Chapter 2 — Early Days in Egypt
Early Days in Egypt
FROM the siding the battalion marched a short distance to the camp. Assisted by 20 Battalion personnel, the advanced party had made preparations for the arrival of the main body but a lot remained to be done. The whole of 6 Brigade was now contained in one camp—in N Block. The first few days passed quickly. Tents were erected, slit trenches dug around or near them, and latrines built. The only wooden buildings in the area were used as cookhouses, orderly rooms, and for stores. In these first few days the men accustomed themselves to their new surroundings. The vast stretches of sandy waste and high escarpments, entirely devoid of vegetation, were strangely impressive and yet soon became monotonous. In the opposite direction this monotony was relieved by a magnificent view of the wide, fertile Nile Valley, with its stately palms and emerald green wealth of vegetation. To the north the impressive lines of the Citadel could be clearly seen, with the domes, pinnacles, and minarets of Cairo in the background. Beyond the river were the Pyramids, which in the distance resembled surprisingly closely the picture postcards of Egypt commonly seen in book- shops in New Zealand. To nearly everyone Egypt at first glance was little different from what had been expected or imagined.
Sixth Brigade remained in N Block until mid-December and the ten weeks' stay was strenuous. Summer dress—shorts and shirts—gave but little relief from the heat. On 7 October the battalion began a period of intensive training, much along the lines of that carried out in Burnham. More equipment was received but most of it was on issue only for training. Seven trucks and three motor cycles were received, plus a number of Bren guns and two-inch mortars. Later came three-inch mortars, signals equipment, mapping instruments, and several Bren carriers. This equipment enabled the specialist platoons and sections to devote more time to their particular work and allowed the battalion to function as a complete infantry unit.page 11
The early training was strenuous. A full syllabus had been drawn up and the companies and platoons went through the routine of rifle, bayonet and squad drill, intermingled with lectures. Many of the officers and NCOs were sent on special courses and instructors were brought in from First Echelon units. Route marches were very frequent and the troops marched long distances over the desert. On several occasions the marches took place after dusk, and company commanders learned how easy it was to get their men lost in the desert at night. Discipline was strict and the punishment for any offence severe. Company parades were held almost every morning and were frequently followed by a battalion parade and an inspection. It behoved each soldier to keep his rifle free from dust or be prepared for some penalty.
On 27 October the reinforcement companies left behind in Bombay arrived at Maadi. Their ship, the Felix Roussel, had been bombed as she sailed through the Red Sea and while watering at Port Sudan. One of the companies was later absorbed in the battalion and brought the unit strength up to 776, an increase of 108. This was in accordance with a direction to increase platoon strengths to 38 and sections from eight to eleven men.
Early in November the training entered a new and more interesting phase, field exercises and lectures occupying the greater part of the day. Parade-ground drill was cut down to a minimum—a decision welcomed by all ranks. As in Burnham, the training took the form of platoon exercises followed by company and battalion manæuvres. These manæuvres were taken very seriously, especially by the officers, and there was considerable rivalry among the companies. Lack of transport for the battalion handicapped Col Page in planning the exercises, and the troops generally had to complete a long march before an exercise could begin. For the brigade manæuvre held during the month transport was provided, lorries taking the men to within six miles of the exercise area at El Tibn Knolls.
On its return the battalion began range practice. Each company visited the battle-practice range at Abbassia and a second one close to the camp. At the former the troops had to accustom themselves to firing at snap and moving targets. The battalion page 12 page 13 also provided guards and pickets at Helwan airfield, Abbassia, and the Tura Caves. These duties were a welcome change from the normal routine at Maadi.
Amenities at Maadi were better than had been expected. Meals were good; in the opinion of many they were better than at Burnham. The general health was excellent although for a while dysentery, mild or otherwise, attacked nearly everyone. Maadi was growing rapidly and tents were being replaced by huts. The several recreation huts in the camp were very popular, particularly at supper-time. The NAAFI canteen was well stocked and had a plentiful supply of beer. Shafto's cinema was open every night, and although the films were often old and poorly projected there was always a crowd to see them.
Leave was granted to Cairo on a limited scale, and everyone who could took the opportunity to visit the city. They found that, like Bombay, Cairo is a city of majestic and beautiful buildings and dirty, dingy slums. The New Zealand Forces Club was incomplete but the South African, British, and Ausralian clubs were open to troops on leave. Officers had the choice of the Turf, Gezira, and Maadi clubs. There was always plenty to do and see in the city and its environs.
The only sign of the war which the unit saw during this period was a bombing raid by a single enemy plane on the night of 20 October. The air-raid sirens sounded and the men scattered in all directions, some to slit trenches. The plane dropped its bombs in the desert some distance beyond the camp, causing several casualties in a village near the railway line to Tura. In the morning it was noticeable that slit trenches were being deepened.
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About mid-December 6 Brigade moved to another camp about three miles from Helwan, the southern terminus of the railway running through Maadi from Cairo, and the location of 2 NZ General Hospital. On the 13th of the month the battalion left Maadi by lorry and on arriving in the new camp found its quarters in a dirty state. With the exception of D Coy which occupied huts, the men were in tents. The battalion re- page 14 mained at Helwan for nearly three months. The time was spent on guard and picket duties, field exercises and manæuvres. After the New Year other units took over the guard duties and the battalion began to receive and train with its own equipment. The training, though interesting, became increasingly more strenuous, and it left the troops with little opportunity or inclination for recreation.
Helwan Camp did not have the amenities of Maadi. Shafto's ran a nightly picture show and there was a Naafi, but recreation huts were in the town, three miles away. Water was laid on to the camp but the sanitary arrangements were poor. Highlight of the stay at Helwan was Christmas Day—the first of several to be spent overseas by the unit. Officers and sergeants served the meal and waited on the tables. Pork and duck were the main items on the menu and the officers served generous helpings. Beer was also served with the meal. General Freyberg and Brig Barrowclough1 visited the mess. A large mail, including Patriotic Fund Board parcels and others from kinsfolk, was distributed. This, together with the excellent meal and the leave granted afterwards, made the day memorable.
The training now was much more advanced than that carried out earlier. Each company completed a course which included tank hunting, exploitation and consolidation on an objective, concealment, village and street fighting, night patrolling, assault bridging, river crossings, and attacking over wire obstacles under artillery and mortar fire. Route marches were held regularly and each week they seemed to get longer and tougher. Nearly every exercise held during the day was also carried out after dusk. The culmination of this training was a five-day brigade manæuvre which began on 6 January. During this exercise the troops made some gruelling marches and lived and slept out in the desert. Most of the exercises practised earlier were done once more, but this time under more realistic conditions. The Divisional Cavalry acted as the tank force, and the RAF provided air cover and acted as enemy aircraft on occasion. A page 15 feature of the exercise was the repelling of a tank-supported attack by the infantry armed only with Boys anti-tank rifles.
It was very hot during the daytime and cold after dusk. Only one blanket a man was carried, and each soldier found that the desert could be really cold. Night exercises were generally unpopular. On one night during the brigade manæuvre A Coy was ordered to dig in as part of a defensive scheme near El Tibn Knolls. Part of the company was doing this when natives from a nearby village appeared on the scene. Despite linguistic difficulties the troops gathered from the villagers' excited manner that they had begun to dig on the fringe of an old cemetery. To prove his words one of the natives began to lay open one of the graves, and it took the troops some time to convince him that they understood and were about to move away.
On the last night of the operation the 20 Battalion lorries, which had carried the battalion for part of the journey to and from the manæuvre area, ran into soft sand. Hours of back- breaking work followed before they were freed, and it was a tired, weary, and dusty battalion which returned to Helwan. On the whole the exercise had been a success. Mistakes had been made and corrected. All ranks were gaining knowledge of what was expected of them and confidence in their ability to do it. The success of General Wavell's army in Libya was having a pronounced effect on morale.
The rest of January and February was spent in doing compass work, gas drill, wiring, and in receiving instruction on mines, booby traps, and other specialised subjects. Route marches continued as before. New equipment arrived almost every other day and by the end of February the unit was fully equipped. Platoons were armed with Bren guns and two-inch mortars as well as rifles. Signallers had been issued with flags and telephone cable and the Mortar Platoon with four 3- inch mortars. Anti-aircraft equipment was somewhat inadequate—four Bren guns mounted on tripods. The unit transport, which arrived about the middle of February, consisted of about thirty 8, 15 and 30-cwt. trucks and a staff car for the CO. The Bren carriers which arrived about the same time gave mechanical trouble from the start. The bicycles issued to each page 16 company proved useful around camp but were found useless in the field.
During the three months at Helwan a number of changes of command had occurred. On 19 February Maj Brook died of pneumonia and the battalion lost one of its most popular and efficient officers. Padre Strang2 conducted the burial service at the British War Cemetery at Old Cairo, and over 200 members of the battalion attended as a military escort. Captain Huggins3 took over D Coy and Capt Foley4 HQ Coy. Lieutenant Weston5 became Adjutant but was replaced later by Lt L. G. Smith6 A number of the men had been transferred to other units, some after being regraded. The 1st Reinforcement Company had been absorbed into the unit and a second reinforcement company was training with the battalion.
By the first week of March the Second Echelon had arrived from England to complete the Division in Egypt. Everyone guessed that it would not be long before the Division moved into the field. During the last few days of February and the first week in March, all equipment was checked and deficiencies made up.7 The camp was beginning to assume an air of expectancy. The troops were fit, trained, and each man knew the testing time was near and was ready for it.
1 Maj-Gen H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (Pte to Lt-Col commanding 4 Bn); wounded Messines, 1917; commanded 6 Bde 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div, 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944.
4 Maj W. C. T. Foley; Wellington; born Stratford, 7 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; 26 Bn 1940–41; commanded squadron 2 Tank Bn (in NZ) 1942–43; LO, Special Tank Sqn, 2 NZEF (IP) 1943; Armd Regt, 1945; 2 NZEF (Japan) 1945–46.
7 At this time an infantry battalion's weapon strength was as follows:—
Platoon: 24 rifles 3 TSMGs 3LMGs 1 pistol 1 A-tk rifle 1 2-inch mortar.
Company: 79 rifles 9 TSMGs 9 LMGs 12 pistols 4 A-tk rifles 3 2-inch mortars.
Total First Line: 320 rifles 37 TSMGs 36 LMGs 27 pistols 16 A-tk rifles
12 2-inch mortars.
Total Second Line*: 130 rifles 5 TSMGs 13 LMGs 9 pistols 9 A-tk rifles 2 3-inch mortars.
* Add also 10 Bren carriers, 4 mounting AALMGs.