CHAPTER 18 — ‘Pastures New’
It was rather uncanny to be able to spread blankets out in the sunlight or to wander about carelessly when, only twenty-four hours ago, every single action had been wrapped up in caution and all movements, even the subconscious ones, had been made in relation to possible enemy reaction. Now that there was no danger, life seemed strange and it was hard for men to reconcile themselves to wandering around anywhere as if they were just out on manoeuvres and were having a day's spell.
Men naturally wanted to go into Tunis to see the place which had been the Eighth Army's goal. Two truckloads of them set off the day after the cease-fire, the plan being to camp one night at a staging area near the city and to return late the following day. This would have allowed a new party to go every other day. But such plans came to an abrupt end when a movement order came down just after the first party had left. The tanks and carriers were to be prepared for handing over to other units in Tunisia at no more than two hours' warning.
No one was reluctant to see the vehicles go, even though these had been their homes for so long. Everyone was sick and tired of fighting. All they wanted to do was to rest. They were really tired.
A puzzling feature of this movement order at the time was the instruction that the men to be detailed to act as skeleton crews for the vehicles, and therefore to remain behind when the others moved off towards Egypt, were not to be men of the first three echelons. This feature, of course, gave birth to a number of rumours, none of which, strangely enough this time, came anywhere near the truth, even though there had been of late quite a lot of frivolous talk about men being sent home to New Zealand for furlough; indeed, the Hon. F. Jones, in his address to the regiment late in April, had dropped hints to that effect.
The long drive back to Base began on 16 May. There was a run across country to strike the main road near Wadi Akarit, and the trip continued day by day in stages of about 120 miles, with spells of a day at Tripoli and Benghazi, where it was page 290 possible to let men have showers and a general clean up. At nights en route there were shows by the Kiwi Concert Party and films shown by the Mobile Cinema Unit. On these occasions everybody took along an old petrol tin for a chair or just lay about relaxed in the sand. There was one evening when a film broke off in the middle. This produced immediate comments on what was to be expected back in Maadi, where the cinemas were run under civilian contract. But the comments were quickly silenced when the operator's voice came booming forth from the sound unit below the truck which bore the screen:
Famous words—famous hen. George used to drive a petrol truck and this hen was his constant passenger and companion. At any halt she used to fly down from the truck and scratch about in the desert for food. However she was fed, she did well, for she kept her friend and master supplied with fresh eggs for many months. But there came a time when neither battle nor bomb could stop Mother Nature asserting herself, and George's hen became more and more crotchety at the suggestion that her daily egg so generously laid—and at such physical effort too midst shot and shell—should be removed. So George, the kindly master, found her some eggs worth mothering and Henrietta, if such were her name, gladly adopted them. Thus, in due time, Mother Nature had contrived yet another means of halting for a moment the entertainment of some hundreds of soldiers.
The drive back, a matter of a fortnight, was without incident and had become almost monotonous. Outwardly the men were as phlegmatic as ever as they sat there hour by hour screwing up their eyes in the wind, or dozing or playing cards, or arguing over the cooking of the next meal; but, as the last few stages approached, there grew and came welling up in their minds a curious and indefinable feeling of excitement, which had its origin in the realisation that they represented a body of men who had fought its way over every mile of this same ground, and had taken seven months over it. This feeling was difficult to reconcile with the present situation. Nevertheless the men were triumphantly proud of the sight which the convoy would make to a casual observer: the canopies bleached by the sun; here and there a windscreen stripped off for convenience or page 291 safety; the noise from a muffler once punctured on a rock; an occasional shrapnel hole; the untidy old fire-buckets and blackened tea billies hanging at the back, the unofficial insignia of the Eighth Army. They knew there would be no victorious march through cheering throngs; that they would just swing down past Mena House and through the ordinary work-a-day traffic of a remote corner of Cairo to Maadi; but even if they were only going to drive past a few natives, they were going to let them know that this was not just a convoy of soldiers returning from some routine exercises. No casual glance could reveal that, hidden in many a pack, was a personal trophy, and tucked up in many a bedroll were the once arrogant Nazi flags— great red ones with a black swastika on a white circle—and Italian tricolours, good big ones too. These had been quietly measured up against the sides of the trucks so that they could be tacked there when the big day came. Some ingenious person had even made a flag for the occasion. It depicted a kiwi breaking with its beak the sign of the Africa Corps, a palm tree bearing a swastika on its trunk.
The day of triumph arrived. On 1 June, at 6.40 a.m., the convoy left Wadi Natrun. By nine o'clock the top of the great Pyramid of Cheops could be seen peeping over the last hill. Lorry after lorry swung through a control post and began to grind its way up the hill, at the crest of which, as each driver flipped his lever neatly into the top gear, his passengers, their eyes hungry for the sight, gazed once again upon the fertile Nile Valley.
The route from Mena to Maadi was no busier than usual for that time of day, but taxi, donkey cart and bicycle alike stopped at the side of the road as the great convoy rolled past, its passengers now grinning broadly. They had already been given at least one warm welcome as they came through Mena Camp. At the ATS compound there, the Palestinian girls had quickly gathered in knots, behind the fence, to raise a cheer and blow an occasional kiss.
So back to Maadi they came. The desert campaign was truly over.
At Maadi another surprise was awaiting them. All the rumours born of the fact that the first flight to return to Base consisted entirely of personnel of the first three echelons had soon died and the coincidence had been forgotten; but on 2 June the reason for this became vividly clear. Colonel Bonifant sent round page 292 a big list of the names of men to report immediately to an RHQ tent. When they were all assembled, he walked in and announced in a matter-of-fact voice:
‘All you men have had your names drawn by ballot to be sent back for three months' furlough in New Zealand.’
It would be almost an understatement to say that the silence could be felt. The dramatic suddenness of the news was followed by a curious and complete silence; for the message took some time to sink in. Presently the spell was broken by a voice somewhere at the back—and there is not the slightest doubt that its owner, either then or to this day, knows that he ever spoke a word. This matters little, for we can safely call it that same ‘Spirit of the Regiment’ that was quite distinctly heard in a half-whisper: ‘I don't know that I particularly want to go.’
Once full realisation sank in, however, everyone could sense the silent current of excitement which flowed through the group of men; it flushed their faces and set their eyes aglow or, in some cases, unashamedly misty.
Can anybody remember a single other matter of interest on that day?
For the greater part of June nothing much was done. The furlough draft moved out and left for New Zealand on the 15th. In the Div Cav lines all the men had been in action and were therefore due for a fortnight's ‘survivors' leave’, and for about half of them this began on 3 June, with the remainder going off as soon as they arrived back. Despite the fact that an intake of reinforcements marched in on 11 June, it was still very difficult to find enough men to fill the usual daily lists of duties and fatigues.
One particularly bright day in an otherwise quiet period was 24 June, the day that Major Godfrey Stace was married to Sister M. Prior, NZANS. The reception was held in the regimental officers' mess.
On the last day of the month the general sleepy silence that seemed to pervade the lines began to give place to the more usual bustle as the men who had been left behind with the AFVs at Enfidaville arrived in from Alexandria. They had remained a few days camped near Homs and had then handed over all the Bren carriers to 51 (Highland) Division. The tanks also had been left behind, and some of them were at a later date to be seen on the quayside in Alexandria like Goldsmith's Traveller, ‘remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow’, and now looking like dreadful old death-traps to a regiment which was page 293 shipping its brand-new armoured cars to Italy. Man is fickle in his affections, for had not the sight of the first of these now rusty old ‘death-traps’ lifted the morale of the whole regiment no less than twelve months before, with their new speed and power and punch and seemingly impenetrable armour?
The vehicle party had been taken from Homs to Tripoli to wait for sea passage back to Egypt. At Tripoli they had had the great honour of being selected to supply a guard of honour to HM King George VI on the occasion of his visit there.
The arrival of these men back in Maadi more or less coincided with the return of the last of the others who had taken ‘survivors' leave’; so that it can be said that, with the first week of July, the regiment opened its eyes, yawned and stretched, and rose up again fit, refreshed, new blood in its veins and that old glint of mischief once again in its eyes. The furlough men had been replaced by a big draft of keen reinforcements, incidentally the most fully trained who had yet arrived. There was no question this time of pushing a certain number of men into each squadron and letting them find their own niches, as these men were all fully trained, each in his own trade, and could be marched straight into their appointed troops.
Nevertheless the reinforcements, quite confident in their own efficiency, had many surprises coming to them before they felt themselves to be completely integrated in the regiment—surprises where they least expected them—as witness the following tale.
Being very conscious of the reputation of the Divisional Cavalry, they naturally expected to find everything ‘standing at attention’. But no: not always. A certain fatigue party was detailed to go and dig a hole somewhere, and paraded with shovels, expecting to be fallen in and marched away. All they got from the laconic corporal who met them was: ‘Come with me!’ as he led them straight across the parade ground—heinous crime at Burnham or Waiouru—towards the appointed spot. As they strode off the parade ground and past some tents they came by one of the occupants standing in a basin outside, dribbling water over himself with obvious pleasure; and a glance showed that not an inch of his body was a stranger to the sun, either. He looked up at the corporal.
‘How're ye doin', Jim?’
‘Fine thanks, Harry. Goin' to Cairo on the bash?’
‘No. Just having a quiet wash.’page 294
After they had passed, the Corporal turned to his charges and said:
‘Don't forget him. Whitest man in the regiment. He's the Padre; a Major. Got the DSO the other day.’
The reinforcements had a few things to learn; and to absorb a new brand of discipline was one of them. But all of them were thoroughly competent in their jobs, and the regiment needed no more than new equipment and a little field training to be as fit as ever to take the field. Moreover, there were stories of wonderful new equipment—lovely big brand-new armoured cars weighing the best part of 15 tons and fast as the wind— just waiting at Tel el Kebir to be issued.
In everybody's mind was the same thought, ‘Right, let's get this basic training brushed up again and have at 'em.’ On 5 July all personal weapons were re-issued and the next few days were spent at the rifle and LMG ranges. Regimental parades, guards and route marches automatically smartened up and everything was done with a will; for in everyone's mind was the same thought: ‘The sooner we prove ourselves fit for it, the sooner we get our new equipment.’
Colonel Bonifant and the 2 i/c, Major Robinson, went over to Abbassia on 13 July to see the new cars, and they had not been back half an hour before the whole regiment was buzzing with the news, and what was more, knew of their approval.
‘If Bonny says they're all right, you bet they'll be the goods: just the cunning gears.’
By this stage of the war the Division had its own Armoured Training School at Maadi, and it can safely be said that there was no better equipped school in the Middle East nor were there any less enthusiastic classes in one. Indeed, when it came to turning out in the evenings for such things as night compass marches, the most common excuses for avoiding these—and genuine ones, too—came from those who wished to go over to the school to work; to practise shooting on the pellet range; or to take part in a wireless scheme or to finish overhauling a motor.
About a fortnight after the CO saw the new ‘Staghounds’, as they were officially called, all the troop officers were taken over to Abbassia to see them. There was no doubt about the officers' enthusiasm and by the next day everyone's eyes were gleaming from the mental picture of some real fighting vehicles. New; brand new: with three years' research behind them: two great GMC motors so powerful that they had to be governed page 295 back to 50 m.p.h.: fully automatic transmission—not even a clutch pedal on the floor: hydraulically operated steering: hydraulic power-operated traverse in the turret, with the guns fired electrically: the last word in crew comfort: and, above all, they were brand new and completely equipped down to the minutest detail.
The regiment was really in top gear by the end of July. Everything, whether changing the guard or peeling potatoes in the cookhouse, was done with a will. Regular cricket and tennis matches were being held and there was plenty of swimming in the Maadi baths. Both the officers' and sergeants' messes held dances. Round the lines at nights, everyone who was not singing appeared to be whistling; and the daily lists of petty crimes reached an all-time low level.
The divisional athletic sports were held at the Farouk Stadium in Cairo on 11 August but Div Cav did not cover itself with glory. The first six Staghounds had arrived just three days before, and the regiment was almost entirely in its own vehicle park in Maadi—in mind if not in person.
The training syllabus naturally was amended as soon as the first Staghounds arrived, and there was tremendous competition to get into a class which had anything to do with them, while interest in the Training School waned considerably (‘To hell with all these lectures on stabilisers. There are none on the “Stags”’). Steadily, about once a week, train-guards were detailed to go down to Tel el Kebir to take delivery of more of the lovely things. Never was any equipment so carefully checked over. It was midsummer, but those guards, to the astonishment of the British Ordnance people delivering the cars, worked steadily right through their siesta hours to get their Staghounds checked and on to rail. Never was any equipment so carefully and jealously guarded against petty thieving by the natives on the way back to Maadi.
During the middle of the month the bulk of the new reinforcements marched in and were absorbed by a regiment brimming over with enthusiasm and efficiency. And to look back just a short six weeks it seemed amazing that a regiment then so ‘punch-drunk’, so dull in the eye, could now be so virile and fit and keen. Why: each morning the squadrons marched on to the regimental parade with their heads held high and their arms swinging, and stood on those parades rigid and steady, even pleased that the CO should take so long over his inspection. Was it not worth his while to be so painstaking? Were not they page 296 worthwhile to inspect? Sure, they were; and they knew it and they felt it; and so did the CO. He must have been proud of his command at that time. And the reason for all this stood on the vehicle park not fifty yards behind them: rows of solid, tough, fighting vehicles, sleek and swift, and carrying a real punch. (‘If only we could've had 'em six months ago! We'd have shown 'em! We'd have K.D.G'd 'em!’)
Was there ever born a New Zealander who did not want to alter, however slightly, a manufactured article to suit his own tastes? The very first day that Staghounds stood on the Div Cav vehicle park the regiment regarded them in the light of recent battle experience. Where would the bivvy be best attached? What about extra water and rations? They had the armour, these cars, and the shape and the size and the comfort so important for conserving crews' battle-worthiness. They had ideal communication and inter-communication, and ‘run-flat’ tyres and jettison tanks (‘Nice handy things if yer liberated a big vat o' plonk, eh?’); they had ample clearance against that deadly mine-blast; they had the power, and the speed, and the punch with those guns. Oh, but had they? The war was going to Europe now; close country fighting; sometimes confined to roads; ambushes with anti-tank guns that could not be by-passed and which would need shellfire, preferably indirect. The 37-mm. gun with its flat trajectory could only supply this over open sights.
Lieutenants Mack and Little knew the answer and within a month they had found, fitted, and calibrated a 3-inch howitzer in the gun cradle of one of the cars, and a week later had demonstrated it to the General. The result was that this modification was approved by GHQ MEF2 for one car in every Staghound troop.
Tyre chains were issued and naturally had to be carried where they would be immediately available, so racks were welded to the hulls between the front mudguards. Ammunition boxes were attached to the back mudguards, and extra water tins above them. There was the question of sleeping quarters for the crews, and the inevitable tarpaulin lean-to bivvies were bolted along the top edges of the hulls. These tents could now be made at leisure in Base and could incorporate all the ingenious refinements of the various former ones.
Five troops in each squadron were issued with Staghounds and the sixth with ‘Dingoes’, much lighter vehicles—popularly page 297 referred to as ‘mobile slit-trenches’—armed with a Bren gun apiece. They were normally open at the top but were provided with an ingenious lid of armour-plate which could slide over easily and quickly. Their function, since they were very manoeuvrable, was for quick reconnaissance where heavy resistance was not expected, but which might call for a quick getaway. Within squadron headquarters there were also some other most necessary light armoured vehicles, long overdue for issue. Until now the medical orderlies and the fitters had operated in soft-skinned 8-cwt trucks. Neither shrapnel nor small-arms fire shows any respect to the Red Cross; nor was it always possible for a fitter to effect urgent repairs to a fighting vehicle and remain under cover; nor for either of them to get where they were urgently required with safety. And so it had always been difficult for squadron commanders to avoid committing men in soft-skinned vehicles to any more danger than necessary. Now this problem was solved, since the fitters and the medical orderlies were issued with White scout cars, which were built of light armour-plate and rather on the lines of the American ranch-wagons.
By the end of August the training syllabus had been completed up to a stage when the squadrons could hold manoeuvres to make sure their various components were intermeshing comfortably; and the first week in September was employed by each squadron in turn taking a trip to El Saff for a day's manoeuvres. One or two Staghounds found themselves in difficulties in soft sand, but generally the vehicles with their power-assisted steering were a joy to handle. Driving along the main road to and from these manoeuvres, the gunners found an entertaining though unconventional means of learning perfect control over their power-operated turret traversing. The movement of the turret was worked from a handle rather like the handle of a spade. This was grasped in the left hand and turned over in a 90 degree arc to left or right. The further it was turned the faster the turret swung round. During the day the road along the Nile is fairly busy, with the traffic moving at a brisk pace. The gunners amused themselves by drawing sights on oncoming taxis. This entailed a very slow but accelerating traverse as the vehicles drew abreast, but of course had to stop when the muzzle of the gun came close to protruding into the roadway. With the co-operation of the crew commander it could be continued at full speed the instant the two vehicles had passed, and an imaginary ‘snap’ shot was fired into the rear of the taxi. The page 298 reactions of the taxi drivers were delightful. As they noticed a gun holding them in their sights they were flattered, and waved back energetically; but when the gun swung round and laid on them from the rear, anyone could tell by the erratic driving that they were anything but assured that the initial move had been just a piece of playful friendliness.
The squadron manoeuvres brought the regiment to a high peak of fighting efficiency and there remained only manoeuvres as a regiment to top this off. The time was drawing near, it seemed, for the Division to be off and back into the field. Physically, too, the men were in great fettle. Many of them had elected to go through the summer in Base without making use of the siesta period in the middle of the day, but rather to use that period for sports of their own choosing. Swimming, of course, was the most popular, and this led to a swimming sports meeting in the Maadi baths on the evening of 9 September, in which C Squadron won the squadron cup.
During the first half of September, after the squadrons had done their manoeuvres, the time was allocated to troop leaders who wished to work their own troops, and to various demonstrations to other arms within the Division. At the same time the regiment was visited by demonstration teams from these arms, gunners and sappers for example, whose expert knowledge was eagerly sought after; for in the desert campaign many occasions had arisen in which the regiment had been in difficulties through not being competent to cope with unexpected situations at short notice.
On 13 September there came the first indication that the Division was due to move out of Maadi, when all cars were grounded for final mechanical checking. Two days later a movement order was issued which defined the date as the 17th and the destination as Burg el Arab. Thursday the 16th was a day of great bustle and activity within the camp as the regiment virtually folded up its tents again. Since its fighting equipment was now ready for action, there really only remained the job of handing in all base equipment, which task was done by midday.
They were well worth while, however, if they did nothing more than make everybody appreciate the sea bathing afterwards. September is a lovely month to spend on the shores of the Mediterranean and the regiment was camped amongst the date palms right at the foot of snowy white sandhills, beyond which the inviting sea pounded on the beach.
Regimental manoeuvres began in the El Daba area on 20 September and turned out to be fast and furious. B Squadron went out first as the ‘enemy’, followed by the other two squadrons an hour later. As soon as contact was made round the old Alamein battlefield a tremendous running fight ensued all the way to Daba. There C Squadron took up a defensive position and was hotly attacked by B Squadron. Laager was formed that night at Daba, and the following morning all three squadrons moved off to the beach to calibrate the 37-mm. guns and fire practice shoots.
The electrically fired guns proved to be an unalloyed joy. At the trigger of each gun was a small solenoid, each of which was worked by a switch, exactly like the dip-switch in a motor car, at the gunner's foot. He could thus lay on a target with his .30 Browning and let it have a good burst. Since it was co-axially mounted with, and used the same sights as, the 37-mm. gun, the gunner could, by a slight movement of his foot, end the burst of small-arms fire with a 37-mm. shell—a most demoralising treatment for some future and unfortunate enemy. On one occasion at least, this electrical system produced a surprise for a crew. The gunner, a man of rather slow reflexes, had put his great foot down on the 37-mm. trigger switch and left it there after the gun fired. His loader, on the other hand, was quick in his reactions and had spent many spare hours in Maadi practising fast, neat loading. He had the first shell ‘up the chimney’ and stood with the second clasped to his bosom in the approved manner. Now the gun, being an SAQF,3 auto- page 300 matically ejects the empty shell and cocks the firing mechanism; the new shell entering the breech automatically closes it. This time the second shell sped away a mere two seconds behind the first, and the reproachful look on the loader's face was a picture to behold as he gazed at his fingertips, which the returning breech had caught with a playful smack. In his surprise he could have thought a scorpion had walked down the barrel and stung him. It says a lot for the design of the Staghounds though, and of the gun, that those two shells landed 800 yards away within 1½ inches of each other.
The rest of the month was taken up in a busy routine: early reveille, bathe for all ranks before breakfast; route march in the morning; maintenance on the vehicles in the afternoon, or leave into Alexandria. On 22 September everybody voted in the New Zealand General Election, but in Div Cav very little interest seemed to be taken in this, as New Zealand and its politics seemed so very far away. Indeed, there was more interest taken in an injection for all ranks against typhus that day.
The regiment did not take part in any of the brigade manoeuvres after six of the C Squadron Staghounds had gone out to sweep the area set aside for 6 Brigade's scheme, and four of them had developed the same fault in their gearboxes due to the unprecedented strain in some particularly soft sand. Instead of these manoeuvres Div Cav continued to hold battles of its own.
Those of the first three echelons who had not drawn a marble for the first furlough draft had by now been told that they, too, were to go back to New Zealand, and some of them, those that could be replaced readily, had stayed in Base when the regiment moved to Burg el Arab. The greater proportion had remained with the regiment, surplus to strength, for the extra few weeks until their replacements had grasped the intricacies of their jobs. These men, with the exception of about a dozen NCOs, left for Maadi on 28 September. That day was marked also by an informal regimental parade at which the CO, who had returned hurriedly and unexpectedly from a course, announced that the Division was shortly to go somewhere by sea. The destination was naturally a secret. That is to say, it was an official secret, but there was really only one possible destination: Italy. Where else at the time could troops be going from the Middle East? Where else, indeed, would the new issue of winter clothing be needed? Every street-Arab in Alexandria had been making a point of wishing the Kiwis good shooting in Italy.page 301
The move to Italy was quite the most complicated one in the history of the Division, and from the private soldier's point of view the movement orders had been embellished with such a mass of detail as to make them almost impossible to carry out. Primarily, they were made out in such a way as to split up every unit into four cross-sectional components, so that in the event of a ship being sunk on the voyage, no unit would be completely crippled.
The major appointments in the regiment at this time were as follows:
|Commanding Officer||Lt-Col I. L. Bonifant, DSO|
|Second-in-Command||Maj H. A. Robinson, MC|
|Adjutant||Capt G. P. R. Thomas|
|OC A Squadron||Maj J. B. McMath|
|Second-in-Command||Capt C. L. Sommerville|
|OC B Squadron||Maj G. H. Stace|
|Second-in-Command||Capt F. H. Poolman, MC|
|OC C Squadron||Maj N. P. Wilder, DSO|
|Second-in-Command||Capt D. A. Cole, MC|
|OC HQ Squadron||Maj R. B. McQueen|
|Medical Officer||Capt P. F. Howden, NZMC|
|Padre||Rev. H. G. Taylor, DSO, CF|
Well; the first three weeks of October for anybody below the rank of Brigadier—and probably above it for that matter (this historian not being presumptuous enough, nor sufficiently informed, to express an opinion)—was the most exasperating period anyone could imagine. Units were all split up into little groups spread from Suez to Ikingi Maryut, in inhospitable staging camps or dirty dockyards, each feeling that nobody loved it and that the whole world was conspiring to make its life uncomfortable, filthy, underfed, and frustrated. The Div Cav men were no exception from the rest, and they found that the only way to work off their superfluous energy was by getting into trouble. Chiefly the theme of this was a last effort to catch up with the shrewdness of the Egyptian shopkeepers by dint of some studied shoplifting. This form of entertainment was fun without being fruitful, as witness the bag of one trooper who arrived back at the docks—and it was far more difficult to get in than out of such areas of strong security—carrying a dozen clothes-pegs, a woman's bathing cap, a cheap ashtray, a bottle of vinegar, and an article of intimate underclothing completely useless to anyone page 302 of the male persuasion. His mates had been more successful and on his arrival handed him a glass of whisky, part of a case that had found its way, under the nose of a guard, per the car's escape hatch on its off side, from a dump of Naafi stores that was about to be loaded on to a neighbouring ship.
The greater part of the regiment, those due to travel ‘dismounted’, were embarked on three different ships in Alexandria on 17 September. It would be wiser to say that they embarked themselves; for every man, loaded up as he was with full kit and personal arms, together with a collection of gear—heavy or bulky—which the powers-that-be had decreed should be carried by the personnel, needed only a beehive and a mousetrap to appear reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's White Knight. And as most of them staggered and lurched up the gangway, they could have fallen in the sea just as easily as that gentleman regularly fell off his horse.
By way of contrast, the voyage, though space was generally crowded, was pleasant, clean and uneventful. The announcement of Italy as the destination caused, of course, no surprise at all. Moreover, by the time everyone was at sea it was quite accepted that there would have to be considerable inconvenience until such time as the various convoys arrived and units could be married up again. The main port of disembarkation was Taranto, but the convoys with the heavy equipment went to Bari. One of the ships carrying Staghounds developed a mechanical fault which entailed the convoy's stopping at Malta. Here the ship in question put into the Grand Harbour at Valetta to effect repairs. Nobody was allowed ashore, but the men were pleased to be able to gaze at close quarters with a certain amount of awe upon the habitat of a gallant people who had stood up so obstinately and so long to the pounding of enemy bombing attacks and, in its siege, had just gritted its teeth and tightened its belt another notch and waited with infinite faith for relief.
Italy was not particularly hospitable as regards its weather. The first few days produced either violently spectacular electrical storms or damp overcast skies; and there was mud everywhere. The war had passed over them too recently for people to be anything but shy, and they were not to be seen much in the streets. The shops were mainly closed and, though there was a certain amount of leave into Taranto for everyone while they were camped near the city, there was nothing much to do there nor, after admiring the architecture of the place, much page 303 to see. However, the month of discomfort and disorganisation was near its end, and on 30 October the first of the regiment's own trucks arrived from Bari. The Colonel drove straight back there to make sure his AFVs were not delayed in disembarkation. The following day he drove into the town of Altamura, on the outskirts of which the regiment had been allotted a pleasant area for its camp site while it reorganised itself again as a single unit. He found most of the transport already there and sent it off to Taranto to collect the men. The next day, 1 November, while the last of the AFVs were being unloaded, refuelled, and despatched to Altamura, the men were brought up from Taranto so that by the evening the regiment was once again complete and ready to move forward.
It was a relief to get away from Taranto, which had left an impression of cold dank atmosphere, muddy streets and locked doors; and to get away into the clean countryside where the grass was green and the leaves of the olive trees sparkled, even if it was only from the raindrops on them. The village people, too, were not nearly so shy and were much readier to respond to overtures of friendship. It was lovely to lie once again beside a car or a truck—in an almond grove. They were indeed amidst ‘fresh woods and pastures new’.
2 General Headquarters, Middle East Forces.
3 Semi-automatic, quick-firing.