CHAPTER 8 — To Italy
And we went on doing more training and more route marching with now and again the usual fatigues, guards, etc.: groups dotted round the area on lectures, weapon training, and so on, and on such occasions rifles weren't always within reach.1 At this particular time a ‘blitz’ was on over rifles left lying around by their owners. So one day groups looked up, grateful for the diversion of Colonel Campbell marching towards Battalion Headquarters, a rifle in his hand, and a soldier, without rifle, hurrying along behind and rapidly closing the gap. Another real funny sight in the army I reckon was when one-stop-two was in progress and a group of men were marching along with rifles at the slope and an order was given (say one that wasn't heard properly, or say an unexpected order for change of direction), and you saw about half the men turning one way and half the other way. If ever men looked ridiculous it was then—all marching in opposite directions—so intent—with rifles sloping back.
Small groups, given compasses, would be sent out at night with a bearing and the distance in yards to some rock. All going well, they looked under the right rock and found a slip of paper with further directions. So it went on (usually about four rocks), and then home. One night a party from 2 Company, on the last lap looking under various rocks, found a bundle of notes, about £6. Discreet inquiries brought nothing, the finder took his friends to the canteen, and this, for at least twenty New Zealanders (‘it looked suspicious’), was the greatest unsolved mystery of the Second World War.
When the battalion received its own trucks, tinned foods were collected for section boxes. Soon each ammunition box was well stocked with stores, ranging from lowly bully beef, margarine, cheese, evaporated milk (‘Pet’ brand), milk powder, condensed milk, coffee-and-milk preparation and ground coffee to such delicacies as tinned fruit, toheroas, and oysters. Evening snacks grew in variety, quality and quantity.
The officers' mess had a cook beyond description and praise. In the evening he would come to the officers, wait respectfully until he caught the eye of the Adjutant, and murmur:’ Dinner page 220 is ready when you wish, gentlemen.’ The Adjutant, waiting an opportunity, would tell the second-in-command, who at his leisure would inform the Colonel. ‘Of course this priceless cook had to leave us on furlough, to be replaced by an unpolished Kiwi. The first night he took over, in collarless grey shirt, he burst in among the officers, pointed a hairy arm accusingly at Colonel Campbell, and shouted gruffly: “She's cooked!”’
And some days we went bumping on the trucks across the desert to those wadis at the back of Maadi and ‘attacked’ various positions, firing our small arms as we ran. When we did those ‘attacks’ certain ones of us had to lie down as we were ‘shot.’ Old ‘Cactus’ said: ‘X—was a good officer. When we did those “attacks” he used to yell out at me “Lay down! You're shot!“early in the “attacks”— he could see I couldn't keep up to those young jokers.’ And sometimes, while mucking about out there, we would stop and pick up a bit of fossilized wood (pieces lay thick on the ground in patches) and wonder how long it was since trees grew in this God-forsaken patch of desert. And we used to go for swims at Maadi baths (sometimes we'd route-march down) and to concerts (often by famous stars) at EI Djem.
Larry Adler, the famous American harmonica player, gave a show, and when he finished General Freyberg got up (this was after the end of the African campaign) and made a very appreciative speech. He ended up by saying: ‘And thank you again, Mister—er—er—’ (somebody next to him whispered in his ear)’—er—yes, Mister Larry Adler.’ And Larry Adler then got up and made a very appreciative speech, and ended up by turning to the General and saying:‘And thank you again, General—er—er—’ (and the boys, overjoyed, roared'Freyberg’) ‘—er—yes, General Freyberg’
And we received reinforcements. Received them with no outward show of enthusiasm. It wasn't till they showed that they fitted in to the team that they became one of us. Then we stopped calling them ‘those new jokers’.
A young officer arrived from the Pacific (where he had taken the war very seriously; he was making the Army his career) and joined the battalion. What he saw and heard shocked him professionally: discipline wasn't tight; sometimes there seemed to be no discipline at all; everyone was living on past achievements; judging by their behaviour certain officers obviously could not hold the command (and respect) of their men when it came to the crucial test of battle. It hurt him, and finally in March 1943 he wrote home to his wife: ‘Perhaps I am mistaken but sometimes I feel that some of the officers here don't quite page 221 accept me because I haven't been in action yet. Sometimes the attitude of certain members of the mess makes me mad…. Some of these birds who have been here for a while have a horrible complex, they know everything and just can't be taught. If a few of them would get a little less shickered and do a little more work it would do the world of good. I'm no wowser, but they drink far too much round here and if you can tell me men who do that can do a decent job of work, well, I'll eat my hat….’
His opinions'certainly were shaken a bit’ by the performance of officers and men on the 100-mile route march before the Division embarked for Italy, and shortly after his first battle in Italy he was writing home critically to his wife: ‘I must say some of these new reinforcements turning up….’ So it has been since the first reinforcements joined in the first tribal wars.
One of the things that first struck me [another man, not the officer] when I joined the battalion was the rough and ready ways of the jokers—especially in their dress. Later on I had more time to think about it. And it appeared that among the many styles in the mess queue the one that was most popular was something like this. On the head a cap-comforter or a balaclava pulled down and then turned back up until it came to about the ears. (These were worn when the weather was cold.) In the hotter weather if you wore a shirt it was worn loosely, hanging from the shoulders down over the top of your shorts (not tucked in) and unbuttoned down the front (to clearly show your identity discs). Then on the feet you wore either tennis shoes or boots and socks (no hose tops or puttees). Glengarrys weren't popular, but sometimes you would see a lemon-squeezer [felt hat]—but not worn in the orthodox boy scout or Base style—but usually with the crown dented in all round and minus badge and usually minus puggaree. (And sometimes, as a salute to our sister Dominion across the Tasman, one side of the brim was turned up.)
Then there was all that moaning that went on regarding the front-line troops, B Echelon, and Base—the first throwing the dirt at the second—and the second throwing the dirt at the third. And, just quietly, how many jokers joining the battalion saw one action and then got into B Ech smartly, there to enjoy all the changes, sights and freedom of battalion life without running any great risk, especially after Alamein and our air superiority, and then thoroughly abused all at Base, with its tediousness, red tape, etc.? I often wonder, if Base wallahs had been given the choice of staying where they were or going to B Ech, how many would have stayed at Base? Also, if B Ech had been given the choice of going either to Base or page 222 the front line, how many would have gone to the latter? Of course I don't mean that they were all like the above by any means.
But at Maadi (before going to Italy) we togged up, and the dhobi did improved business as we went to Cairo on leave in our neatly pressed KD shirts, shorts and slacks—with a handkerchief tied neatly round your neck. And a lot took to wearing shoes and those long turned-down socks—and some went so far as to buy a pair of desert boots.
And how many injections was it you were supposed to have if you fell in the Nile? Was it 20-odd?
In the line, very often, the section and platoon were your whole world, while when out of the line you got to know more of the company. This was especially so now at Maadi. We visited the company cookhouse three or more times a day, had our canteen, and over the first part of our stay there received no reinforcements—and everyone was well and truly established in and part of the company —you knew everyone in your company to a lesser or greater extent. And you knew more than just their faces. You knew the way so-and- so walked or talked, how so-and-so held his pipe, or how so-and-so always wore his glengarry on the top of his head—all their little mannerisms. But of those in other companies, well, some faces you knew, but most of them were strangers; no especial personality behind that face, only what you imagined.
Those Headquarters guard duties at Maadi were no picnic. Carefully groomed, boots highly polished, clothes clean and well-pressed, lemon-squeezer hat just right, I was scrutinised critically by the officer of the guard, then carefully appraised of whom to salute, and how to salute whom, and warned to execute all movements with snap. By the time the guard change was made I was wet with sweat, and felt like a limp rag in the terrific heat of this brilliant, shimmering, midsummer's day. Left to it, however, I determined to try to uphold the tradition that the Kiwi can rise to the occasion when necessary.
After a few brisk movements—nobody in sight—I realised it was siesta time. Good show! Me for the awning most of the time. Now, everyone will recall that this awning, situated midway along the sentry's beat, was a high wooden framework, covered at the top and part-way down the sides and back. The shade it offered was very acceptable even if there was no breeze. Retiring to the shade I was thankfully standing'at ease’ under the awning, idly conscious of Shafto's ugly bulk on my right, EI Djem on my left, and the water tanks standing stark on the hilltop ahead and above me. It was a grand chance too for a scratch: amazing how many embarrassing parts begin to itch with perspiration when there is little chance to attend to them.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of an officer approaching, and noted that he was entitled only to a ‘slap of the butt’. He was rather close, and I'd have to get weaving to be at'the slope’ page 223 by the time he reached me. As I swung the rifle (with fixed bayonet of course) to number two positition, that damnable bayonet stuck deeply into the awning framework! Hell's teeth! Was I in a fix? I duly slapped the butt (of the skewered and suspended rifle) which was down around waist high now, and the officer solemnly returned my compliment, but his shoulders were shaking visibly after he passed.
Only one man in the battalion could not read or write. Only two other men knew this, the first ‘guide’ who read and wrote for him (in strict secrecy), and another who took over in Italy. This man hid his illiteracy most cunningly; he pretended to read newspapers and letters. On one occasion, when an officer brought him a cable, all eyes turned expectantly towards him. ‘He's had it now,’ thought the ‘guide’.However, he opened the envelope, ‘read’ the cable, and said: ‘Boss, I've had it, I've just got to go home. Old man died. I've got to run the farm.” Rot,'said the officer. The man replied: ‘If you think I'm a liar, you read it then’, and handed over the cable. The officer read aloud: ‘Many happy returns, happy birthday.’ Everyone roared with laughter; the ruse was not detected.
‘Snow’, a well-known character in the battalion, for weeks on end ‘was quite the gentleman’. But sooner or later he would decide to go to Cairo for the afternoon, and off he would go, quietly and orderly. And most times, it seems, that would be the last we would see of him until he came out of clink; he was several times in Rock College [the New Zealand detention centre] and once in Abbassia [the British punishment centre, where New Zealanders were sometimes sent]. It appears that when he arrived in Cairo he would meet up with some other chaps and they would start on a round of the bright spots. Soon Snow would be getting under the weather and starting to assert himself. Then it would be only a matter of time before either they got mixed up in trouble, or their money ran out—usually both these seemed to happen. When he was broke, Snow would look for other means of support, and no soldier in the Allied armies was safe from him. Anyone from a general down might be good for a few ackers. Finally one of his escapades would bring him into contact with the Redcaps, and that would be that. One day he came back with his hands bandaged up. It appears that he and his cobbers decided to brighten the town up by setting off a few flares or Very lights or something. They were putting on a good display and Snow was just lighting one when somebody yells out: 'Stick to your guns, boys!’ and Snow hung on to his. Official explanation: burnt with a primus.
Bert Leuchars2 arriving home from leave with a tropical palm in page 224 a small wooden barrel he'd acquired from outside some Gippo café. It certainly did give our tent a very homely appearance. And Lieutenant Dave Whillans's3 troublesome monkey, and the armourers’ dog, Snifter, which was run over by a tank just before Italy.
Some of the boys had been celebrating the night before and at next morning's parade one at least was still feeling the effects of his heavy night. Jimmy Jack,4 the Canadian Kiwi, might have passed inspection if the officer, as a good soldier should, had kept his head erect and eyes straight ahead. But then inspecting officers are either not good soldiers or else they don't stick to the rules. Even the most junior of junior subalterns would not have passed Jimmy as correctly dressed. His web gear was correct. Rifle and bayonet? Yes. Hat and badge? Yes. Shirt, KD? Correct. Boots, puttees, sox? Yes. Need we continue?
One junior NCO had a particularly good rifle. It was always clean and never rusted, never tarnished—a quick pull through and a dust over with an old shaving brush, and it was ready for any inspection. Needless to say its proud owner guarded it as his most prized possession, although he had been known sometimes to lend it to his best friends for guard duty. One morning on company parade, Major Dennis Anderson announced that he would inspect A Troop. Naturally he spotted the good rifle, examined it, admired it, and complimented the NCO. Next day, as he rushed out to parade, the same NCO tried to pull his rifle through. ‘Tried’ was right. The same pull-through that slid so easily through the rifle could not be coaxed or forced through the piece of rusted iron he held in his hands. He stopped, horror-struck, amazed—it was not his rifle—worse, it obviously belonged to one or other of those notorious rifle neglecters. In his haste he had grabbed a rifle belonging to either a cook or a driver. No time to go back, but anyway lightning never struck twice in the same place. Yesterday'Maudie’ had inspected A Troop, today it would be B, C, or D. Brush up the outside—she'll be right!
Company parade, and ‘Maudie’ announced—horror!—A Troop would be inspected. Other troops would move off independently to their respective parade grounds. Came the usual, ‘For inspection —Open order—March!” For inspection—Port arms.’ And then, instead of inspecting the troops in that position—after all, the outside of the rifle might possibly have passed—he gave the order, ‘Examine arms.’ That was the last straw. Now nothing would save the day—everything was ruined—that expected second stripe would be just a myth.
Down the ranks came the officer, peering, taking a rifle here and there—holding it to the light—even Egypt's most brilliant sun on the clearest day would never—could never—send the faintest glimmer page 225 through the dust and rust of ages collected in that bore—this particular Sword of Damocles took the form of a lump of wood and old iron fashioned in the shape of an S. M. L. E.—and closer came fate—three men away, two, one—here it is.
Mr. Anderson, fine officer that he was, looked at the NCO, smiled, said: ‘You're the man with the good rifle’, and passed on with never a glance down. And that's how I became a corporal and finally a sergeant—just luck!
A German recce plane often came over Maadi. You would first see him away to the north as a vapour trail—sometimes, when he got nearer, you would see him as a black speck. Then, when he got near Cairo, some heavy ack-ack would open up and you would see the tiny puffs many thousands of feet up—but not nearly high enough to worry Jerry. Then he would gradually turn left in a great half-circle and move north in the direction of the Canal, and finally disappear away to the north—it would take him some time to do this circuit. No planes could reach him until a specially equipped Spitfire was rigged up, waited, and then, after a long chase, shot him down towards Crete, so the story went, just under 50,000 feet. For a little while this lone flyer was sort of missed, in a way.
I had spent two years in the infantry and had only recently transferred to the Anti-Tank. At long last a change from the eternal rifle—Bren drill—2-inch mortar—bayonet. I could name all Bren stoppages; I knew why that small hole had been drilled in the gas chamber, how many turns in the rifling of the Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield, Mark—what does it matter.
The battalion was in Maadi, changing from an infantry to a motor role. For weeks we had been going through the same old grind: maintenance—gun drill—PT—route marches—rifle drill, etc., until at last even the new role began to pall. And then it happened. I was summoned to the orderly room.'Salute the orderly room as you enter, soldier!” Sorry, Sergeant-Major.’ (The longest way up and the shortest way down—wouldn't it?) I was told I was to be sent on a course. What, me go on a course? What a relief, anything for a change. ‘By the way, what course is it, six-pounder?’ ‘No, as a matter of fact it's a platoon weapons course.’
Perhaps that helped brown me off slightly, but a short time later I was doing a drop of Maori PT—flogging the sack, no less. The other members of the team were sleeping, nattering, and what have you, and one man, curse him, was doing a spot of dhobi-drill. He had set up a primus and was boiling up some KD. I've admitted I had cause to feel browned off, but not homesick, so there was I day-dreaming, when through the door drifted just a smell—an odour if you like. It brought it all back. Home, the family getting ready for work or school, Mum in the laundry boiling the copper. I reckoned I was just the average soldier, tough if needed, but I was now ready to burst out in tears, and all because I could smell boiling soapsuds.page 226
Sometimes on manoeuvres water would be drawn in two-gallon tins. As was to be expected, some men drew more than their share, leaving the others to go short. Captain Knox instructed'Hicko’ Broughton5 to supervise the issue—make sure every truck collected a fair share. Next evening Captain Knox, as he passed, saw the men drawing water tins and asked Broughton if everything was under control. ‘Hicko's' answer broke up the nearby mess queue.'She's right, sir. Some's got it, some ain't, she's right!’
Part of the battalion, together with some tanks, went on manoeuvres into the desert. Anti-Tank Company, less one troop, was in an infantry role. That one troop, except for the NCOs, was composed of reinforcements whose anti-tank training was far from complete. What little experience they had was with six-pounders, but the powers that be decreed that ‘for the purpose of the exercise’ two-pounders would be used.
Naturally the exercise required that the guns be loaded and unloaded from the portées, and any gunner knows that is not a job to be undertaken lightly by an inexperienced crew— certainly not to be attempted as a fast movement. Grave misgivings were felt by the NCOs concerned, but the alternative was to be in an infantry role, and everyone knows that there is only one thing worse than being an infantryman in action, and that is being an infantryman on manoeuvres.
The portées raced into the field. ‘Action!’ Ramps—hand-spike—wheels—winch—and by the grace of God, the guns were on the ground and dug in. The No. 4s put the Benghazi burners on for tea. Whistles blew, flags waved, and the manoeuvre ended. The signal to form convoy was given—easy enough for the infantry, but not quite so simple for a gun commander with a ‘green’ crew and a two-pounder on the ground. A first attempt resulted in a jammed hand. Just then the water boiled and the gun commander naturally called a halt for a mug of tea.
This lack of activity seemed to displease some of the higher-ups, and a jeep was despatched to inquire into the matter. The inquiring sergeant, satisfied that all would be well in a few minutes, rejoined the convoy. The tea was disposed of and the crew went back to the loading just as a second jeep, this time with an officer, called to inquire after the well-being of the page 227 troops. The loading went on apace and eventually the last portée joined the convoy, amid glowering glances from certain officers. Whistles blew, flags waved again, and in column of route the convoy cleared the battle ground.
Next day on company parade Captain Donald'discussed’ the events of the previous day, touched briefly upon the efforts of certain acting infantrymen, discoursed for a few minutes on the sight of these stalwarts advancing in battle order, carrying primuses, Benghazi burners, billies and sundry impedimenta usually seen only among motorised units, and thus he worked up to bigger things.
‘One gun crew took a long time to rejoin the convoy. Is the gun commander here?’
‘What was the cause of the delay?’
Now, I could have told him about the jammed hand and the ‘green’ crew, but I knew that officers liked observing events through binoculars. I knew that binoculars—several pairs of them—would have picked out the tea making and tea drinking, and I pictured myself making excuses, floundering through explanations—on company parade, too, so I took a deep breath and said, ‘We were just ready to load the gun when the billy boiled, so we had a cup of tea.’
Never before or since have I seen Haddon Donald at a loss for words. I strongly suspect I had stolen his thunder. ‘My God! My God! The Brigadier, the Colonel, tanks, trucks, guns, all waiting, andyou—you made a cup of tea. Don't ever do it again—don't ever do it again.’
The quiet chuckle that stirred the ranks didn't help the good captain either, and if he ever sees this story I hope he forgives me, but secretly I think he enjoyed these little events which indicated what I believe to be the way Haddon would have his NCOs act. I don't think he liked commanding ‘yes men’ and when I reflect on the NCOs who served under him, I feel that was how he had ‘brought them up’—independent thinkers, yes, but great NCOs— on the surface ‘Maaleesh’ experts, but always on the job….
A few minutes' reflection must engender a great respect for the man who selected many of them and who trained many of them— and above all, the man who controlled them.
So 22 New Zealand (Motor) Battalion, the only motorised battalion in the Division, took shape over almost a year, a tedious year at Maadi Camp. It was an independent, self-supporting group with its own vehicles; it would become a page 228 highly mobile force with particularly strong fire power, both offensive and defensive; it would train and hold itself ready to exploit at the shortest notice any breach in the enemy line, by following up fast before the enemy had time to reorganise, aiming to win and to hold fresh ground until other units arrived. Its duties would include, as Brigadier Inglis had pointed out, protection for the tanks by day and also in the night when they were laagered together; mopping up after a tank attack, and winkling out the enemy from positions inaccessible to armour. It would be strongly armed with its own anti-tank guns and machine guns.
The new battalion, 35 officers and 730 other ranks, contained fewer riflemen and a great many more drivers and technicians than the infantry battalion: 237 other ranks carrying rifles and light automatic weapons as against the customary 350 riflemen in other battalions. The companies changed from four infantry companies to three motor companies (1, 2 and 3 replacing A, B and C), and an anti-tank company replaced the former D Company. Each motor company, in the original establishment, was made up of a company headquarters, scout platoon (with eleven Bren carriers), a medium machine-gun platoon armed with four Vickers, and two motor platoons, making a company strength of 6 officers and 158 other ranks. One 3-inch mortar was attached to each company. The Anti- Tank Company (7 officers and 146 other ranks) included four troops, each troop with four two-pounder anti-tank guns, which were exchanged for six-pounders before the battalion left for Italy.
In point of fact the Italian countryside would not permit the battalion to use its mobility to any great extent. The extra carriers and medium machine guns would be withdrawn after the stalemate at Cassino, but the battalion would keep its mobility and independence where fire power was concerned to enable it to play a fluid role up the Adriatic coast in close co-operation with the tanks. The New Zealand Division eventually was really a motorised division, but whereas other battalions had to borrow vehicles from the ASC to shift troops, 22 (Motor) Battalion, until shortly before the final thrust in Italy, always had its own transport under command and was designed to play a mobile role.page 229
With the arrival of vehicles of their own the infantrymen's lot improved a great deal. For example, riflemen now had a chance to store away and take with them a little food. As one man put it: ‘Any officer with a batman, or any small group such as artillery or anti-tank which carry their own rations, must inevitably, although they may not realise it, live much better than a large body. There are all sorts of little odd drinks and things that all add up. And if a full belly holds hunger in contempt, so does an extra mug of tea or so make one a little careless of what the next man is going through.’
Men went off to a wide variety of courses (usually about 9 officers and 120 other ranks were away on courses at any given time) at the New Zealand School of Instruction and the New Zealand Armoured Corps Training Depot, to learn all about the tasks of driver-mechanic, driving and maintenance, motor-cycles and maintenance, platoon weapons, enemy weapons, mortars, range-takers, Intelligence, Vickers machine guns, signals, radio, anti-tank gunnery, and minelaying. A long-overdue service was introduced to the companies in December, when members of the intelligence section read summaries (some of them quite accurate) on the progress of the war, the exploits of the Eighth Army, and current events. Manoeuvres grew longer, from hourly to all-day affairs, and then to exercises spreading over several days. Carrier, medium machine-gun and motor platoons trained to work together. More use was made of radio-telephony during these schemes. The Anti-Tank Company practised with live ammunition, and ‘Gunner’ Fred Putt pushed away happily at his pedal. Sherman tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade gave a demonstration ‘indirect fire’ shoot. Brigadier Gentry6 lectured in the Pall Mall on lessons learned from the last of the fighting in North Africa. Companies held shoots and tactical exercises.
In an exercise with 18 Armoured Regiment, 4 Company, its guns concealed and camouflaged and using shells with paper wads,‘destroyed’ ten tanks for the loss of two guns. Reinforcements were given most realistic training (no limit to the amount page 230 of ammunition used), and were toughened up over battle courses. More than 200 members of the battalion who had not taken part in the battle of Alamein were conducted by Captain Hockley round areas where the battalion had fought. They passed through the desolation the veterans knew, and the story was pieced together and told to them.
It sounds a busy time, but the time dragged painfully: ‘I don't know what we would have done with our spare time if it wasn't for the pictures. We soaked away time at the movies, they were wonderful time-killers, but towards the end we were getting sick of them too.’ And a diary notes: ‘Saw some films shown in the mess tonight. One, [produced by the] New Zealand Film Unit, made me think of the times I'd sat in the old Majestic with Eth. and watched the same things. Got quite homesick. Oh for a large chunk of NZ butter and a bit of green grass!’
Sports played a big part in the battalion's life. Enthusiasm reached new heights as the unit gained victories against all-comers with monotonous regularity. The rugby team won the 4 Brigade competition and overran Composite Training Depot (winners of the Maadi Camp competition) by 17 points to 4. Five leading members played for 4 Brigade and were also in a 2 NZEF side: H. W. Kenny, L. R. Thomas,7 P. P. Donoghue, R. Newland8 and T. Fowler (a football injury laid up Jack Sullivan for some time). When cricket came round, Sergeant L. R. Thomas and Lance-Corporal McCall9 established a Middle East Services record for opening batsmen: 207 runs in 105 minutes in an unbroken stand. Some of the best performances of all (even including the efforts of the battalion men yachting on the Nile and the Herculean tug-of-war team) came from Captain Johnston,10 who won the 880-yard events at widely competitive Cairo and army athletic meetings.
At Maadi the best news for many was the announcement that all the married men and some of the bachelors in the First, Second, and Third Echelons would be going home on furlough page 231 (the Ruapehu and Wakatipu schemes). On 6 June the first draft, including 5 officers and 133 other ranks from the unit, sailed away in the Nieuw Amsterdam. Before their departure they made a presentation to Mrs Chapman at the Lowry Hut. Their spokesman, Bob Turner,11 remembered that soon after the battalion had reached England Mrs Chapman had equipped her van (a gift from her father, Mr T. H. Lowry, of Hawke's Bay), and from her house in Wokingham had daily visited the various units with cups of tea, little snacks, cigarettes and chocolate. Her service had been continued in Kent (and at Camberley), and when supplies had become limited she had ‘adopted’ mainly 22 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry. She had sailed to Egypt in the Empress of Britain and had carried on with the mobile canteen until the Lowry Hut was built. ‘And when we came off Crete, exhausted and bewildered, she was there on the wharf at Alexandria to greet us with her smile, her understanding, and her comforts.’ (Apart from a few months on furlough in New Zealand in 1944, Mrs Chapman was with the 2 NZEF from 1940 until after the end of the war.)
An officer wrote in June 1943: ‘Excitement over here is intense at the moment and morale could not be higher. God help the next mob that strikes the Kiwi. Brig. Kippenberger drew a striking comparison and paid the Div a great compliment when he said that it was fast becoming known and compared with such great units of history as Napoleon's Old Guard, Caesar's 10th Legion and Crawford's [sic] Light Div on the Peninsula. The Div has a wonderful name over here but the General impressed on us that it must not go to our heads, and I don't think the boys will let it do that. They are as proud as punch in their own funny way but become reserved and quiet, like all New Zealanders, when they get in a crowd.’
The training period had its quota of accidents and misfortunes: one man was killed and eleven wounded by the explosion of a 68 grenade; Sergeant Tom Steele,12 a veteran of 3 Company, lost a hand when a prepared charge went off; and Lieutenant Talbot13 (battalion transport officer) died in hospital page 232 after a sudden and brief illness. A party homeward bound in a truck after a football match and smoke-oh at 2 General Hospital, Kantara, was swept by a burst of fire from the opposite side of the Sweetwater Canal. No trace was found of the mysterious assailants who had wounded four men in the truck.
When the battalion was fully motorised the Division struck out on a 100-mile route march on 7 October along the desert road to Burg el Arab: ‘Last time we had been that way a year ago the wind came up in our faces in hot gusts off the scorching asphalt….’ The marching was done at night because of the heat, but it was still stifling and deadly monotonous, as night marches generally are. The battalion was the only unit to complete the march fully, and furthermore had far fewer casualties than any other unit, as Brigadier Inglis noted appreciatively. Four Company (nicknamed ‘Corps d’ élite’) put up the best performance. Time and again on the weary march the company's signature tune was heard: ‘The Blue-ridged Mountains of Virginia’, invariably led by Don Agnew.14
The marathon march took seven nights, about 15 miles being covered each night. After the hourly ten-minute halt'so many of us on restarting would appear to be walking on hot bricks for a while. The pads of our feet became very tender…. And we used to spend a long time watching that cookhouse light while on the march. But as the road ahead was level and straight we could never tell just how far away it was. We knew it was our stopping place.’
‘As time wore on we found the only decent diversions were grizzling and singing,’ recalls Tom Grace.15’ Grizzling made our tired feet worse but singing eased the pain—so sing we did, every song in the book, and when we ran out we made them up. Each night we halted for hot cocoa. Somebody hit up Bill Butler16 (the “Q,” bloke) for a hunk of bread apiece to go with the cocoa. “She's right, I'll jack'er up,” said Bill, but for two nights no bread. The third night, after putting our heads together, we insisted Bill Butler walk with our troop for a bit.page 233
To the tune of “The Quartermaster's Store” we burst into:
There'll be bread, bread, so Bill Butler said
On the march, on the march.
There'll be bread, bread, so Bill Butler said
But we got——all instead.
‘That fixed it—we never did get the bread.’
One man is still amazed at receiving an issue of strawberry jam on the march. He had quite forgotten such a delicacy remained in the world.
Much credit for the success of the march goes to the pipers of the band, whose pipes had been replaced by Scots' gifts from New Zealand. ‘They marched and played and carried along many weary bodies which might otherwise have faltered,’ said Colonel Campbell. One stalwart in the band was Johnny Meikle,17 who carried on with enthusiasm when three of the original pipers, Sergeant Jock Lowe, Private Jock Mackay,18 and Lance-Corporal Dick Moody19 returned home on the Ruapehu scheme.
At Burg el Arab the battalion did a little more training (including Technique, the Division's last exercise in the desert, and the last familiar flap with vehicles stuck in the sand), received injections against various diseases and a course of pill-taking against malaria, went on route marches and another night march (Con McManus,20 of I Company, covered ten miles with a hangover and entered into the legendary figures of the battalion when Neil McNeil21 discovered him at dawn clumping valiantly along with his boots on the wrong feet), and voted in the General Election in New Zealand. A severe sandstorm howled in farewell from dawn to dusk on 10 October, and a week later the battalion embarked at Alexandria. Laden like a mule, any man who sat down was cast by his burden, and a comrade gingerly lending a hand sometimes overbalanced himself. But at last, up the gangway and off to Italy.22
1 These pages are based upon the recollections of a number of men who served in the battalion.
6 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942-Apr 1943; DCGS (in NZ) 1943-44; comd NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944-Feb 1945; comd 9 Bde (in Italy) 1945; DCGS 1946-47; AG 1949-52; CGS 1952-55.
7 2 Lt L. R. Thomas; Johnsonville; born NZ 29 Jun 1916; canister maker.
22 Shipped in three groups: A (Colonel Campbell) in Llangibby Castle, II, 951 tons; B (Major Donald) in Nieuw Holland, II, 696 tons; C (Captain Oldham) in Letitia, 13,000 tons. Lieutenant C. R. Carson followed later with the vehicles. Each man carried aboard his blanket roll, winter and summer clothing, personal gear, weapons and ammunition, respirator, bivvy tent (shared between two), anti-malaria ointment and tablets, emergency ration, and an empty two-gallon water can.