20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 3 — Training in Egypt
Training in Egypt
The first day in Maadi was spent, naturally, in settling in. Tents erected by the King's Royal Rifles were located, gear dumped, and a meal eaten. During the afternoon the men took stock of their surroundings. As far as the eye could see stretched limitless, sandy wastes. To the north frowned the Mokattam Hills; to the south rose terrace-like stony ridges surmounted by the circular stone structure of Napoleon's fort; to the east ran rolling sandhills; while in the west, beyond the silver ribbon of the Nile, the pyramids of Giza stood out against the distant haze. The green trees of Maadi below the masts of the Marconi wireless station indicated the nearest township, while the tall, slender minarets of the Citadel, half-hidden by the shoulder of the hills, turned all minds to Cairo—and leave.
Training began the next day with the following routine:
|Sick parade||0615 hours|
|Battalion parade||0900 hours|
|Morning parades||0900–1200 hours|
|Afternoon parades||1315–1600 hours|
|Sergeants' mess||1800 hours|
|Officers' mess||1830 hours|
|First Post||2200 hours|
|Last Post||2215 hours|
On 15 February some of the battalion's drivers went to Abbassia to collect transport and experienced for the first time the European practice of keeping to the right of the road and the art of dodging donkey carts, tram-cars, watermelon barrows, and cartloads of Egyptian women (‘bint carts’) along what was to be known thereafter as ‘The Mad Mile’.
During the month individual training was supplemented by courses in all infantry weapons—Bren, mortar, and anti-tank rifle. Many of these were new to the men and were issued only in training quantities. Companies also commenced shooting on the Egyptian range, and there was ample space in the desert behind the camp for platoon and company training.page 19
For the first few weeks the troops were on the British Army ration scale which, not then being supplemented by parcels from home, they found rather light. General Freyberg, always anxious about the welfare of his troops, was made aware of the men's views on their rations during a visit to Abbassia, where C Company was doing its field firing practice. Coming up behind the party on the mound he asked the sergeant in charge, ‘How are the men shooting?’ The sergeant was the forcefully spoken Jack Hinton,1 later to win the VC at Kalamata. ‘How would you expect them to bloody well shoot,’ he replied briskly, without stopping to think, ‘—not enough bloody rations, stinking heat and sand.’
‘Repeat that,’ said the General.
Hinton repeated it.
‘What's your name, sergeant?’
‘Oh yes, Hinton,’ replied the General. ‘Carry on.’
The General then had a few words with the company commander, who in turn had a few words with his sergeant on how to speak to generals; but some time later it was announced that a grant of Id. per man per day to buy extra rations had been approved.
On 24 February the battalion marched to I8 Battalion's parade ground for an inspection by General Sir Archibald Wavell. More important, in the opinion of the troops, was the arrival next day of the first mail from New Zealand. Soon night manoeuvres began and the men learned—often to the discomfiture of their officers—the amazing similarity which all desert features assume after dark. Route marches, which play such an important part in all infantry training, gradually increased in length. C Company's custom of singing on these marches such songs as ‘Roll out the Barrel’, ‘we'll hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line’, and many more colourful shearing-shed ditties is still remembered.
March opened with two more ceremonial parades, one on the 2nd for General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson and the other on the 9th for Sir Miles Lampson, the British Ambassador, an equally impressive figure. The drivers received practice in driving in page 20 soft sand and in navigation by compass, while the rifle companies were being toughened by route marches over rough country. A never-failing phenomenon on these marches was the appearance at the first halt of native orange-sellers. Their wares were welcome, but as the prices at the outset were rather high the custom was to let ‘George’ carry his case full for a while until fatigue reduced his price.
Parade-ground standards were given due attention. An entry in Lance-Corporal Bretherton's2 diary for 11 March reads: ‘Coy and Bn parade. HQ Coy had to do half an hour's extra drill under RSM Steele. Enjoyed it.’ A similar entry for the following day lacks the final laconic comment.
The weather during March was mainly cool with northerly breezes. Nights were surprisingly cold, with occasional rain. Although the battalion's war diary records that the general health of the troops was good, many suffered from chills when hot days were followed by treacherously cold nights. Cases of measles and influenza were reported. Towards the end of March temperatures rose and the flies became more numerous.
Recreational facilities were well patronised. Camp Naafis were the hub of life in the evenings. Through thickening clouds of smoke, and to the accompaniment of the clink of bottles of Stella beer, troops with an air of ever-hopeful concentration marked innumerable ‘Housie’ tickets in quest of the coveted but elusive ‘snowball’. Leave in Cairo with its cafés and bars, cinemas and museums, was an experience to suit all tastes. Races at Gezira and Heliopolis had many New Zealand patrons, while the quaint trills and wails of cabaret singers and the shuffle of dancing feet invited the men to nights of entertainment and excitement that sometimes presented the proprietors with more problems than they could handle.
Lectures and concerts also helped to provide entertainment for the troops. Trips to Luxor and tours of the mosques of Cairo were advertised in routine orders—among warnings against contracting chills, sunbathing, tattooing, or washing clothes in the shower houses. Repeated admonitions were given on such subjects as security of information and arms, Naafi breakages, the consumption of liquor on leave trains, and the production of paybooks when demanded by the military police.page 21
April, a month of contrasts, opened with thunder, lightning, and heavy rain. Training now advanced beyond the company stage, and on the 4th, in preparation for brigade manoeuvres, the battalion moved in desert formation six miles from camp and bivouacked for the night. At a quarter to five the following morning a practice attack under an imaginary barrage was carried out. The return to camp took the form of an exercise in withdrawal. Three days later, on the 8th, the battalion began probably the most gruelling exercise of its training when, as part of a brigade manoeuvre, it marched twenty-one and a half miles to a bivouac area south of Helwan. Marching this distance on the tarsealed road was a severe ordeal after training over sand, but the war diary records: ‘No march casualties evacuated to ADS.’
The following day the exercise was continued under extremely trying conditions. Most of those who took part would probably consider that the war diary entry—‘Heat very trying during long halt on Sunstroke Plain’—puts the matter too mildly. A night march to a forming-up area began at 1.30 a.m. on 10 April. After an attack on the feature Husan Migalli, the troops spent the day at North Cone, gaining experience at least in erecting shelters from the sun with the aid of rifles and groundsheets. At 4.30 p.m. the battalion returned to the bivouac area of the previous night, and the following morning began to prepare a defensive position. The method recorded in the war diary reads: ‘Actual digging, imaginary wire, etc.’ The next day's exercise began at 1 a.m. with a withdrawal by night to a previously reconnoitred position where a defensive line was formed, this time without digging. The exercise ended at 5.30 a.m. The troops returned to camp and enjoyed a free afternoon, while for the officers there was the usual conference to discuss the week's training. The experience of the men is aptly summed up by Harry Bretherton in his diary: ‘Learned the value of water and got used to the taste of sand.’ As if the trials of desert manoeuvres were not enough, the khamsin added its little touch. During the evening of 13 April many tents were flattened in a gale and the end wall of the camp cinema was blown down. This month saw the first issue of summer clothing and also an outbreak of ‘Gippo tummy’, the latter the result of the increasing number of flies.page 22
From 22 to 25 April the battalion took part in another brigade exercise in a legendary war between Puttagonia (Brigadier Puttick)3 and Milesia (under Brigadier Miles).4 Despite difficulties with the Cypriot drivers of a Reserve Mechanical Transport company, the troops left on time for the El Saff area and by 4 p.m. took up a defensive position on El Saff ridge. An advance southward was followed by what was judged to be an unsuccessful attack across Wadi Nawimiya, and the battalion retired in the evening to take up a defensive position on El Tibn Knolls by eleven o'clock. During the night there was an extraordinary display of lightning. The troops spent 24 April digging and wiring their positions, using altogether 1700 yards of dannert wire. The exercise ended next day with an Anzac Day service in the desert, and the battalion returned to camp in lorries.
The growing dissatisfaction of the troops in Maadi with the programmes and plant of the camp cinema reached its climax on the night after the return to camp. For weeks past the inferior pictures shown and the frequent breakdowns had tried the men's patience: on the night of the 26th there were more than the usual number of stoppages, and when their demands that their money be returned were disregarded the men broke up chairs and pushed down the walls.
On the last day of April Colonel Kippenberger announced on battalion parade that he intended to hold a written examination that afternoon, but that those who failed ‘would not be sent home’. In one question the men were asked to name the commander of 4 Brigade—then Brigadier Puttick. A large proportion of the men gave the appointment to the Colonel. On the same day the battalion suffered its first casualty when Private Frew5 of B Company died at 2/10 General Hospital, Helmieh, of pneumococcal meningitis.
By May rumours of war with Italy were rife and precautions were taken against air attack. Sandbagged shelters for anti- page 23 aircraft guns were erected, respirators issued, and Passive Air Defence exercises begun. The battalion shared the digging of a defensive area near Red Mound in Wadi Tih, a task made difficult by the presence of ‘liquid sand’. Inlying picket duties (‘Stand-to’) from 3.15 to 5.15 a.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. each day were carried out, at first by companies in rotation and later by the battalion for duty. On the 28th B and D Companies gave a demonstration of street fighting, and during the month several days were spent at Helwan pitching tents, amidst strong winds and much dust, for a British regiment.
On 10 June Italy declared war on Great Britain. The New Zealanders' reaction was one of keen delight. Troops at a concert by the Blue Pencil revue company in Maadi Tent broke into cheers on hearing the news and the audience sang the national anthem with a patriotic fervour that stirred and uplifted every man who was there. Units on night manoeuvres returned happily to camp. Tents were dispersed, dug in and sandbagged, slit trenches were dug, and the troops stood-to at dawn and dusk ‘waiting hopefully for Italian parachutists’. Companies in turn went into Cairo on anti-paratroop duties at the Gezira racecourse, and later the whole battalion was quartered at Kasr-el-Nil barracks with the Scots Guards on a tour of duty. Cairo had its first air-raid alarm at two o'clock in the morning of 22 June when the city's sirens shrieked and searchlights and tracer shells from Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries lit the sky. A report that bombs had been dropped proved false, any damage done being caused by fragments from anti-aircraft shells fired at a British plane which had been sent up to intercept the raiders. After this raid the troops at the barracks were ordered to fill 5000 tins with sand for an air-raid shelter. Perhaps it was the work, perhaps it was the raid, perhaps it was the monotony of the tour of duty, but a barrel of beer disappeared from the canteen and remained one of the (officially) unsolved mysteries amongst a number of air-raid episodes.
During the summer the battalion cricket team played several matches at Abbassia, Kasr-el-Nil, the Arsenal ground at Zamalek, and the Educational Institute. Leading players were Corporals Uttley6 and Vincent.7 The CO himself played on occas- page 24 ions. It was during a cricket match at Kasr-el-Nil barracks on 20 June that news was received of the arrival of the Second Echelon in England.
In July the battalion left Maadi for the Western Desert on its first tour of duty in the Mersa Matruh area. The convoy moved through Giza and thence by the Cairo–Alexandria road to a bivouac area at Bahig, where it spent the night. Next day the 20th and a composite battalion consisting of companies from 4 Field Regiment, the Divisional Cavalry, and 4 Brigade reinforcements moved to Garawla, occupying an area vacated by 18 Battalion. D Company was detailed for duty at a prisoner-of-war camp and B Company was placed in mobile reserve. A and C Companies commenced digging an anti-tank obstacle at Wadi Naghamish. This was a ditch fifteen feet wide and five feet deep, and the section allotted to the battalion was 800 yards long. The work was hard and monotonous. Bathing in the refreshing Mediterranean helped to relieve the monotony but the unpleasant conditions were made worse by plagues of flies, choking dust-storms, and the inevitable bouts of dysentery. In three weeks ninety-eight men suffering from this complaint were sent to a British hospital in Alexandria.
A feature of the battalion's stay at Garawla was Private Norman Goffin's8 cornet playing. As well as sounding Last Post from C Company's lines, he also played such tunes as ‘The Stranger of Galilee’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Silent Night’, or ‘Abide with Me’; as one man recalls, ‘we used to lie in bed and just listen’.
Company radio sets broadcast the BBC news each night. On 22 July at the end of the news it was stated that voluntary enlistment had ceased in New Zealand with a total of 58,000 volunteers, and that there had been a big last-minute rush to join up. Next day the Egyptian Mail, as reliable as ever, published the news that 58,000 men had joined up in a last-minute rush.
August was fairly uneventful. C and D Companies under page 25 Major Burrows went to Suez on special duty for two days. It was intended that they should relieve a British regiment that was to be sent to Italian Somaliland, but plans were changed and the relief did not take place. The companies returned to Maadi on 16 August. While they were away members of the companies left at Maadi took part in a concert at Maadi Tent on 15 August, and about this date the entertainment at Shafto's cinema was improved by the appearance of a soprano whose items received a tremendous ovation. On 20 August the battalion manned a defensive position near the camp against an attack by AFVs of the Divisional Cavalry during which ‘valuable lessons’ were learned. ‘Lay round in the sun from 9.30 to 2.30 and yarned,’ records one diarist. ‘Sunburned as hell—like a piece of burnt toast.’ Perhaps as a result of this experience, topees were issued on the return to camp.
All troops went through the gas chamber, with and without respirators, while A and B Companies enjoyed the more pleasant experience of a picnic to the grotto on Gezira Island. B Company and No. 7 Platoon of A Company relieved companies of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion guarding the aerodromes at Helwan and Heliopolis. In the last week of August ‘latrino-grams’ with more than usual foundation predicted another move from Maadi Camp.
On 1 September the battalion advance party under Major Dornwell9 moved to Amiriya and was followed next day by the rest of the unit, which relieved a battalion of Rajputana Rifles of its duties on the line of communication to the Western Desert. Good accommodation and tentage were available in a rather dusty area, a disadvantage being that it was infested by hordes of fleas. The companies undertook security duties at Ikingi Maryut airfield, Gharbaniyat, and Burg el Arab, while C Company provided anti-aircraft protection on the trains running between Ikingi Maryut and Mersa Matruh, with company headquarters at El Daba.
While the battalion was at Amiriya the CO issued some notes for the guidance of section commanders, on whom fell a large share of responsibility for maintaining the morale of their men in the monotony of a garrison role. The memorandum read:page 26
notes for section commanders
In the future the Bn will very frequently be distributed in section posts to a large extent, and the maintenance of its discipline, morale, and training will be largely your responsibility.
These are some general rules you must invariably follow:
A soldier has to face monotony, discomfort and the enemy. We are already at grips with the first two and if we beat them will have no trouble with the third.
From Amiriya leave parties went by truck to Alexandria, and from one of these trips Privates Tom Veitch10 and Paddy Welsh11 failed to return. There were rumours that the bodies of two soldiers had been found in the harbour and their friends began to wonder about their long absence. However, both returned a week later after having made an unauthorised trip round the Mediterranean in the cruiser Gloucester. Their behaviour had been good and they had a letter from the ship testifying page 27 to this. On their return the RSM is said to have pored over ‘King's Regs’ a little longer than usual.
After a preliminary reconnaissance by the CO, company commanders on 10 September went to Baggush to lay out the defensive position to be taken up there by the battalion. A Company moved to Baggush on the 16th and was followed on the 27th by B, D, and HQ Companies, which bivouacked for a night at Burg el Arab on the way. Australian troops took over the area at Amiriya and in the opinion of most of the men were welcome to it. C Company, meanwhile, remained on railway duty at Daba, rejoining the battalion at Baggush on the 29th.
The September war diary records several deaths. On the 19th a primus being used as a home-made forge exploded in the pioneer platoon's workshop, and two men, Privates Lowe12 and Orlowski,13 were badly burned. Lowe died the same day at 2/5 General Hospital and was buried the next day at the British war memorial cemetery, Alexandria, the funeral being attended by the Colonel, four officers, and thirty other ranks from Headquarters Company, who also supplied the firing party. Private Orlowski died a week later and was accorded similar honours. Two naval officers and two ratings were also killed on 23 September while removing for examination a strange torpedo which had been reported on the beach near Burg el Arab by D Company the previous evening.
During the last week of September work on the Baggush Box defences was begun. At this stage in North Africa it was expected that the Italians might attempt a drive on Alexandria at any time. With the Rajputs on its left, the battalion began the laborious task of digging, concealing, and wiring its allotted area. Weapon pits, communication trenches, and dugouts were excavated, the digging varying from soft sand to rock too hard for picks and shovels. At night large quantities of sand would fall back into the diggings so that next morning some of the previous day's work had to be done again. ‘Cut and cover’ dugouts (usually spoken of by the men as ‘cut and shivers’) were revetted and covered over to make them invisible from the page 28 air. The work proceeded smoothly but with a new significance after the CO had told his men that they would probably fight in their positions some day.
During October the work continued, enlivened on the 5th by a celebration of the anniversary of the First Echelon's entry into Burnham Camp. Issues of beer had been saved for the occasion and many dugout parties marked the end of the first year in the army. In a special order, ‘On this, the first anniversary of the formation of this unit’, Colonel Kippenberger expressed to officers and men his thanks for ‘their good and loyal service during the past year’ and wished them good fortune in the future.
High-flying Italian planes began to pay evening calls when the moon was full and the troops made the acquaintance of their ‘thermos’ bombs, booby traps so called because of their resemblance to thermos flasks. After an air raid had caused casualties in an adjoining area, the order was given to dig tents down four feet and house trucks and lorries in pits. As part of the toughening-up process, and to make the battalion more mobile in the event of a hurried move, bedboards and palliasses were later dispensed with on the CO's orders, and everyone slept on groundsheets on the sand or made beds, illegally, of sandbags filled with newspapers.
During the second week of October three Royal Air Force Gladiators co-operated to give the troops experience of a dive-bombing attack. The planes' performance was rather less spectacular than the men had been led to expect, but as a precaution against unauthorised retaliation from the ground magazines were removed from rifles before the demonstration began. On the same day, 10 October, Brigadier Puttick inspected the area and expressed his satisfaction at the siting of the positions, and on the 22nd the battalion sent representatives to an inspection by the Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden, then Secretary of State for War.
As changes from the monotony of digging, the battalion, by companies, carried out field firing in a wadi a few miles away and, on 23–24 October, combined with the tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment in a two-day exercise—though it must be said here that the tanks were represented by lorries carrying a petrol tin on a pole. Harry Bretherton's diary for 26 October records, page 29 ‘Sandstorm and flies. Worst day in Egypt.’ Still another diversion was the training in tank hunting given by the RSM. This was based on methods taught to a 4 Brigade demonstration squad by an NCO whose knowledge had been gained with the International Brigade during the Spanish civil war. Sea bathing and inter-company football matches provided recreation.
About this time one D Company private, well known as the battalion barber, assiduously produced his own hand-written news-sheet, The Muddle East Rumour, which appeared regularly on the company notice-board.
November saw further routine training, including another brigade exercise. It is remembered for two incidents—the first when one of the battalion's Bren carriers, while refuelling, caught fire and a thousand rounds of .303 ammunition went up in the flames; and the second, shortly afterwards, when an Italian plane, attracted by the fire, dropped several bombs close to the bivouac area. The usual order to dig in, obeyed only perfunctorily until this raid, suddenly assumed a new importance, and through the darkness echoed the clinking tattoo of many shovels and picks as men deepened their trenches in expectation of another raid. On another manoeuvre the provosts became lost and suddenly found themselves back in camp.
The fourth death in the battalion occurred on 13 November when Private Wattie Jack,14 a well-known boxer, was killed when the dugout in which he was working collapsed on top of him. Early the same evening a sole enemy plane made two machine-gunning runs over the nearby aerodrome, setting fire to a troop-carrier on the ground. A large column of smoke shot up and a lot of tracer began to fly about, some of it close over the battalion lines.
Further field firing, a month's interchange of appointments among subalterns, and an inspection of each company in turn by the CO completed the month, during which the weather had become much colder. Several showers were followed on the 27th by a heavy downpour which flooded dugouts and trenches and washed away part of their walls. Tents built in wadis were flooded and some of them collapsed. One tent and page 30 its occupant were washed down a wadi, the soldier having to return next day to search for his teeth. Several days were spent in digging out weapon pits and dugouts and in drying wet clothes and bedding.
At one stage during the battalion's sojourn at Baggush several NCOs and men were detached to supervise the work of Sudanese natives who were employed in digging an anti-tank ditch. A corporal's life is never an easy one but this ‘Wog driving’ imposed more than usual strain. It seemed almost impossible either to make the natives understand what was wanted or to keep them at work once they had grasped the idea. The climax came when one of the labourers rushed up to Lance-Corporal Fred Mason15 and placed in his arms his latest find —an unexploded ‘thermos’ bomb.
During December instructions were received from Brigade Headquarters that work on defensive positions was to be confined to maintenance. At this stage men might easily have become ‘browned off’ but for the CO's ingenuity in planning methods of training. A minimum of three days each week was to be spent in training; and it was during this period that company fought and manoeuvred against company outside the ‘Box’ in a manner reminiscent of the Tai Tapu manoeuvres. Companies fed themselves, marched, patrolled, evaded and surprised each other, and learned a great deal about handling themselves in the desert. There was plenty of movement in transport and on foot. Altogether it was a most useful training period.
Sandstorms and rain were the major discomforts of mid-winter at Baggush, unless one includes the military and general knowledge tests given to the NCOs. Khaki-drill shorts and shirts were still being worn, and men on picket at night often wrapped blankets around them on top of greatcoats and pullovers. Battle dress was not issued until the middle of January, after the battalion had moved to Helwan Camp.
The battalion transport drivers, familiar by now with most of the hazards of driving in sand, left Baggush on 11 December for Mersa Matruh. Under command of Major Burrows, they formed part of a convoy of New Zealand transport which was page 31 used in General Wavell's offensive which had begun on 9 December. On the outward journey, according to Harry Bretherton and Eric Taylor,16 two of the drivers in this convoy, petrol was carried to a British supply dump near Sidi Barrani. Navigating by compass, the convoy then cut across the desert to prisoner-of-war cages in which thousands of miserable Libyans and Italians awaited transport to Mersa Matruh. They were in a variety of uniforms, some even wearing the galabiehs and turbans recalling the streets of Cairo. After unloading the prisoners the convoy camped for the night near Charing Cross and returned next morning to Matruh railway station to load rations. Camp cooks brought up a hot meal from Baggush, a welcome change after dry rations, but a blinding sandstorm made chewing rather gritty. That night the drivers slept in slit trenches in a fruitless endeavour to avoid the driving sand, with which by next morning they and their blankets were liberally coated.
Next day the convoy took rations to a dump 18 miles south of Sollum. Travelling slowly next day, the convoy made an unofficial stop near a recently captured Italian position at Tummar West, where the drivers searched dugouts for souvenirs and emerged with new Italian rifles, the ‘Red Devil’ hand grenades, cases of sardines, clothing, abundant supplies of macaroni, bottles of mineral water, wines and liqueurs. The convoy halted again at 5 p.m. and the men were told to go to bed. Shortly afterwards, on fresh orders, the trucks were hurriedly packed and the convoy set off on a very cold and difficult all-night drive to a petrol dump, which was reached about eight o'clock next morning. After delivering its cases of petrol at the supply dump south of Sollum the convoy returned to Baggush on, 20 December. That night the drivers celebrated their return with a very fair fireworks display from the souvenirs brought back from the Italian fort.
For the rest of the battalion lingering at Baggush, these were weeks of disappointment as the battle swept west to success after success without their help. Perhaps for this reason Christmas celebrations began some days before Christmas Day and continued as long as the money or the beer lasted. Officers page 32 waited on the men at Christmas dinner and there was a spirit of good-fellowship in the battalion lines.
The drivers began their second excursion into the Western Desert on 30 December when a convoy of 15-cwt trucks returned to Burg el Arab to pick up Australian infantry of the 2/7 and 2/11 Battalions who were going forward to take part in General Wavell's campaign. After staying the night at Burg el Arab, the convoy journeyed past Mersa Matruh to a camp just outside Charing Cross where it spent the night. New Zealand drivers, accustomed to observing a strict blackout, were mildly surprised when the easy-going Australians lit fires everywhere, quite unconcerned about enemy planes. Next morning the convoy moved through Sidi Barrani to Sollum and up over Halfaya Pass to an area between Fort Capuzzo and Bardia, where the infantry debussed, formed up, and went straight in to attack Bardia that night. The trucks were shelled while in this area, returned across the flat at top speed, and reached Baggush the following afternoon. An Italian radio broadcast extolling the bravery of their soldiers defending Bardia against ‘800 tanks and 400,000 men’ gave the drivers ‘a bigger laugh than usual’.
On 11 January preparations were made to move to Helwan as the first step towards the concentration of the Division. Next day, after striking tents, the men endured the worst dust-storm of their experience. Lying on the ground, they huddled into their equipment which had been rolled up ready to be taken to the station. A Company alone had not struck its tents and Captain Mitchell17 allowed his men to shelter in them to the last possible minute. The transport moved to Helwan under Captain Orr18 and the troops entrained at 6 p.m. on 13 January, most of them pleased to bid a noisy goodbye to ‘Baggush by the sea’. The journey, which was expected to take fifteen hours, took twenty-four, and the battalion did not reach Helwan until about 6 p.m. on 14 January, passing on the way into the camp the floodlit prisoner-of-war compound.
Settling in took several days, a good part of which was spent in pitching tents and digging them in. The men were eager to renew acquaintance with Cairo; at the weekend they crowded page 33 into buses for a breakneck dash to Helwan station and thence by diesel train to Bab-el-Louk.
The battalion guard on 18 January brought a warm tribute from General Freyberg, who in a letter of congratulation to the CO added the postscript, ‘It really was a very well mounted guard.’ Not all the battalion's guards were as successful, the corporal of one of the early guards at Maadi achieving minor distinction during an inspection by General Wavell by prefacing the order to present arms with the order ‘Right turn’. The result was that the General took the salute from a guard which faced away from him in file. The General was amused and is reported to have commented that he had been in the army a long while but that this was the first time he had seen a guard present arms in that fashion. Other senior officers who saw the manoeuvre were more critical.
Training recommenced with route marches and practice in pontoon bridging, followed by river-crossing exercises on the Nile in small assault boats which were later used for races. Against the current it was hard work to row the clumsy craft across and some men got a wetting when their boats capsized. On the 23rd the battalion marched out for an exercise in advancing under a live-ammunition barrage. To men weary of training under imaginary conditions it was their best ‘stunt’ to date. To quote Bill Glue's19 dairy, ‘It was a realistic show—plenty of noise, dust, and smoke, and the shriek of shells overhead.’ Five days later a practice in river crossing by night was successfully carried out, the whole battalion being ferried across the Nile. This time no one fell in. On 31 January a route march of 12 miles was made in desert formation. Royal Air Force planes were expected to co-operate and dive-bomb the battalion, but interest faded as the planes failed to appear, although one flew quietly past, miles away.
During the first week of February companies in turn carried out rifle and Bren practices at the Maadi range. Coaches were appointed to raise the less-qualified to the necessary standard. On 10 February Royal Engineers demonstrated the use of anti-tank mines, Bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in barbed-wire entanglements, and the neutralising of booby traps. The thrill of being within the danger area of large quantities of explosives was increased during a demonstration with a Bangalore torpedo page 34 when a large piece of the piping landed amongst the spectators.
A football match with 26 Battalion, won by the latter 26—nil, the divisional boxing championships and, on 14 February, a divisional regatta were the chief diversions from training. During the boat races there were quite a few capsizes, one of them caused when the chain of a passing felucca fouled one of the boats. Another craft was swamped and two of the occupants swam ashore complete with rifle, pack, and steel helmet.
On 16 February at church parade the recently formed 4 Brigade Band appeared. It had originally been formed from men of the battalion in the Dunera during the voyage to Egypt.
At various stages in their training the troops had been required to use their imaginations in such matters as wire, tanks, and air cover; now for the next exercise, a practice in a beach landing, boats too were imaginary. Four Bren carriers, connected by ropes which enclosed a number of troops, represented landing craft. On 18 February New Zealand engineers gave a demonstration of how to haul a Bren carrier up a cliff. A mild sensation was caused when they ran out of rope, and a carrier containing Private Southon20 was left temporarily suspended in mid-air. Next day selected personnel carried out shooting practice on the anti-aircraft range on the Suez road, firing tracer ammunition at balloon targets.
A medical inspection of all companies was completed by 25 February. This, and the issue next day of tommy guns, revived rumours of a move which had been inspired a month previously by an issue of sandshoes. Lectures by the Brigade Intelligence Officer on what to report to Intelligence from the front line, further instruction in anti-gas precautions, and the arrival of reinforcements on 28 February gave added weight to the rumours already current, and three days later (another rumour) Lord ‘Haw-Haw’ was reported to have confidently announced that ‘General Freyberg's circus is on the move’.
Whatever the destination might be the men were keen to go. Training periods that are indefinitely prolonged have a soul-searing effect; even the attractions of Egypt were beginning to pall, while its disadvantages were endured with diminishing patience. Men felt that they had ‘missed the bus’ in Libya last December. The crowded Italian prisoner-of-war camp nearby page 35 made them envious of the accomplishments of the Australians. Preparations were over at last, and the words in the army paybook, ‘On Active Service’, were about to assume their real significance.
The battalion's commanding officer, writing to a friend in New Zealand on the eve of leaving Helwan, said: ‘We have not wasted our time. We are ready. My men will do their whole duty.’
* * * * *
During the battalion's first year in Egypt boredom and sickness had been its enemies. It had yet to fire a shot at the enemy against whom it had trained so assiduously; none of its four casualties had been killed in action. Some of the men had had anxious moments and close escapes from bombs dropped by high-flying Italian planes, and a few on anti-aircraft sentry duty had relished the opportunity to hit back with their light machine guns but had scored no known successes. Most of the troops had had to be content to lie in their beds at night and listen to the surge of the motors of the three-engined Italian planes (‘organ-grinders’ they called them) as they circled overhead in the moonlight looking for a target. It was too passive a role for men keen to see action.
No unit is altogether free from crime, which is a harsh name under which to classify the misdemeanours of men intent often only on enjoying their leave; and the battalion was no exception. Out of an average strength of between 650 and 750, approximately 150 men appeared ‘on the mat’ during their first year in Egypt, most of them charged with absence without leave, drunkenness, absence from parade, or with that old favourite, ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline’. A soldier who overstayed his leave for an hour or so and was unlucky enough to get caught could expect two or three days' CB; if his absence was longer his punishment might be seven days' CB or field punishment and the loss of one or more days' pay. If he was guilty of drunkenness the penalty was usually two or three days' CB or a fine of ios. or £I, according to the circumstances and the frequency of the offence; but if drunkenness was combined with a more serious charge, such as striking a superior officer, resisting an escort, or wilful defiance of authority, the punishment was usually detention page 36 for a period of from seven to twenty-eight days. A man who was found both drunk and out of bounds was given 10 days' detention; another who was drunk while driving an army vehicle received 17 days' detention.21
In the first year overseas only about twenty men of the battalion were sent to detention barracks at the Citadel or at Abbassia, but several of these men served two or three sentences at one or both of these places. A man who had been awarded 28 days' detention for defiant behaviour at Colombo had not completed this term when he received a further 21 days for ‘offering violence to a superior officer’ and resisting an escort. About two months later he faced charges of drunkenness, of using insubordinate language to a superior officer and resisting an escort, and received 28 days' detention. He was again in trouble in August when he was given 21 days' field punishment for disobeying a lawful command. Scarcely had he completed this sentence when a further seven days were added for ‘disobedience, in such a manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, of a lawful command given personally by his superior officer’.
Another ‘character’, whose offences included drunkenness on at least four occasions—once when he had been warned for duty—as well as absence without leave, failure to parade, offering violence and using threatening language to a superior officer, was sent to the detention barracks for periods of 21 and 28 days and was also awarded 21 days' field punishment and two or three shorter terms of CB. Another man, well known in the battalion by his nickname, spent 14 days and then 10 days at the Citadel during the first few months in Egypt on charges of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. On the second occasion he was punished for malingering; to avoid duty he had paraded sick with diarrhoea, but page 37 had failed to prove to the satisfaction of the Regimental Medical Officer that he was suffering from this complaint. In due course he came back from the Citadel a smarter soldier but unrepentant. He reported that he had spent most of the time in a cell scrubbing pots and pans with bath brick, that he had cleaned his brass, web, and boots about three times a day, that even finger-nails were inspected and that all drill was done at the double. The place was far too tough, he reported. The experience left him with a predilection never to double when ordered, a circumstance that was to cause him much trouble during his army career.
On 8 June 1940 the theft of the Headquarters Company payroll amounting to £102 was discovered. There was a muster parade and kit inspection for the whole battalion, and a man from this company was apprehended in Port Said and brought back next day in civilian clothes with £52 in his possession. In due course a field general court martial found him guilty of desertion and stealing public money, and he was sentenced to six months' detention.
A soldier who ‘committed an offence against the person of an inhabitant of the country in which he is serving’ (he assaulted an Egyptian) and resisted an escort received a court-martial sentence of 60 days' detention.22 A corporal who impeded ‘an NCO legally exercising authority on behalf of the Provost Marshal’—in other words, a red-cap—and who also resisted an escort, was reduced to the ranks and served 28 days' detention. Two men who broke out of camp, told a falsehood to an NCO, resisted escort, were not in possession of their paybooks and refused to give their particulars when asked were both given 21 days' detention. Two soldiers found sleeping at their posts while acting as anti-aircraft sentries at Gezira were both sentenced to 60 days' detention, and a third who left his post before he was relieved was given 90 days' field punishment.23
2 Cpl D.H. Bretherton; Dunedin; born Cromwell, 7 May 1917; farmer; wounded
3 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914-19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940-Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr-27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941-Dec 1945.
4 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914-19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940-41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; died Spain, 20 Oct 1943.
14 Pte W.H. Jack; born Mossburn, 30 Dec 1911; labourer; died on active service 13 Nov 1940.
15 L-Cpl F.T. Mason; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 12 Feb 1917; brass polisher.
21 CB, confinement to barracks, meant that the soldier (usually referred to as a ‘defaulter’) was prohibited from leaving the unit's lines and was required to attend a number of extra parades, in varying orders of dress, ‘at uncertain hours throughout the day’. Defaulters were summoned by bugle to the battalion orderly room to answer the defaulters' call: ‘You can be a defaulter as long as you like / As long as you answer the call’ and were given extra fatigues, sometimes unpleasant, or drill. Field punishment was awarded for an offence committed on active service in the field; where possible, the sentence was served in a field punishment centre. The soldier under sentence was ‘subject to the like labour, employment, and restraint … as if he were under sentence of imprisonment with hard labour’, and could be kept in irons. Detention was served in the military equivalent of a civil prison. Pay was forfeited by a soldier serving a sentence of field punishment or detention.
22 Before he could serve his sentence the battalion left for Greece and the soldier went with it. He was wounded at Markopoulon and, on his return to Egypt, found a sixty-day pay stoppage in operation. When the CO himself got back from Crete, however, he insisted that ‘If a man fights for his country he must be paid’. He was.
23 ‘The great majority of these crimes were military crimes and the cases mentioned above include all those that would have involved penalties in civilian life,’ says General Kippenberger. ‘I am emphatic that the great majority of the battalion were extremely well behaved and that the few who committed any serious offences and were punished for them were very much the exception, and in no case did they prove any use in action.