Journey Towards Christmas
(3) Diversion to a Dragon-Slaying
(3) Diversion to a Dragon-Slaying
Nothing remains but to get B Section to Amiriya. The section—the company rather1—had entered Papakura Camp on 12 January 1940,2 had trained under Captain N. M. Pryde3 and Lieutenant S. A. Sampson,4 and on 1 May had boarded the Aquitania.
While the convoy was in the Indian Ocean its destination was changed from Egypt to England. Capetown was reached on 26 May; page 40 Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, on 7 June. The convoy spent only a few hours here and no shore leave was granted.
Paris fell on the 14th, and two days later the convoy arrived at Greenock in the Firth of Clyde after having travelled 17,000 miles.
The troops went ashore in lighters, entraining for Aldershot the same afternoon. Their arrival, of course, was unheralded, but as they went through Scotland and over the border into England, and down through the northern counties (catching, as they rumbled through the June night, the reek of blast furnaces, and sometimes, as a wayside station flashed past, a fragrance of cottage flowers), the news of their coming went before them and at every halt they were welcomed with smiles and little bursts of applause and with sandwiches and hot drinks. They were glad, these English people, to see Australians and New Zealanders, but they were not surprised. Only Hitler was surprised. Knowing everything about the Statute of Westminster but little about the hearts of free peoples, he had expected the Empire to fly to pieces.
The Ammunition Company was taken to the village of Bourley, about four miles from Aldershot. There it went under canvas.
During their first week in England all New Zealand troops were issued with free rail warrants and granted 48 hours' disembarkation leave. Our drivers were sent off in three groups and most of them went to London.
In London there are barbed-wire entanglements and machinegun emplacements, and the parks and the city gardens have been divested of their iron railings, which are being converted into armaments. Oxford Street and the Strand are still as crowded as ever, with hundreds of scarlet omnibuses, seemingly careless and half asleep, but as sure as cats, swooping and pouncing through the traffic. Grey pigeons, fat and pompous, stump up and down in front of Saint Paul's and the British Museum on delicate pink feet; the London sparrows are busy about Charing Cross, and the waterfowl, all the colours of the rainbow, paddle in the Serpentine. France has fallen and the swastika floats above the Eiffel Tower, but the birds of London, free in the city as in a forest, are undisturbed.
And so are the London people—the people in the scarlet omnibuses and the people who stream out into the sunlight like black ants from tube and underground, clutching their Evening Standards.page 41
They are undisturbed, too, in the sleepy market towns and the villages of the South Country. Some of the drivers have gone there, taking the winding English lanes whose hedges are white with hawthorn and following them to quiet places where (close to the grey church, always so large and stately in comparison with the other houses: a stone sheepdog guarding her stone pups) the village inn—the Lion, the Three Tuns, the Death of Nelson—stands open for thirsty travellers. Here the landlord, smothering a polite belch, looks up from polishing the bar to take the order, and then, seeing the New Zealand hat, smiles broadly and refuses payment. He had a lad, or someone he knows had a lad, who was over to them parts….
They are not disturbed (or if they are they are keeping it to themselves) in the big houses, walking towards which and admiring the rhododendrons New Zealanders may be seen often, a friendly old gentleman or an old lady having offered them a meal and a hot bath.
They are not worried in the village shops and the cottages (or if they are they are taking care to hide it) or in the Commercial Road and the Elephant and Castle. Gone are the days when people were eager for soft jobs, searched for funk-holes in the country, grumbled about evacuees, bought up all the tinned stuff in the neighbourhood, carped and criticised. Since France has fallen, since England has been defeated in Europe and Dunkirk has happened, there has been a new courage abroad, and a new gentleness, and a new fierceness. England is in mortal danger and her people are ready and they are waiting. David Low has published a cartoon in the Evening Standard. It depicts a solitary British soldier in a steel helmet. He stands on the cliffs of Dover with the Channel at his feet and shakes his fist at a ravaged and beaten continent. And the caption is this: ‘Very well, alone!’
It was their finest hour.
A week passed and the company was issued with its transport (Bedfords and a few Albions) and its second-line holding of ammunition.
During July the drivers underwent extensive training in convoy work and vehicle maintenance besides carrying out brigade transport page 42 duties and taking part in field exercises. Everywhere they went they noticed the feverish preparations that were being made to meet the invasion. Signposts had been taken down and concrete road-blocks were being erected near bridges and villages. Boys and elderly men, at all hours of the night and day, could be seen panting up and down hillsides or crouching in ditches, practising for the defence of their own corner of England. They had few rifles.
Early in August a Divisional exercise was carried out and the company established ammunition points and functioned in accordance with the rules laid down for a transport unit. Our drivers returned to Bourley on the 8th, the richer by much practical experience in operational work and by memories of the Sussex countryside. Also, they had acquired some skill at darts, England's national game.
On the night of the 27th-28th a move was made to St. Leonard's Forest near Hastings. The journey took four hours, and for the greater part of that time it was impossible to use lights as enemy aircraft were overhead. On two occasions the convoy was halted by air raids. The next day was spent in working out a scheme of protection for the bivouac area and in digging in anti-tank rifles and machine guns. On the 29th the company returned to its old area at Bourley.
Meanwhile the Battle of Britain had begun and every day it was mounting in intensity. All day long the skies over Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent were ribboned with vapour trails and speckled with white puffs as the British fighter pilots fought back and antiaircraft guns, hidden beside rick and oast-house, in coppice and by wayside tearoom, barked and coughed. Hienkels, Dorniers, and Messerschmitts fell out of the sky, crashing in hop fields, flaming in orchards and cottage gardens. In the streets of London paper-sellers chalked up the score: 8 August, 60 planes destroyed over the Channel; 11 August, another 60; 12 August, 78 planes destroyed over the Channel; 14 August, 180 planes destroyed over Great Britain. Our own fighters, precious beyond price and for a time irreplaceable, were falling too. But at bench and assembly line the battle was also being waged. Men and women worked until they dropped, and new squadrons took the air.
August ended, and the sky over England was still ours and Germany changed her plans. If London were smashed, if the city page 43 were in flames and the Thames estuary closed, then, surely, the people would rise against their Government, mad for peace.
From their bivouac area, and in the country lanes where their convoys were held up, our drivers saw the planes come over. For a start they came in arrowhead formation with Messerschmitts above them and one large black bomber, usually, in the lead. Later they came over in tight blocks or in serried tiers, and they came from all points of the compass. Ack-ack pounded them and our fighters darted to the attack, snarling all over the sky in great circles, but many of them got through, and presently from the direction of London came the sullen rumble of bombs. Often at night the sky was pink over the city.
At first the whine of the sirens was the signal for everyone to drop what he was doing and take cover, but after a while it was decided that work should continue during alerts, unit air sentries being relied on to give adequate warning of any real danger. The company maintained two ack-ack posts.
On 6 September the unit left Bourley for Bristling Wood, near Maidstone, in Kent, the 68-mile journey, which was made at night, taking ten hours to complete on account of air raids and traffic blocks. There was something electric in the atmosphere and our drivers, as they sat in their lorries watching the white beams of the searchlights stroking the clouds and making their vast geometry over London, were conscious of a prickling excitement, half pleasurable and half fearful. Even now the barges might be leaving the French ports.5
The new area provided good cover, which was just as well, for concealment and camouflage had become matters of the first importance. A Dornier was shot down only half a mile from the area soon after the company arrived, and a week later a Hurricane crashed 400 yards away, the pilot escaping with minor injuries. The ack-ack posts were no longer engaging even low-flying aircraft, for orders had been issued forbidding them to open fire unless the area was directly threatened.
The weather, in the meantime, had changed. It was less warm now. Shotguns were banging away in the woods and the nuts were page 44 ripening. Leaves and bracken had turned to gold. On fine days the skies were luminous with diffused sunlight and as delicate as a robin's egg and as softly blue, with sunset a hidden pink and later a red blaze like burning London. Often, though, they were sullen and overcast and the raiders would be hidden by cloud banks or by grey vapours that scudded across the heavens like spindrift. And at times they were flat and featureless and drained of all colour, so that the raiders, tier above neat tier, had the appearance of being stationary, like verses on old vellum.
The Luftwaffe was losing heavily—on 15 September, when the battle was at its peak, 185 enemy planes were reported shot down—but still it was getting through to London. In the shopping districts there were charred ruins where great shops had stood, the names of which had been known everywhere. Buckingham Palace had been damaged and famous houses had disappeared from the West End. Rows of small villas had been wiped out in the suburbs and grass was sprouting in the slums, where for the first time in centuries fresh air had been allowed to penetrate and flowers were growing. By city wharves warehouses stood gaunt and gutted. Faces were grimmer now, for there was little sleep in London. People spent the nights in their cellars and in the tubes. Hundreds had lost their homes and many were in mourning. Gone was that strange gaiety and gladness that had come to Londoners after Dunkirk. Dogged endurance had supervened. Very well, alone!
In spite of her scars and of the constant danger from the skies London continued to draw our drivers like a magnet. She was to blame even more than Scotland for the fact that large numbers of New Zealanders were always absent without leave.
Under the circumstances the allowance of official leave was not niggardly. Each week three of the drivers were granted seven days' leave, and free rail travel was provided to all places as far north as Carlisle.
October arrived, and by this time autumn had become early winter. It was no weather for camping out and everyone was glad to hear that the company would be moving into winter quarters, suitable accommodation having been found at Hunton, a small village near Maidstone. Company headquarters was to occupy the village hall and the transport section an oast-house, which consisted of a two-storied building surrounded by six conical towers.page 45
The drivers of the transport section moved to Hunton a day earlier than the rest and it was as well they did, for they had been gone only a few hours—it was the afternoon of the 3rd—when the old area was bracketed by an enemy bomber. The residue of the company did not present a large target and no damage was done.
In the days that lay ahead they were to become used to narrow escapes, for while they were at Hunton the neighbourhood received plenty of attention from the Luftwaffe. They had been there barely three days before a dive bomber dropped a stick of bombs that shook the whole village, and on the following day four high-explosive bombs fell near their billets, the nearest of them landing eighty yards from the vehicle park. There was another raid on the 13th, but, less than a fortnight later, our drivers had a taste of revenge. A Messerschmitt 109 flew over the area with three Spitfires on its tail and while circling round, losing height all the time, was engaged vigorously by the two ack-ack posts. Finally it made a forced landing about 400 yards from Section headquarters and the guard lost no time in taking the pilot into custody. He gave his name as Birk and our drivers noticed that he was decorated with the Knight's Cross and the Iron Cross. German pilots at this time were popularly supposed either to be drugged or to go into battle under the eye of the Gestapo (‘My dear, in every bomber that's forced down there is always one man who has been shot through the head: he's the Gestapo man.’), and with these stories in mind our drivers gazed curiously at Herr Birk, but there was nothing in his appearance either to confirm them or to refute them. All that one could say of him was that he looked scared, as well he might do considering how people of his kind were regarded in Hunton—scared and bewildered. How did it go, that song? ‘Sleep well, my kitten—we are marching against England.’ Well, he could forget about marching for some time and about seeing his kitten—unless, of course, Hitler came. But Hitler was long overdue, and in England (and in Germany as well, perhaps) people were beginning to say that the Battle of Britain was already over. The first dragon, the daylight dragon, had been vanquished, and as for the second one, the dragon that flew by night breathing fire over London, burning St. Clement Danes, Westminster Hall, Our Lady of Victories, Turner's house in Cheyne Walk, and the Wren churches, that, too, was mortal.page 46
During October bad weather interfered with the training programme but transport duties were carried out as usual. It was pleasant indeed after driving for hours through the cold rain to come home to the oast-house, which was always warm and dry. In the lower story, which was used as a mess room and cookhouse, a large open fire was kept burning night and day and its grateful warmth pervaded the sleeping quarters, which were separated from the room below by nothing except an iron grating, spread now with palliasses and bedrolls instead of with drying hops.
The New Zealand contingent moved from Maidstone to Aldershot during the first week of November. The company went to Ash, a village about four miles from the town, the drivers being billetted in a fair-sized country house called Shawfield Farm. The bad weather continued and the rest of the month was passed chiefly in a struggle to prevent the lorries from sinking below the surface of the vehicle park.
December came and brought an improvement in the weather. The mornings were bitterly cold but the ground was dry and hard and there were many of those lovely hours of December sunshine that come early in the afternoon when the last bronze leaves are eddying through the still air under milky skies, blue here, with the delicate faint blue of milk, and gold in places, but only dusted with gold, like cream. With twilight the frost seized everything and in village streets there was no warm glow from cottage window or inn door to speak of Christmas. Enemy bombers droned and hiccupped through the night sky and tighter than the grip of frost was the grip of darkness.
The company had been released from its operational role on moving from the Maidstone area, and early in the month all transport was handed in except a few lorries that were kept for domestic use. On the 11th, together with other NZASC units, the company was inspected at Mytchett, near Aldershot, by the Duke of Gloucester, Captain Pryde being in charge of the parade. That afternoon the balance of the transport was handed in.
The days flew by and it was Christmas—Christmas for German kittens whose fathers were marching against England and Christmas for the children of Ash. There was holly and mistletoe and reedy trebles touchingly out of tune singing about the shepherds and good King Wenceslas, but there were no bells. For the first time page 47 since England had known churches and the Christmas story they were silent in proud belfries and tall steeples and in little, red brick chapels. Only for the invasion would they ring out.
Christmas dinner for the whole company was held in a gaily decorated garage, part of Company headquarters' billets. The fare was excellent and until late in the afternoon everyone was merry. Then there was bad news. Sergeant Andrew Morton6 had been killed while standing on the running-board of a lorry. He was buried on 28 December in Brockwood cemetery.
The old year ended, and early on 3 January 1941 our drivers entrained at Aldershot. For the last time they were smelling that horrible and fascinating smell—a distillation of coal-dust, egg sandwiches, and escaping steam—that would always remind them of English railways.
Half across England they travelled, reaching Newport at half past ten in the morning and boarding the Duchess of Bedford the same day. On the 5th the ship moved down the Severn estuary, anchoring in the Barry Roads, where she spent the 6th. She sailed at five the next morning, crossed the Irish Sea in company with three other transports, and anchored off Bangor, County Down, on the 8th.
The convoy received an addition of six transports on the 11th, and on the 12th, after sailing before dawn, was joined by eleven more off the Firth of Clyde, which brought the total number of ships to twenty-one, not counting a large naval escort.
Scotland and Ireland faded in the distance and presently the procession of ships was alone with the grey waters of the Atlantic and the circling gulls. The gulls lingered for a while and then turned towards the shore, winging their way homeward, making for their small island, their obtuse island. ‘Effete,’ said Germany. ‘Fat,’ said Italy. ‘Perfidious,’ said France. The charges might still stand, but there was a word to be added, and the word was ‘Brave’. Every New Zealander, each in his own way, echoed it in his heart. They could say through all the years to come: ‘I was there. I saw it.’ They could tell how a small island, obtuse and not over brilliant in battle, had stood alone, defying dragons.page 48
A bitter wind and green-grey tumbling seas marbled with foam. ‘Hell,’ says everyone, ‘Must be near Iceland.’ The convoy alters course and the wind mellows, smoothing the seas to long Atlantic rollers. Our drivers march round the deck wearing boots. The sea is calm now and the weather much warmer. Grinning, the orderlies swab iodine on the soldiers' arms and the doctor drives home his needle. Hotter and hotter becomes the weather. The convoy is making for Freetown. The heat in the estuary is blinding. No training is possible and the soldiers lie panting in the shade. Anti-malaria ointment has been issued and they are able to sleep on deck—a great boon. Everyone is glad when the coast of Africa fades in the distance, but it is still hot and the soldiers grumble about the food. It had seemed excellent during the first few days, as it always does on shipboard. Now they can hardly face it. Longingly they describe the kind of meals they will eat in Capetown—steaks, eggs, fish, great juicy fruit. A spicy fragrance blows from Cape Province and the Duchess is in harbour. Leave is granted and no one behaves outrageously so there is more leave. Old friends are greeted and the dream meals are translated into fact. Three clear days at Capetown—then to sea again. Table Mountain fades from sight and a week later the convoy is sweltering in the hottest part of the Indian Ocean. The sea is glassy and in places jet black owing to its great depth. Tropical rain falls in solid sheets and the soldiers rush into the open, bathe themselves, rinse out their underclothes. The hills behind Aden are sighted and a Blenheim bomber flies overhead as the convoy enters the Red Sea. Everyone starts to pack. At last, late in the afternoon on 3 March, fifty-seven days after leaving Newport, the Duchess anchors in the Gulf of Suez.
On the 5th our drivers go ashore and a train takes them to Maadi. From Maadi they get leave to Cairo. After two days they climb aboard lorries and are taken to Amiriya. The Divisional Ammunition Company is complete.‘Old Johnny made it, eh?’
‘Yeah. Got a ride up with “Cash”, his RMT brother.’
‘Tough “C. Jay” missing—and “Plunger” and old “Snow”.’
‘Yeah. He couldn't have made it, “C. Jay”—not with that toe of his. Not carrying this load.’ page 49
Cigarettes glowed in the darkness. Somebody cursed the cold and made reference to the peculiar effect it would have on a brass monkey. That bitter chill that creeps over the desert just before dawn was making us shiver in spite of greatcoats and a mass of equipment. We should be warm enough, though, when we started moving. Valise (with blanket-roll bound round it), haversack, kitbag, full web equipment, rifle, ammunition, water bottle, respirator, and a hundred odds and ends—under this load it was difficult even to stand up, let alone march.
During the ten days we had spent at Amiriya we had had plenty of time in which to experiment with rolls and bundles and many of us had packed and unpacked a score of times. Leave, of course, had been out of the question and few of us had cared to slip into Alexandria and take the risk of being left behind. The arrival of B Section had broken the monotony a little but it could not be said that A Section and C Section as a whole had taken the newcomers to their hearts. They were inclined to regard us—or perhaps it was our imagination—as recruits, raw and unblooded, and their references to the Battle of Britain annoyed us. We called them the ‘Glamour Boys’ and ‘Cook's Tourists’. Watching the lorries leave had been another distraction. Four days after our arrival at Amiriya twenty of them had left for the docks under Second-Lieutenant Fenton and on the following day the rest had left under the Major and Lieutenant Aitken.7 The drivers in charge of them had gone too and that had necessitated finding fresh players to fill the vacancies in the poker and pontoon schools. Then there had been a sandstorm, one of the worst in our experience. Latterly we had spent most of our time in rehearsing the present scene.
Dawn drew a streak of lemon in the east and someone said: ‘All right. Pick up your gear. By the centre, quick march. Keep your ranks.’ Tripping over rocks, cursing our loads, which (in spite of the rehearsals) kept trying either to hamstring us or to garrotte us, we trudged across the desert in the direction of El Quadir station. It was only a short march—a couple of miles or so—but by the time it was finished the strongest of us had had enough. As soon as the train arrived the jostling and pushing that had characterised our behaviour from the moment of parading started all over again. page 50 Everyone was anxious to keep close to his special friends so that he could be with them on the boat. From the train stop to the wharf was a short march and we made it under the mocking glances of the Egyptians, who were far too wise and too wicked to go to war themselves. Without much delay we were got aboard HMAS Perth.
At a quarter past eleven in the morning the gap between the wharf and the cruiser's side started to widen. Clumsily we dressed ship, getting barked at by the Master at Arms for talking. ‘Smartly there! You're in the Navy now.’
Swiftly the cruiser gathered speed, dipping through the cold and sparkling waters.
Someone asked a sailor where we were going. He looked surprised.
‘Greece,’ he said, ‘We've been taking 'em there all week.’page break
Map of Greece
1 At that time our drivers of the Second Echelon were organised as a company, which consisted of Company headquarters, one transport section, and Workshops. This organisation continued until they joined us at Amiriya, when the transport section became B Section and the remaining drivers, most of whom were specialists, were absorbed by Company headquarters and Workshops. Their strength on entering Egypt was two officers (Maj Pryde and Capt Sampson), one warrant officer, four sergeants, and 119 ORs. Maj Pryde was posted to the Divisional Supply Column three days after he joined us.
3 Maj N. M. Pryde, MBE, ED; bank accountant; Papakura; born Waikaka Valley, Southland, 6 May 1899; served in Div Amn Coy, Nov 1939-Mar 1941; OC Div Sup Coy Mar 1941-Dec 1942; OC 2 Amn Coy Dec 1942-Jun 1943.
5 The move from the Aldershot area to the coast sectors in Kent and Sussex was made by the entire New Zealand contingent. It was to be held in reserve near the coast so that in the event of invasion it could launch the first counter-attack.