CHAPTER 3 — C Squadron with the Second Echelon
C Squadron with the Second Echelon
So far in this story the collective term ‘the regiment’, though convenient, has not been strictly correct since there was another squadron yet to join its ranks. But, for the sake of continuity, it has been necessary in the meantime to forget C Squadron. From the birth of the regiment until it was due to embark for its baptism of fire in Greece, this squadron led, by force of circumstance, a totally different and separate existence.
Virtually C Squadron came into being at the same time as the rest of the regiment, that is, when it was decided to adopt the British establishment. It had been decided not to train the whole regiment together but to hold one squadron in New Zealand to sail with the Second Echelon.
From the point of view of the building-up of a unit spirit under one leader this was an unfortunate decision, as the two different sections were bound to build up their esprit de corps severally and to attain efficiency by different means.
The first CO realised this and took what steps he could, while still in New Zealand, to have C Squadron made up to strength and join his command, but without success. Unfortunately this took up practically all his spare time and left him little chance to ensure all possible liaison with the nucleus of that squadron, at the time in camp, quite close, at Narrow Neck.
This was doubly unfortunate because, as a result, when after eighteen months of a more exciting, more interesting, and indeed a more enviable life, C Squadron was eventually united with its parent unit, the mark of the eventual weld still remained until obliterated by the annealing fires of battle.
As far as C Squadron itself was concerned, the decision to keep it separate was fortunate, for as things turned out, the men fared far better in training facilities and experienced one of England's most delightful summers in many years, whilst the others were burning out their souls in envy and their bodies in the heat of the desert. While C Squadron had the Battle of Britain at its doors the others languished in that ‘Forgotten Legion’ atmosphere of impatience.page 32
From October till the end of 1939 Major Nicoll had most of his officers and NCOs with him at Narrow Neck. In that time they were able to complete courses in such subjects as tactics and gas, they were inoculated and vaccinated; indeed, they had the great advantage of being able to get over their own growing pains without having at the same time to spoon-feed a large family of recruits.
After Christmas leave, the regiment having sailed, these men returned to Narrow Neck, and on 4 January they were moved to Papakura where they were joined, eight days later, by the drafts of recruits who were to complete the squadron.
It is unnecessary to describe in detail their early days in camp, or for that matter, very fully, their trip to England. One mobilisation camp is much the same as another and this was no exception. Memory now brings back only the inevitable queues—in alphabetical order—foot drill and small-arms training, more queues, gas and bayonet training. They lived in a more comfortable camp than had the others and had fewer interruptions in the training programme; the six Bren carriers were sent up to them from Hopu Hopu and, once again, were the subject of pride and envy, representing at the time, it was understood, the sum total of the AFV strength in the country.
By the end of three months the men could march reasonably well; they could shoot; they were fit and were beginning to look forward to the day when they would be joining the rest of the regiment in Egypt. Like all other New Zealanders they had at the back of their minds that impatient fear that the war would collapse before they had had a chance to strike a blow. By the middle of March these thoughts, becoming more evident, were engendering a daily crop of rumours concerning the date of sailing. All ranks were given final leave from 13–15 to 27–29 March, and this served to aggravate the rumours since it came well before the date of departure.
The actual date narrowed down, however, to one of a few days when all troops from Papakura were taken to Auckland for a farewell parade. This took the same form as that of the First Echelon. There were speeches and a lunch at the Auckland Domain and the troops marched through the streets to the waterfront. When they arrived there they were dismissed for the remainder of the afternoon.
Auckland was enthusiastic in its desire to show a last hospitality to the men, some of whom were bound never to return, and they were hard pressed to do justice to the number of drinks page 33 offered to them. The result of this enthusiasm was evident when the time came to march back to the train. Slightly more time than usual seemed to be needed for the parade to fall in. In due course this was achieved and it speaks well for their discipline that, in spite of sometime embarrassing hospitality, the men marched steadily and at attention. But civilians are not covered by Army Act, Section 40; beyond being impressed by well-drilled soldiers, ‘good order and military discipline’ means nothing to them. Since the soldiers were not allowed to break ranks the civilians made up for it. The crowd broke and joined in on the flanks, and in next to no time the ranks of three had swollen into anything up to ranks of ten, all linked arm in arm. So they proceeded triumphantly along the streets, not marching so much as dancing a high-spirited jig suggestive of the crowd in the Cornish floral dance.
Embarkation was set down for 1 May at Wellington. This was supposed to be very secret but, with big ships in Wellington for some days previously, it was impossible to hide the fact. Indeed, the Div Cav men already knew that they were to travel on the Aquitania. Secrecy concerning the journey by train to Wellington was equally a farce. There were strict instructions that no one was to leave the train on the way down, and in fact the blinds of the carriages were supposed to be drawn while the train passed through stations. But what was the use? They left Papakura during the morning and all the way down the main trunk line—at Frankton, Taumarunui, Taihape and Marton—there were tea and cakes set out for the men on trestles on the station platforms, and great banners had been tacked up along the station buildings: ‘Farewell 2nd Echelon’ or ‘Goodbye and Good Luck’.
In the early hours of 1 May the train was drawn on to the wharf at Wellington and men began to embark on the Aquitania. This was completed in daylight and the big ship pulled out into the harbour and dropped anchor. With the Aquitania were the three sister-ships, the Empresses of Britain, Canada and Japan. These four carried all the troops from the North Island, and after waiting till about midday on 2 May for the Andes, with the South Islanders aboard, escorted by HMS Ramillies, they formed up in convoy and steamed out into Cook Strait.
C Squadron was not so fortunate as the rest of the regiment who had had a ship to themselves. The Aquitania carried the Maori Battalion, a field company of Engineers, a company of ASC, and a battery of 5 Field Regiment as well as the Div Cav page 34 squadron. She was a big ship, and though there was not room to do much more than some PT, the troops were really not badly crowded.
After the Tasman crossing the convoy was joined by the Queen Mary and the Mauretania carrying an Australian contingent, and the convoy turned to pass through Bass Strait into the South Australian Bight.
Having arrived at Fremantle on 9 May the men on board the Aquitania found that there were disadvantages in travelling on such a large ship. Her draught was too great to allow her to tie up at the wharf so that all on board had to suffer the disappointment of seeing others going ashore in a port whose reputation for hospitality had come back in glowing reports from the First Echelon. This sense of frustration was increased by the fact that, tied up alongside them, was a fine Dutch tanker with broad decks which could have ferried them ashore. They had approached her master, a friendly smiling man, but he had pointed out that to carry troops in British uniform would be violating his neutrality. He had therefore most reluctantly declined to help. But the following morning he was equally as eager to take the men ashore. Overnight, Germany had unwittingly intervened on their behalf: Hitler's armies had begun their invasion of the Lowlands.
However, he had now no need to help because the men were ferried ashore by harbour craft. Fremantle proved every bit as hospitable as it had been to the First Echelon, turning itself once again en fête. Any New Zealander who tasted a farewell from that city will remember it all his life. By his claims, one Div Cav man must have tasted well, for he declared that Fremantle got him drunk three times and sober twice that day.
Re-embarking in the evening produced, of course, the inevitable occasions of self-adjusting confusion, in personnel and, as usual, in headgear; and, sailing out into the Indian Ocean, many were the wistful smiles cast back towards Western Australia.
Some of the Div Cav officers, anticipating their tasks in the desert, were taking the opportunity of learning what navigation they could from the ship's officers. These amateur navigators arrived on deck on 16 May to find the sun rising on the wrong side of the ship. The convoy had changed direction overnight! Many rumours — mostly wild — immediately sprang to life. Naturally they were all inspired by the war news and mostly they centred round enemy raiders and submarines. The Ger- page 35 mans, one would hear, had opened an offensive in the Ardennes and had broken through over the Meuse—quite true; Italy, one learned, was on the point of declaring war against the Allies and therefore her bases in Eritrea would be ideal points from which to attack a convoy of such valuable prizes as these; and so on. It was now certain, however, that the convoy was heading for Capetown. A fortnight later the arrival there of this convoy, including as it did the Aquitania and the Queen Mary, caused quite a sensation, especially since the German radio had just announced to South Africa that these same ships had been sunk in the Indian Ocean. The sudden change of plans caused but one minor discomfort: because of the extra week's steaming, water had to be rationed until the convoy reached Capetown.
Here, as at Fremantle, the Queen Mary and the Aquitania drew too much water to tie up inshore, and for three of the four days' stay in Capetown the men could do nothing but gaze with envious eyes on the smaller ships and imagine the pleasure that they were missing ashore. They did, however, manage one day's leave. Owing to the swell that had been coming up Table Bay it had been impossible to take them ashore by lighter, but on the last day the two ships sailed round to False Bay and anchored in water smooth enough for lighters to land them at Simonstown.
With little else to occupy their minds at Capetown the men readily listened to another crop of wild rumours. The strongest of these was to the effect that the troops would be disembarked and taken to camps in South Africa for six weeks, and then would travel overland to the Middle East. Most rumours centred round disembarkation, due no doubt to the wishfulness of the ship's crew who, one and all, deplored the thought of their beloved Aquitania threading her way among all the U-boats lying in wait especially for her along the route to England.
But it turned out after all that England was the final destination and the convoy sailed north again on 31 May. A new atmosphere seemed to settle down overnight. One day the war seemed to be safely on the other side of the world and the next day it seemed to be all round them. A feeling of suppressed excitement was diffused through everybody, the feeling that a boy gets when, with his pads on, he is waiting in the pavilion to go out and play his first innings for the school, or of the competitor, all keyed up, in the show ring waiting for the judge to call the number of the next horse to go round the jumps. The war had indeed come closer.page 36
The last port of call before entering the North Atlantic was Freetown in Sierra Leone. This was the assembly place for many convoys and the harbour seemed full of a thousand ships, all kinds and sizes. Other than that, there remain now only the memories of the natives in their bumboats and of four nights in the humid, stifling, tropical heat.
As it left Freetown the convoy was joined by an aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, and as it drew north it was met by more and still more men-of-war. First came majestically HMS Hood from Gibraltar, and daily, in ones and twos, came cruisers and destroyers, until in the Bay of Biscay it seemed that the whole British Navy was there, sailing in a solid screen of guns and steel. One felt rather like the first lamb of spring with half a dozen motherly old ewes fussing round, all claiming to have given birth to the one offspring.
Just as the war seemed to have come suddenly closer, now suddenly it came closer still, for the ships found themselves sailing through a sea dotted with flotsam. There were rolls of newsprint, bits of spars, deck-chairs, biscuit tins, all kinds of litter and rubbish; here, right in the mouth of the English Channel, a convoy ahead had been attacked. There had been more than one casualty. On the horizon ahead was a column of black smoke. This turned out, on drawing closer, to be a tanker, settled low down in the water and blazing furiously. It can well be imagined that hardly a soul who saw this did not rehearse mentally the crash of a torpedo against his own ship and his reaction to it. Those who did not rehearse soon had occasion to do so. The convoy had its own U-boat scare. One minute there was a state of stolid vigilance and the next there were destroyers darting everywhere. Then, as if drawn by a magnet, they all dashed to the one spot and dropped depth- charges. A kill was certainly claimed but, even without tangible evidence, the concussion of the underwater explosions tightened everybody's nerves like fiddle-strings.
In war there is rarely a tense situation that is not relieved in one way or another. On this occasion the tenseness was relieved by two Irish fishermen in their boat. Their course lay across that of the Aquitania and with native obstinacy they were determined, Cunard Line or no, or the whole British Navy for that matter, that steam would give way to sail—th'was the Oirish Sea anyway—and they held their course. Doggedly they held it, till it seemed that their little cockle-shell would be smashed. But still they sailed on until they forced the Aquitania page 37 to make one of those surprising quick swerves that give the lie to that feeling of massive inflexibility of a big ship.
When one reads of young men of German descent who had never known Germany, whose parents even were born in America, who dropped everything at the outbreak of war and took the first boat to their Fatherland, one is inclined to be surprised. But there is a deep affinity between a man and the soil from which sprang his forebears. So too, sailing up the Clyde, there was not a man on the ship of Scottish descent whose blood did not tingle to the tune of the piper playing on the deck; there was not an Irishman aboard, whether or not his ancestors for generations had seen a shamrock in its native land, whose heart did not miss a beat when he woke and caught his first glance of the vivid rich green of the Irish coast; men who had, until now, called England ‘Home’ without quite knowing why, suddenly realised, and realised with deep pride, that it was more than just a loose term; soon they were to gaze with pride and affection at the broad face of what they now knew was their mother country and, with fervour, breathe ‘This is England’.
The arrival of the Second Echelon came at a dramatic and appropriate moment. France capitulated on 17 June and it was a fitting turn of fate that Dominion troops should have arrived at Greenock the day before. Their motherland now stood alone.
But the faces that met the troops were not those of grim doggedness. They wore expressions of warm hospitality and genuine pleasure, as if the British people were flattered that their kinsmen should have just dropped in from the other side of the world on a friendly visit.
The disembarkation ran so smoothly and briskly that there was a delay of an hour or so before the train arrived to take the men to Aldershot.
The first stage of the journey took them to Edinburgh, where they had lunch. Then they moved on again over the border into England and on to York for another meal. Here the train was held up a while by an air raid farther down the line. The excitement caused by this was later doubled when the troops learned that the railway station at York had been bombed not twenty minutes after they had left. Surely they had reached the firing line!
The journey to Aldershot took all the afternoon of the 18th and all that night as well, and they arrived at the station of page 38 Ashvale on the outskirts of Aldershot in the early hours of the following morning. They waited in the carriages until dawn and, sending their equipment ahead by lorry, they marched to their camp area at Mytchett Woods.
The area allotted to Div Cav was in the woods themselves in a setting almost arcadian in its loveliness. Tents were pitched among pine trees, up and down which were scuttling little shy squirrels; the ground was covered with a thick aromatic carpet of pine needles; in the mornings men woke to the soft cooing of wood pigeons in the branches above them. It is not surprising then that C Squadron, camped in such surroundings during what turned out to be the finest summer in forty years, was the subject of bitter envy by the rest of the regiment, who were just beginning to feel, and feel acutely, the discomforts of their first brazen Egyptian summer.
As with all the Dominion troops in England, the squadron was granted general leave. The War Office had ordered this with the object of quickening civilian morale before Britain had fully measured the disaster of Dunkirk and realised to the full her loneliness.
Dominion troops were encouraged to travel as far afield as possible so that people could see their unfamiliar uniforms and feel heartened to know that here were reinforcements, fresh and ready and keen to meet the invasion which loomed so threateningly close across the Channel.
New Zealand troops were very highly regarded in England, and when General Freyberg pressed for it, they were equipped as fully as possible with what scanty material was available. The Divisional Cavalry were fitted out with their full-scale establishment of vehicles and practically all their weapons. The next step was to get them out and amongst the countryside where they could be seen and discussed. The light tanks on issue were Mark VI type, and for driving instruction in these, five instructors, an officer and four sergeants, were borrowed from a neighbouring RTR1 depot. These NCOs were amazed to find their pupils, according to their standard, so versatile, for they were used to recruits who had never driven in their lives. They were not expecting pupils who—most of them—had handled tracked vehicles on their farms at home. So they were somewhat surprised to find that their classes could short-circuit the first lessons with a few pertinent questions, climb into the driving seats, and straight away drive off round the field. By page 39 the end of the first hour's instruction, instead of a week as was usually expected, the tanks were out of the gates and rolling merrily along the road.
The officer attached to the squadron was a major from 4/7 Dragoon Guards who had fought with the BEF back to Dunkirk and who lectured the officers with first-hand information on the working of divisional cavalry in battle. Their first battle experience turned out to be similar rearguard actions in Greece.
A gloom was cast over the squadron when, on 24 August, during a training run with the Bren carriers, a man on the roadside threw himself under one of the carriers to commit suicide. Fortunately no blame was attached to anyone in the squadron.
With the invasion of Britain seeming imminent, General Freyberg had flown to England from Egypt and organised the New Zealanders there on a divisional basis. They carried out manoeuvres more or less weekly and, owing to the state of preparedness in the country, these were the more valuable for their realism; it was on these manoeuvres that C Squadron learned priceless lessons in working in closed country.
The New Zealand Force was honoured by visits from His Majesty King George VI, Mr Churchill, and Mr Eden on 6 July, and also, three days previously, from Lord and Lady Bledisloe.
During the morning of the King's visit there was a parade and march past and, during the afternoon, His Majestty visited individual units. His call on Div Cav lasted some time and, because of the danger of air raids, was designed to give maximum dispersion. As a result he spoke personally with quite a few of the men. To one trooper in particular with whom he spoke this was a triumphant afternoon. The trooper had approached Major Nicoll previously and asked him how he would address His Majesty if he should speak to him. The Major treated his worries as a joke and refused to offer any suggestion. Repeatedly he assured him that he need not worry as there was no chance that the King would single him out for intimate conversation. Imagine then the man's triumphant sidelong glance at the Major when the King did pick out this particular trooper to speak to. No eyes ever said more significantly, ‘There, I told you so’.
On 27 August the New Zealand Force was moved into the south of England near the coast. Here manoeuvres took on a still greater aura of realism, so much so that the men never knew whether they had been turned out on a training exercise page 40 or whether the invasion had really started. It was generally accepted that the German invasion would come in a weekend, so at the end of each week the General, determined to be in the fighting, would march all his troops down to the coast to meet it: just in case.
The New Zealanders were moved permanently into Kent in the first week in September. It being now late autumn and the weather getting colder, billets were found for the squadron in the village of Westwell.
In this village they have left their mark in perpetuity. There is a very old inn there known as ‘The Wheel’. According to custom, the sign of the inn, a wheel, hung on the outside wall. This wheel was painted red. One evening someone remarked that ‘The Wheel’ had consumed so much of the squadron's pocket money that Div Cav should have by now bought at least one of the spokes in it. This remark caught the imagination of the innkeeper, a bright soul, who decided, in honour of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, that he would paint one of the spokes in their regimental colour, green. Nor did he do things by halves, for he approached the owners of the building and had them draw up a legal agreement that at all times their tenants shall keep the wheel painted red with one green spoke.
His act is of historical interest when it is realised just how old the inn is. It has provided hospitality to the defending troops of three threatened invasions of England—the Armada, Napoleon's and Hitler's—while that part of England has suffered three invasions—by Julius Cæsar, the Vikings and William the Conqueror.
Westwell, typical of any English village, could not but impress its character on men from a young country, for that character is carried in its elegant age. The church on one side of the village square was originally built by the Normans and still stands in an atmosphere of age, with an air of solidity. The countryside bears the same temper as its inhabitants: quiet, patient men. The very buttercups in the fields, just in the way they grow, bring one to realise that in the time of King Alfred they were past remembering how long they had been patiently growing, flowering, fading away, year by year. Just across the road from the billets was a tiny stream operating a little old mill. The mill had been mentioned in the Doomsday Book. The stream itself is symbolic of the countryside and the people. page 41 It flows quietly and gently and with the same patience that can be read in the gait of the farmer following the plough on the hillside beyond.
Throughout September and October the squadron carried out training. This was mainly in exercises near the coast, with the daily air battles overhead as the Nazi raiders passed on their way to London or were shot down or turned back en route.
By 11 November the squadron was back in Aldershot. This time it was sent to Farnham, where it was grouped round Swanthorpe House. The officers lived in the house itself and the men were billeted in cottages and Nissen huts in the grounds. Life, with winter setting in, was made as comfortable as possible for them. Heaters were made available and there was an abundance of hot water.
They had done no proper parade-ground training since they were in Papakura, so they settled down to smarten up in preparation for a possible spring offensive. Other training that they did here was in camouflage and concealment, which was to stand them in good stead in Greece before six months had passed.
Until now all ranks had been particularly conscious of the advantages that they held over the rest of the regiment, but with the passing of the summer, and with it the Battle of Britain, the possibility of a German invasion had receded. Then General Wavell's offensive opened in Egypt and C Squadron had its turn of being envious of the parent unit, now so close to the fighting. The Third Echelon had arrived in Egypt and it looked as if the Second Echelon, so long expecting to be the first to be blooded, would miss. Little did C Squadron realise of the despair of the Div Cav men in Egypt languishing in the dust at Daba and feeling that they were destined never to see an enemy facing them.
As a matter of fact it was just at this time that plans were being made to reunite the whole Division. A short while before Christmas all the New Zealanders in England were granted leave. This was completed in time for every man to be back in his billets by Christmas Day. They had taken full advantage of this and disappeared over the length and breadth of England and Scotland.
The weather in 1940 did not come up to expectations and provide a traditional white Christmas. Instead it supplied a page 42 cold, raw, grey day. At dinner the men were issued with a rum ration and given free beer. This put them in a wonderful humour and they sang throughout the meal.
Two days later came the official news that the Force was going to Egypt. This was not unexpected as an advanced party had left a month before. On 31 December the OC left to board the transport Duchess of Bedfored at Newport. Over New Year men packed their kits and prepared their personal gear for the trip. Vehicles were handed back to an Ordnance depot at Aldershot and the squadron was ready to leave. It arrived on board ship on Saturday, 4 January 1941, and put to sea at 11.30 a.m. the following day.
As part of the convoy was delayed in the Bristol Channel the Duchess of Bedford spent a few days anchored at Belfast. This delay lasted until the following Sunday, when they raised anchor in the early morning. By daylight they were well at sea.
The Duchess of Bedford is a smaller ship than the Aquitania and, carrying about the same number of troops, her accommodation was fairly crowded. The first part of the trip was marked by a certain amount of illness. The approach of winter in England had affected the squadron, and followed by an outbreak of measles on the ship, things were rather uncomfortable for a while. Then a general inoculation of TAB2 which affected the majority of the men added further to their discomforts. However, by the end of the first week the weather was getting warmer and everybody seemed to brighten up considerably.
They arrived at Freetown on 25 January to witness a spectacular display by the anti-aircraft guns of their escort. A French plane from Dakar, of unhappy memory, flew over the port and was given a lively reception. It is not surprising that enemy aircraft paid attention to Freetown at that time as the port had become a starting place for many Atlantic convoys and was usually very crowded. Indeed, when the New Zealanders arrived there were, at a conservative estimate, over ninety ships in the harbour.
The weather was very hot and close and, with anti-malarial precautions ordered—unnecessarily as it was afterwards learned —everybody spent four miserable nights trying to sleep, if sleep they could, in the hot and steamy atmosphere below decks. Had it been known that this was not the malarial season it may well be imagined that some vituperative signals would no doubt have passed between the New Zealanders' ships. Sufficient to page 43 say that everyone was glad to be away from Freetown and to be back at sea, where at least some draught could reach below decks from the ventilators.
It took ten days to travel from Freetown to Capetown. During that time there was nothing of particular interest to do since practically all the available space on the ship had to be used for PT; and this was merely sufficient to keep the men reasonably fit. So they spent their days in a leisurely manner, reading and writing or playing occasional deck games. The escorting cruisers enlivened one day for them by staging a live-round shoot.
On arriving at Capetown on 8 February Div Cav found that this time they were more fortunate in their transport. The Duchess of Bedford, which drew less water than the Aquitania, was able to tie up, so the men were able to stretch their legs ashore. Major Nicoll took advantage of the four days in the Union to give his squadron route marches. From two o'clock till midnight he gave them leave ashore and, on the whole, their behaviour was good, except for minor breaches by the inevitable few who were late back to the ship.
On 12 February the troops began the last stage of their trip to the Middle East. Here it was that the Navy seemed to the uninitiated soldiers to be very confident of their mastery of the sea. One by one the escorting cruisers left the convoy until, approaching the Gulf of Aden, indeed right in sight of the coast of Eritrea, there was only one cruiser left. At the same time the speed of the ships was reduced and it was not until the morning of 3 March, well up the Red Sea, that Egypt could be seen on both sides. After nine weeks at sea there was nobody who was not glad to be packing his kit and nobody was displeased when, in the middle of the afternoon, the ships dropped anchor off Port Tewfik.
1 Royal Tank Regiment.
2 Typhoid A & B.