred to the divisional staff early in 1940. Captain Geoff Bedding held the appointment of OC Hawke’s Bay Company and Captain Charles Webster now took over Taranaki Company from Captain Errol Williams, who left the unit for a time to become chief New Zealand instructor at the Middle East OCTU. Major Syd Hartnell4 now commanded 32 Battalion at Maadi, and RSM Jeff Parker5 took over from WO I Jim Malcolm who also now held a Maadi appointment.
February was drawing to a close and the last days were hectic as the unit packed up. Speculation regarding destination was rife: the Balkans were a hot favourite but lost ground when orders were suddenly issued for the withdrawal of battle dress, and brand-new tropical topees were handed out. When all the suits of carefully tailored battle dress were gathered in chaotic bulk into the quartermaster’s store, fresh orders were received. Battle dress was to be re-issued! There was not time to sort out individual garments and this was a real grievance. The comments were caustic.
Cunningly contrived comforts and prized personal possessions were relegated to base kits; not one ounce of impedimenta above the regulation could be retained. Tents were struck and packed and then the unexpected happened— page 55 rain fell. For the next two nights all ranks lived, ate, and slept crowded together in messes and stores.
At 7 a.m. on 3 March, awkwardly, each man laden with gear, the unit piled into trucks and moved out, fully equipped for war. Past the huge compound where some thousands of Mussolini’s African ‘heroes’ were now housed, across the Nile and on to the Cairo-Alexandria road the long column wound. On the same day 5 Brigade Group arrived in Egypt from England.
Arrival at No. 11 camp, Amiriya, dashed any hopes for quarters close to the Alexandrian resorts which had gained such popularity among the men lucky enough to have had leave from the desert in 1940. On the edge of the Western Desert, clouded by depressing dust, this bleak, bare place possessed few facilities for the comfort of troops awaiting embarkation. Shelter was inadequate and waiting time was spent in the acme of discomfort. Half-hearted attempts to keep the men busy and to fill in the time by some form of useful training were foiled by the natural wretchedness of the place. The weather, too, joined forces with the desert to make the stay as unpleasant as possible. Each embarking draft was farewelled enviously by those unfortunates remaining, and long before the last Australian and New Zealand troops had been shipped away, Amiriya had been appropriately christened. An insalubrious spot, its inelegant sobriquet cannot be set down here.
Naturally enough the battalion, in common with the rest of the force at this time, suffered a severe outbreak of AWL (absence without leave). Steps taken to suppress this were rendered ineffective by conditions. Paybook entries in red ink are a poor prophylactic against boredom, and the prevailing philosophy, ‘We’re here today, but tomorrow who knows?’ made a debit balance seem of little importance. A night in Alex was worth it all.
Alexandria harbour was crammed with craft for the transport of Lustre Force, as this organisation was known, to Greece. All types of ships from spick and span pleasure cruisers to decrepit Levantine tramps were pressed into service. Overhead the RAF buzzed busily about. On the page 56 blue Mediterranean the Royal Navy glided silently and efficiently about its business. Embarkation was imminent.
Behind the bustle and excitement lay weeks of planning. Greece had accepted an offer of assistance made by Great Britain, who was watching with some anxiety the concentration of German forces in Bulgaria. The first Libyan campaign had just been successfully concluded and, temporarily at any rate, Egypt seemed safe from invasion from that quarter. Wavell now regrouped his army to meet a new commitment. The Australian and New Zealand Governments had been consulted and had consented to their troops being used in Greece. The New Zealand Division, which now could be employed as a complete formation, was to be included in the force, which comprised 1 Armoured Brigade, 6 Australian Division, the New Zealand Division, and 7 Australian Division (the last formation being recalled to deal with Rommel’s April thrust in the Western Desert before it had embarked).
2 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn Jul-Oct 1942; 18 Armd Regt Oct 1942-Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde 1–22 Aug 1944, Nov 1944-Feb 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1949–53; Commandant, Northern Military District, 1953-.