20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 13 — Farewell to Maadi
Farewell to Maadi
Having said goodbye to the Wakatipu furlough draft and brought its tanks numerically almost up to strength, the regiment, with the rest of the Division, prepared to say farewell to Maadi, which for nearly four years had been its base and army ‘home’. From a few tents scattered over the undulating sandhills the ‘thirty-niners’ had seen this camp grow to a phenomenal size, with clay-brick, stone-walled huts extending northwards almost to the foot of the escarpment of the Mokattam Hills, southwards to the edge of Wadi Digla, on the east to the vicinity of Flat Hill in Wadi Tih, and westwards almost to Maadi township itself. To this continually expanding base they had periodically returned to rest and refit and to find diversion and relaxation in leave to Cairo, Alexandria, and Palestine.
Now the desert as a field of campaign was finished with, it was hoped, for ever. Future activities lay across the Mediterranean—but where? Would the Division camp again beneath the olive groves of Greece or travel once more those tortuous mountain roads? Would it make a landing in Crete perhaps, or in the south of France, or would ‘Monty’ want them again, this time in Italy?
While Captain Abbott's advance party erected tents at Burg el Arab the rest of the regiment busied itself with discarding surplus gear and building up ration boxes. The salvage heap that collected beyond the cricket pitch was a source of infinite amazement to the new arrivals at the Training Depot, who, clambering over this colossus in the hope of retrieving beds, tables, chairs and other accessories of a base-camp tent, never ceased to wonder at its continually increasing size and variety. After the departure of the main convoy on 20 September a rear party under Major Poole accomplished the arduous task of restoring the area to its original state of empty desert waste.
With the exception of B Squadron, which went on transporters with RHQ tanks, the Shermans and their crews went by rail, the rest of the regiment, to its great relief on learning page 305 that the infantry were marching all the way, moving by lorries. This was the tank drivers' first experience of loading on to transporters, and they did it, under Major Phillips's supervision, in the creditable time of seven minutes. (The infantry's 100- mile march took seven days.)
At Burg el Arab the regiment was concentrated east of the station, having as neighbours the Essex Regiment on the right and 4 Field Regiment on the left. In between the inevitable maintenance and occasional games of ‘put and take’ with ammunition, excursions to the beach six miles away relieved the monotony of life amongst the dust-storms and flies.
While in this area Padre Spence, who had served with the 20th through all its campaigns, conducted his last unit service before becoming Senior Chaplain to the Division. The Padre was in reminiscent mood and recalled services in Greece, Crete, and during the campaigns in North Africa. He welcomed his successor, Padre Dawson.1 At the conclusion of the service Lieutenant-Colonel McKergow paid a warm tribute to Padre Spence's work with the unit.
Training concluded with a divisional exercise in the desert to the south of the station to prepare units for movement in close country. All traffic was confined to ‘roads’ marked out by coloured lights and tail-lights only were permitted on vehicles. Clouds of dust reduced visibility almost to zero, placing a great strain on drivers and tank commanders. There were a few minor collisions, including one between B Squadron's jeep and a tank, but no one was injured. Wireless silence was an additional handicap. At the close of the exercise units heard a talk by the GOC, who discussed the manoeuvre and announced that the brigade would shortly proceed overseas, destination not stated.
A regimental exercise concluded the training, and shortly after returning to camp on 2 October Major Purcell,2 the regiment's second-in-command, and Staff-Sergeant Weenink prepared to leave as advance party for the unit.
On 5 October Colonel McKergow lectured the squadrons on page 306 the recent manoeuvres, using large maps and diagrams to illustrate his remarks. He explained how all communications within the Division and between echelons in each unit had been tested. The CO was noted for his dry humour on such occasions and his audience did not wait in vain. Describing his visit to 5 Brigade Headquarters during the ‘battle’, he said: ‘I found everyone in a state of confusion as all signals communication had been cut off. I was told to wait. When I asked what was wrong I was told, “Some b— in a Bren carrier has just pulled up all our wires.” So I maintained a discreet silence— and waited—in my Bren carrier.’
Next day crews began preparing their tanks for the voyage. Guns were greased and extra ammunition stored. All vehicles were marked with the unit's serial number, a special five-figure War Office serial number, destination letter, ship's code, and priority of discharge. Camouflage paint was freely used and all canopies removed to reduce the height of vehicles.
On 10 October the first vehicle party of seventeen scout cars under Captain Shacklock3 left for Suez via Mena, and two days later all personnel, less skeleton tank crews, moved to Ikingi Maryut. Here about a week was passed, with route marches in the mornings and swimming excursions to the beach in the afternoons. The Mobile Cinema and concert parties provided entertainment in the evenings, but undoubtedly the item with greatest appeal was provided one night by the Maoris as they squatted on the sand waiting for an ENSA show to begin.
The move was to be secret. All badges and titles were removed, bush-nets were distributed, and all ranks began taking atebrin tablets. In his best professional manner the RMO, Captain Dawson,4 gave lectures on the newly distributed anti-malaria equipment, warning the men of the terrible toll taken by the disease in Sicily. When told that each man would get an atebrin tablet at meal-time, Trooper Jones5 interjected, ‘Do we still get our two slices of bread for lunch as well?’
Tents were struck at 4 a.m. on 17 October and, split up with other units of the Division, the regiment embussed on ten-tonners and left for Alexandria, where, after several hours' wait page 307 on lighters, the troops finally embarked, some on the Letitia, others on the Llangibby Castle, and a third group on the Nieuw Holland. Members of the main party, which excluded the priority vehicles and the tanks, were required to carry all their gear. The sight of troops staggering up the steep gangway laden with packs containing all winter and summer clothing, haversacks, rifles, bedrolls, bivvy tents, bush-nets—all army issue equipment in fact—and last, but not least, a two-gallon water tin, full, brought many sailors to the rail, their expressions varying from amusement to wonder. The infantry were even worse off as they had to carry picks and shovels as well.
As soon as the men in the Letitia were settled the broad Scottish accents of the ship's captain were heard through the sound system. He complimented them on their patience, stating that in all his long experience of convoying troops this was the slowest embarkation he had had, with the exception of one dark night up in Iceland. The captain had carried New Zealand troops during the 1914–18 War and expressed a desire to hear the Maoris sing their own songs. Next day the regiment said goodbye to Egypt.
Throughout the voyage air cover was provided by planes based on Africa and on one ship the troops viewed with interest a demonstration of the anti-aircraft rocket guns. Surface protection was provided by destroyers and submarine chasers.
The voyage was uneventful but regular boat-drill took place and a strict blackout was enforced. In the early stages danger from enemy aircraft based on Crete was possible and one evening a chair floating in the sea gave food for thought. During the voyage the Division's destination was revealed and men listened to lectures on Italy over the ship's loudspeaker system. Most ships were ‘dry’ but life on board was far from dull. Apart from the inevitable physical training, tug-of-war contests were arranged, and in the Letitia the Maoris, led by their padre, gave two concerts on one of the forward hatches, winning immediate appreciation from troops and crew and special thanks from the captain. A series of quiz sessions, arranged by the ship's OC Troops, aroused considerable interest, and on the final night amusement was provided by the attempts of the various teams to complete poetry quotations.
Canteens and barber shops did a great trade with Kiwis building up tobacco stocks and toilet accessories. ‘Housie’ and good old ‘Crown and Anchor’ held the floor in the canteen lounges night after night and the Maoris were a great source of great amusement everywhere aboard ship…. They joined in with gusto at some excellent sing-songs…. [at which] a Tahitian soldier of the Div. gave some splendid hula-hula exhibitions…. Boxing bouts were organised after a ring had been erected alongside the … orderly room and Troopers L. Falconer7 and Alf Pedder8 of C Sqn put up a good show and mixed things well. In the afternoon [19 October] some of the Regiment's most highly endowed and highly trained ‘chefs’ including the famous Middle Eastern stew expert, Corporal Bill Brass9 of C Sqn, hard-working Squadron Quartermaster-Sergeant Bob Newlands,10 and Trooper Jack Krause11 were conducted on a tour of inspection of the ship's cookhouses. There was also a conducted tour of the ship's engine rooms arranged for the troops.
The convoy's route lay along the North African coast, skirting the Gulf of Sirte, and at 6 a.m. on 22 October the Sicilian port of Syracuse was observed at the foot of coastal cliffs. The same day the transports steamed north off Sicily and entered the port of Taranto. Men crowded the decks for their first glimpse of an Italian town and to bargain with the vendors of grapes, nuts, and wine who had rowed out to meet the convoy The medieval fort at the water's edge was an impressive landmark and ships of the surrendered Italian navy were eagerly scanned.
Lance-Corporal Milner continues:
The disembarkation … that afternoon provided another comedy. The Maoris caused more amusement by tobogganing down gangplanks like a patrol of the camel corps packed high in the hump for a long campaign. Whooping with joy, grinning dark faces appeared and popped out like turtle heads underneath a sea page 309 of gear. Every second Maori clutched a ukelele or a fragile guitar in one hand…. During the inevitable delay after disembarking a gang of naval ‘experts’ headed by Second-Lieutenant Jack Dawkins12 and Squadron Sergeant-Major Keith Given … inspected three Itie midget submarines and also a large sub carrying a 100-mm gun. The gunlayer aboard the latter was very eager to demonstrate his facility at stripping and loading, but was restrained from placing both projectile and full charge up the greasy underwater spout. However, he finally compromised by firing off several detonators stuck in empty cases.
Packs, bedrolls, and water tins were dumped on the wharf to be picked up by transport, and the regiment marched through the town to the bivouac area about ten miles away. Taranto had obviously received considerable attention from the RAF, and the ruined buildings and rubble-strewn streets forced the troops to march in single file until the town was left behind.
Here the road wound between low stone walls and leafy olive groves. At the first halt the CO ordered the men to fall in by troops and the old infantry march discipline was resumed. From time to time the column passed through infantry units resting by the way, and the gibes at the ‘dehorsed’ tank crews gave way to remarks more complimentary as it became apparent that the steady step set by the Colonel was having the desired effect. In the early evening the regiment arrived at the bivouac area near Galese and the men pitched their tents beneath spreading olive trees that brought back memories of Greece.
Training took the form of route marches, the afternoons being free. The country was mainly rocky hillsides covered with coarse bracken and prickly scrub. Stone buildings, dotted at intervals over the landscape, housed the inhabitants, whose work consisted chiefly in tending the numerous olive trees and struggling orchards of fruit and almonds and herding a few miserable sheep.
At the road entrance to the bivouac area Italian merchants appeared daily and many a man began the morning with a bunch of delicious grapes. Gradually the language problem was solved and Buon giorno replaced Saaeda as a greeting. The supplies of grapes, nuts, and almonds were fairly adequate but the ‘vino’ scarcely came up to standard. Not far up the road, however, was a wine factory in a castle owned by an Italian page 310 ex-admiral of the First World War. With characteristic wisdom Colonel McKergow decided that the men would be better to celebrate their arrival in Italy within the bounds of the camp. A vino parade was called in the afternoon. Carrying two-gallon water tins and under command of an officer, representatives of each troop marched to the wine factory, drew their quota from the fourteen-feet-high oaken vats and returned jubilantly, if less steadily. Dusk fell, and round the brazier fires in the olive groves the camp rocked to the sound of roistering far into the night. The red wine flowed freely, pine logs crackled cheerfully, and happy voices lifted in unison in the old, old way of soldiers between campaigns.
On Sunday, 24 October, church parade was held in a sylvan setting, with diminutive Padre Dawson perched on one of the many old stone walls in the area. His sermon was appropriately based on the text, ‘Consider the moat in thine own eye’. He exhorted the officers and men of the regiment not to consider themselves as New Zealanders to be superior to everyone else, but to be tolerant and understanding in their attitude to the Italian population.
Roman Catholics attended Mass in a stone quarry in the brigade area. Father Fletcher13 preached on the theme of life and death. Some Italian civilians stood respectfully on the outer circle of soldiers with bared heads. This was the first of many occasions throughout the Italian campaign when civilians attended a unit church service. Old men, women, and wide-eyed children knelt reverently in inches-deep mud or on the rain-soaked straw of sodden haystacks. After Mass on this occasion a small party of troops attended a village service.
The absence of transport did not hinder the troops from enjoying a measure of leave. Many caught trucks part of the way to Taranto, while others hitch-hiked to Martina Franca and Crispiano or covered the distance on foot. On the way to the former town the troops were amused at the sight of the beehive-roofed houses peculiar to this area. The lack of transport at this time, however, was a serious problem for the Quartermaster and his staff. The bread, for instance, had to be carried from Brigade in blankets. The climax came when three men, detailed to collect a new ‘three-holer’, returned triumphantly page 311 with it on their shoulders and with their heads through the holes.
While at Galese the regiment experienced the first of many thunderstorms. Vivid flashes of lightning lit up the olive groves and deafening peals of thunder rolled and echoed across the storm-tossed clouds. Rain fell in torrents and next morning the camp presented a bedraggled scene. Many tents had been flooded, blankets and gear soaked, and drenched, woebegone figures stumbled about the waterlogged camp from 4 a.m. till daylight. Supplies of equipment were too scarce to provide changes and a few homeless wanderers sought refuge in caves, where wood fires in time dried out their blankets.
The evenings were short—dusk fell soon after 7 p.m.—but several concerts were held in the adjoining quarry. One of the most popular performers was an Italian boy about twelve years old with a clear soprano voice of delightful quality.
At this camp the old hands received a pleasant surprise when they were visited by several members of the battalion who had escaped from prisoner-of-war camps in Italy after the Italian armistice. The news soon spread through the camp and in no time an ever-growing group of men had collected at the most natural spot for such a reunion, George Weenink's cookhouse. In the centre was the well-known figure of Bob May, former Company Sergeant-Major of C Company, erect and grim as ever, but, as was to be expected, a little thinner and showing the strain of his recent adventures and the privations endured in passing through the enemy's lines. With him was ‘Aussie’ Austin,14 who there and then wanted to raise a band of volunteers to slip back through enemy-held territory and blow up bridges behind his lines. His listeners agreed that it was a good idea but that their lack of knowledge of the language, customs, and topography of the country rather weighted the scales against their taking part in this scheme. Next day in came Paddy Welsh, the lone wolf, imperturbable as ever, looking exceptionally well and, like his fellow escapees, smiling quietly at the prospect of indefinite leave in Cairo and the untouched pay of fifteen months.
After about a fortnight in the Galese area the regiment moved by two stages to the vicinity of San Bartolommeo in Galdo, dispersing in squadron areas in what was known as Trotta Farm. page 312 All vehicles and tents were camouflaged, a measure that was facilitated by the presence of numerous oak trees and scrub. ‘Gerry’ Skinner,15 ex-signals platoon and prisoner of war in Libya, spent a week with the unit after escaping from a prison camp. Regimental Headquarters was opened in a farmhouse. Later, a large L-shaped building, formerly stables and an implement shed, was cleaned out, whitewashed, and used as a men's canteen. A fireplace was rebuilt, radio installed, makeshift seating and tables erected, a YMCA branch opened, controlled vino sales inaugurated, and the large room served a useful purpose as a centre where troops could collect and fraternise as had been their custom in the canteens and Naafis of Egypt. A bivvy tent shared by two men and their gear did not permit much movement on a wet night, and already the weather was showing signs that winter was approaching.
Rations were supplemented by individual purchases of turkeys, prices ranging from five shillings upwards. Sheep, pigs, and poultry were also ‘acquired’. Several orderly-room inquiries were held as a result of complaints from some of the new civilian allies, but language difficulties prolonged proceedings. On 13 November an identification parade was held of suspected livestock ‘rustlers’ but owing to the number of moustaches among the suspects the Italian farmer was baffled.
As usual, sports were soon under way. A working party cleared and marked out a football ground in a stubble field, where later squadron games were played. The ground was sticky and considerable amusement was caused as more and more mud and straw stuck to the boots of the players. At times the ball could scarcely be distinguished from the huge clods that flew through the air off the kicker's boot.
No troops had been expected in the Newburgh and makeshift accommodation for some was found in the hold; others slept up on deck, experiencing a most unpleasant time when it rained. The cook in the party worked on deck under difficulties, building sandbags round the blower to keep off the wind. Rations were confined to biscuits, bully, etc., and no bread was supplied during the voyage of approximately a fortnight.
On arrival at Bari the cars were unloaded, refuelled at the stadium, and parked on the roadside five miles farther on for two days until the unloading at the port was completed. From there the convoy moved to Trotta by way of Foggia, in every town and village passing through curious crowds whose cries for ‘cigarettas’ and ‘biscottas’, ‘chocolata’ and ‘caramella’, were to echo and re-echo in the ears of New Zealand troops for the ensuing months.
The rear party was composed of the tanks, the Light Aid Detachment, some three-tonners and several transporters. The tanks went by train to Alexandria, where they were transhipped without incident, although a tank from another regiment sheared the ropes and caused a sensation by dropping back on to the wharf. The tanks were stored in the bottom hold, crews being allowed access to them from time to time.
The convoy lay off Sicily for three days. With typical Kiwi initiative several of the troops swam ashore, towing their clothes on a lifebelt. Another ingenious trooper made the trip in a folding boat. Shortly after leaving Sicily the convoy experienced a rough sea with a strong swell. Prodigious bumps below page 314 deck revealed that the Egyptian labourers had not lashed the tanks securely. One broke loose and battered first against the side of the ship and next against an ASC truck, fortunately without damage to the former.
After a few days at sea one ship near the front of the convoy struck a mine amidships. The shock of the explosion wrenched her plates and pumps were used to cope with the water, necessitating severe restrictions in the ship's water supply. The only casualties were a member of the crew, who sustained a head injury, and a member of A Squadron who sprained an ankle when rushing below to get his lifebelt. One of the escort was quickly on the scene, and the ship, cramming on all possible speed, left the convoy and, with its escort, made for the nearest port. Permission to berth was refused lest the ship should sink and obstruct port operations. After an inspection by a diver the vessel was allowed to proceed to Bari. Here it lay off the port for several days until the tanks were off-loaded on to lighters and driven ashore.
The tanks were driven round to Bari stadium, where they were loaded on transporters to rejoin the regiment. After Foggia the route presented some difficulty and several vehicles became separated from the convoy; a few tanks fell off the transporters but all ultimately arrived at Trotta Farm. With the arrival of its tanks and vehicles it was obvious that the regiment would soon be on the move once again.
By the beginning of November the Eighth Army under General Montgomery had reached the area of the Sangro River, north of which the Germans had established a strong winter line across the Italian peninsula. Facing this line on the Adriatic flank was 5 Corps, on the right, with 78 British Division moving up the coast and 8 Indian Division next to it. In the hills farther inland was 13 Corps, with 1 Canadian Division on its right and 5 British Division linking up with the Fifth Army.
With German resistance stiffening and cold, wet weather setting in, Montgomery decided that he needed more troops forward to press the Army's advance towards Pescara, Avezzano, and thence to Rome. His plan for breaking the Sangro line was for 5 Corps to make a narrow bridgehead over the river near the coast and spread outwards from there. The New page 315 Zealand Division was ordered up to a concentration area between Furci and Gissi, ready to relieve 8 Indian Division west and north-west of Atessa and thus allow 5 Corps to concentrate near the coast. The New Zealanders were to come in between 5 and 13 Corps, under Eighth Army command, to increase the weight of the attack by a threat along a road running north from Atessa to the Sangro
To conceal the relief complete wireless silence within the Division was to continue, 4 Brigade's tanks were to be thoroughly camouflaged in the forward areas and, where possible, units were to move up by night.
On 14 November the Division assumed command of the sector of the line formerly held by 8 Indian Division but still manned, for security reasons, by 19 Indian Brigade, in whose support the Divisional Artillery fired the first New Zealand shots in Italy. On the same day Colonel McKergow and the regiment's advance party left Trotta Farm for Furci.
As far as 20 Regiment was concerned, the first shots in Italy had been fired three weeks earlier by Maoris in the olive grove camp at Galese, when bursts of tracer from Bren guns mounted on a stone wall guided their officers home from leave in Taranto, and incidentally kept most heads well down in the regiment's reconnaissance troop.
At 8.45 a.m. on 16 November the regiment's vehicles under Captain Bay17 left for Furci, followed by the tanks under Major Purcell. The move was uneventful, although two tanks which went over banks had to be hauled out by others in the convoy. Regimental Headquarters was in position just north of Furci by 1.30 a.m. on the 17th and the tanks arrived in groups throughout the day. After a short three-days' halt wheels and tracks were turning once more. At 4.25 p.m. on 20 November forty-six tanks, followed by supply vehicles of A and B1 Echelons, left Furci for Gissi and Atessa. Rain had fallen every day and the tanks lined up nose to tail on the road in the unit area for fear of being bogged. The fifth vehicle flight had not arrived from Egypt and the regiment, although seventeen vehicles page 316 short, was carrying eight days' rations and POL18 for 200 miles. Some tanks had difficulty in leaving the area, but the road surface to Gissi was fairly good and the column arrived at 5.30 p.m. Next day, on the journey from Gissi to Quercianera, three miles north of Atessa, wheeled vehicles preceded the tanks in case the latter made road deviations impassable.
Leaving Gissi at 8.30 a.m., the regiment moved down a tortuous road with very sharp corners, crossed the valley, and thundered uphill to reach Casalanguida at 1 p.m. Every few miles demolitions slowed up the traffic and streams of refugees added to the congestion on the roads. Bailey bridges became as familiar a sight as the British ‘red-caps’ who so ably controlled the traffic. At one place in the gorge between Gissi and Casalanguida a winch had to be used to help lorries to climb out of a depression.
Traffic through Casalanguida was one-way only, so tank crews had lunch while waiting their turn. To the old hands the sight of long lanes of traffic jammed nose to tail on narrow roads recalled the merciless strafings of Greece and the desert campaigns, but not a single Stuka appeared.
By 3 p.m. the leading vehicles had reached their destination. All forty-six tanks finally arrived but four required attention. The tank state showed that forty-two of the regiment's quota of fifty-two Shermans were fit for action, two were under unit repair, two in the LAD, and six in 4 Brigade workshops, a position which, considering the terrain and the weather, reflected great credit on the unit's drivers.
It was at Atessa that one of the best-known members of the regiment, and formerly of the battalion, came to an untimely end. ‘Tiger’, the cat mascot of the former transport platoon, and particularly of Corporal Hamilton,19 was run over in the street after one of those unusual journeys that only ‘Hammy’ could make—and get away with. Fed-up with unaccustomed duties and fatigues while waiting in the Armoured Training Depot at Maadi for the Wakatipu furlough draft to leave for New Zealand, Corporal Hamilton had tagged on to the vehicle flight without even so much as a leave pass and had bluffed page 317 his way to Italy, taking ‘Tiger’ with him. Rejoining the 20th, he was welcomed by his mates of the First Echelon and the old transport platoon and made the journey north with their assistance and with the kind co-operation of the Quartermaster. The petty restrictions of a base camp had been unbearable to the Corporal's restless spirit. Back behind the wheel of a truck he was happy, and to one who had driven his lorry from Servia Pass to Porto Rafti, Maadi to Zaafran, Baggush to Kabrit, El Aine to Matruh, Minqar Qaim to Alamein, Helwan to Suez, the winding mountain roads of Italy presented no problems.
‘Tiger's’ origin goes back to the desert. His mother, ‘Mrs Rommel’, was caught during the 1941 Libyan campaign and was cared for by C Company. After the battalion returned to Baggush she produced two kittens, selecting for their maternity couch the bed of Lieutenant Charlie Upham, VC. When he came into his tent and saw what had taken place, Charlie, with true courtesy and consideration for a lady in distress, slept that night on the sand.
Of the two kittens one, christened ‘Tankie’, was acquired by Tom O'Connor20 of the quartering staff. Most army cats are pretty hardy as regards diet but a few meals of bully beef made ‘Tankie’ very unwell. However, he lived to accompany the battalion to Syria. While riding in the cab of the Quartermaster's truck one day he made it plain that he thought it high time for a wayside stop. This was not possible in convoy and ‘Tankie’ became desperate. Finally, escaping from the cab, he scampered over the top of the engine (the bonnet covers being open) and, miraculously avoiding injury from the whirling fan blades, gained his urgently desired temporary freedom. ‘Tankie’ was finally lost in June 1942 when the battalion came through the minefield after leaving Mersa Matruh.
‘Tiger’ enjoyed a lordly life under the protection of the transport platoon. He had a special bed and a handsome collar bearing an Egyptian coin on which his name and unit were inscribed. After being smuggled across the Mediterranean it was bad luck that he should become one of the first casualties in Italy. After the death of his pet ‘Hammy’ seemed to lose interest in Italy and returned to Egypt in much the same manner as he had left.page 318
‘Wallad’, a handsome cat with beautiful markings, was the property of George McAllister21 and a native of Syria. ‘Wallad’ was a dandy and incurably lazy, disdaining to hunt. It is on record that on 12 October 1942, with the help and encouragement of a noisy mob of troopers, he caught his first mouse. At moments during the chase ‘Wallad’ was markedly reluctant to come to grips with his prey, and as soon as the exhausted victim was within his paws he promptly went to sleep.
Perhaps the mascot best known to both battalion and regiment was a little whiskered tan-and-white dog that crept in beside Bill Douglas22 of the anti-tank platoon in his slit trench during an air raid in the Western Desert early in July 1942. He was probably an Italian dog, but any problems of his previous ownership were solved by giving him the name of ‘Axis’.
It was amazing how quickly he could detect approaching planes and his pitiful whining frequently gave timely warning of an air raid. His distress ended only when Bill took him into his arms and they sheltered in the slit trench together. From then on he was No. 7 passenger on the portée. Returning with survivors of the battalion to Maadi, ‘Axis’ became a general favourite. He had been through action with his adopted unit and a collar with a New Zealand badge was soon procured.
He was a perky little chap but absolutely a one-man dog. People who fussed over him were completely ignored, and if they persisted with their attentions received a hostile reply. Battalion parades always interested him, especially the drill and the beginning of the march past, when he would scamper out in front, barking doggy orders enthusiastically. However, although he was a registered mascot and appeared on the leave lists his privileges did not extend so far, and after one or two ‘reviews’ of the battalion he was tied up during morning parades. Had he attended alone no doubt all would have been well, but the presence of others of his kind, particularly of the opposite sex, led to ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’.
Rifle shooting at the Egyptian range in Wadi Tih made him very excited. Dashing out in front of the mound, he held up the practice until he was called in and tied up in the rear. page 319 When Bill became the Padre's driver, however, ‘Axis’ followed Ron Jones23 and Jack Anderson, his other tent mates, with whom he made the voyage to Italy in the first vehicle flight as described earlier. Perched on top of a scout car, taking in the world at a glance, he had that superior, old-soldier look that seemed to say, ‘Leave me alone. I know what I'm doing’, and most people generally did.
During the Sangro campaign ‘Axis’ again became excitable at the sound of firing and had to be left with ‘Snow’ Secord24 and Len Small25 on the armourers' truck. Although no doubt intelligent, he never demonstrated his ability in the usual type of dog tricks. He was an individualist, mostly just pleasing himself, and his sole feat consisted of climbing up and down the short ladder at the back of the truck, a trick learned purely of necessity and performed only as often as he had to, and usually without mishap, although a missing rung one morning nearly trapped him.
He was usually remarkably unemotional, but in Egypt flapping galabiehs excited a fury that was amazing (and amusing) in such a small dog. Generally speaking, Italians were received with equal hostility. Even friends of his masters were dismissed with a sniff of indifference. In diet his likes and dislikes were few, but at the sound of a primus in the truck at night he was immediately alert. Oyster patties were irresistible.
While waiting near Atessa the regiment heard with envy that the New Zealand armour had been in action. On 18 November tanks from 19 Regiment had combined with Punjab infantry of 19 Indian Brigade in a successful attack on Perano. Sixth Brigade then moved forward to share the line with the Indian brigade, and on the 23rd 18 Regiment in its turn assisted the Indians by defensive fire on Altino. Next day 5 Brigade went into the line on the right of 6 Brigade. Gradually units of th Division were taking up position along the Sangro for the attack, and it was some satisfaction to the 20th to be with them again after an absence of nearly sixteen months.page 320
During the night of 27–28 November New Zealand infantry, using ropes fixed to posts on either bank, waded and hauled themselves through the bitterly cold waters of the Sangro, which in places was up to their armpits. Engineers built two bridges under fire, and armour as well as supporting arms crossed under difficulties. Nineteenth Regiment had eleven tanks bogged in the ploughlands north of the river, and finally the bulldozer that was towing them out became bogged itself.
On the 29th 18 Regiment's tanks moved to an area handier to the river and on 30 November the 20th did likewise. The 18th crossed successfully on TIKI bridge and linked up with 22 Battalion to take part in a diversionary attack along Route 84 westwards towards San Eusanio while 6 Brigade attacked Castelfrentano.
On 3 December the 20th squadrons successfully crossed the river with A and B1 Echelons and took up laager positions in reserve in the foothills. The ground was mined and in C Squadron's area two men from adjoining units, one of them an ex-20th man, were killed. Two days later the tanks moved through San Eusanio and took up positions north of the lower of the two lateral roads running to the west towards Guardiagrele. C Squadron went ahead to the north of the lateral road to Salarola. The recent rains had made the hill slopes very soft and tanks frequently struck trouble when they left the narrow roads. Tracks were shed if tanks were parked across the slope of the land and tired crews worked late into the night to effect repairs. There were few houses in this area and men usually stretched a tarpaulin as an awning, placed bedrolls on the freezing mud, and tried to catch what sleep they could. The lucky ones obtained straw from nearby stacks, but even the worst off probably had better conditions than the infantry in the line.
On the eve of their first campaign as an armoured unit the men of the 20th were a useful blend of youth and experience. Their CO, Lieutenant-Colonel McKergow, had with him as second-in-command Major Purcell, ex-27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, who had seen German tanks in Greece, had taken part in the battle for Crete, and had later commanded a squadron of page 322 the Army Tank Brigade formed in New Zealand. Leading C Squadron was Major Barton, well-known for ‘the punctilious performance of his less spectacular duties’, as Peniakoff said of one of his staff in ‘Popski's Private Army’. ‘Pat’, as he was affectionately called in the 20th, never left anything to chance, and his thoroughness, high sense of duty and consideration for others inspired a high standard of loyalty in his squadron. B Squadron was under Major Poole, an original member of the 20th who had been wounded in Greece and had afterwards been an instructor in the Middle East Training School in Palestine. A Squadron's OC was at first Major Guy Baker, who had been wounded in Libya, but just before the first action Major John Phillips, formerly the Bren-carrier platoon's officer and twice wounded in the desert, replaced him.
The troop commanders included links with the old 20th in Captains Abbott, Johnston, Rolleston, Moodie and Shand, Lieutenants Carson, Murray, Shirley, Bradley and Walton, while newly-joined subalterns like Lieutenants Martin Donnelly, Jack Hazlett and George Hart, all famous New Zealand sportsmen, were soon to prove their worth.
Leading the NCOs was the one and only ‘Uke’ Wilson, while every squadron included a few ‘thirty-niners’ or 4th Reinforcements soldiering on and making no fuss about it, links with another and an older 20th, with ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago’. To their battle experience was added the enthusiasm of the younger reinforcements, some with two years' training in armour in New Zealand, many with considerable driving and mechanical skill and keen to make good.
The whole aim of a soldier's training is to defeat the enemy in the field. His instructors can estimate his proficiency in arms and manoeuvres but the most important factor, his reactions in the presence of the enemy, they can never forecast. Every campaign brings its surprises and that just beginning in Italy was to be a stern test for all ranks.
2 Lt-Col H. A. Purcell, DSO, m.i.d.; Singapore; born Dunedin, 18 Jan 1915; seed salesman; CO 20 Regt 22 Dec 1943–27 Jan 1944, 29 May-19 Dec 1944, 9 Jan-17 Mar 1945; wounded 19 Dec 1944; now Regular Force.
7 2 Lt J. L. Falconer; Patearoa, Otago Central; born Dunedin, 10 Aug 1921; shepherd; wounded 30 Mar 1944.
18 Petrol, oil and lubricant.