Meanwhile, as a result of the deterioration of relations with Italy, whose intentions began to emerge more clearly after the success of the German attacks in France, a tense mood of expectancy pervaded the preparations being made for operations in the Western Desert of Egypt. The military situation in the Middle East gave the Italians a tremendous advantage–in numbers. There was estimated to be over 215,000 Italian troops in Libya, and over 200,000 in Italian East Africa. The British garrison in Egypt at this time comprised about 36,000 troops, which included only two complete formations: 7 Armoured Division and 4 Indian Division. The New Zealand troops consisted of 4 Brigade Group only. In addition, the Italians had a very considerable numerical advantage in the air. Very little equipment had been sent to the Middle East and no single British unit or formation was fully equipped.
In the Western Desert the British foremost defended positions were at Mersa Matruh, about 200 miles west of Alexandria and 120 miles from the Libyan frontier. There was a railway and road as far as Matruh, and a good metalled road from Matruh to Sidi Barrani, but no good road between Barrani and the frontier. The small harbour of Sollum, near the frontier, had no port facilities, and there was no water supply. It was impossible, therefore, to maintain any large number of troops on the frontier, even had they been available, and the British policy was to allow the enemy to move into Egypt and on to the British defences at Matruh, where he would be met in force. There was, however, a small covering force— 7 Armoured Division less one armoured brigade—on the frontier, and this force was ready to attack the Italian frontier posts as soon as trouble occurred.
In Europe the German armour and air force were inflicting blow after heavy blow on the hapless French. Stimulated by the imminence of France's collapse, Italy embarked on her page 44 ignominious Egyptian adventure with a declaration of war against the Allies on 10 June 1940. In Maadi Camp things began to happen quickly as plans completed some time before were brought into use. These plans included the detaching of parts of several New Zealand units to assist British units in the forward areas. Probably the most important of these tasks was that which fell to a detachment of Divisional Signals, which left Maadi Camp on 9 June for Maaten Baggush to take over the operation of signal communications for Western Desert Force.
Early in 1940 Royal Signals in the Middle East had found that its resources in men and equipment were taxed to the utmost by the ever-increasing burden of communications. When, on the declaration of war by Italy, Headquarters 6 (British) Division moved into the Western Desert to become the nucleus of Western Desert Force, it was found that Royal Signals did not have the men in Egypt or Palestine with the necessary technical qualifications and training to provide communications for the new force. As there was no immediate prospect of the New Zealand Division being used for operations—only the First Echelon having arrived in Egypt at that time—representations were made to Major-General Freyberg for the temporary employment of the major part of No.1 Company, 2 New Zealand Divisional Signals, together with a Royal Signals detachment from Egypt Command Signals, as Corps Signals for the Western Desert Force. The period of employment was to be for three weeks, after which it was expected that a Royal Signals unit would arrive from the United Kingdom to take over; actually it was not until February 1941 that the last of the New Zealanders were released to return to their own unit. After some persuasion, General Freyberg agreed to the proposal.
The New Zealand detachment arrived at Baggush on the evening of 9 June and began to settle into its new camp, which was situated on the north of a ridge about half a mile from the sea. The following day a mobile wireless section from Egypt Command Signals, consisting of one officer and twenty- page 46 two other ranks and equipped with three wireless sets No.3 and three wireless sets No. 9, arrived and was attached to the unit. On the same day detachments of New Zealand other ranks were sent to 5 (British) Infantry Brigade at El Daba and to 22 (British) Infantry Brigade in the Matruh garrison. Communication with Headquarters British Troops in Egypt was established with a No.9 set shortly after the unit arrived at Baggush. The telephone exchange and signal office, which were in a dugout about half a mile from the main camp area, were taken over from 4 Indian Divisional Signals. The traffic chart in the signal office showed that fifty signal messages had been handled that day.
The New Zealanders soon became acquainted with Rafai Effendi, an engineer of the Egyptian State Telegraphs and Telephones, who was responsible for the civil communications between Ikingi Maryut, near Alexandria, and Mersa Matruh. Rafai held a commission in the Egyptian Army, but rarely wore uniform. His headquarters was at Baggush and he was of great assistance to Corps Signals Western Desert Force in its work of providing reliable permanent-line communications between important points along the coast.
By the end of the first week of their stay at Baggush the men were becoming accustomed to the organisation and routine of the new Western Desert Force. A despatch-rider letter service was now in operation between Baggush and the advanced headquarters of 7 Armoured Division near Sidi Barrani, a distance of 115 miles. Already great difficulty was being experienced by despatch riders in locating the headquarters of units owing to the rapidity of troop movements in the area, while the amount of traffic handled daily in the signal office was mounting rapidly. From the modest fifty messages on the day of the unit's arrival, the traffic had by the fourth day mounted to 450 messages.
In addition to Lieutenant Dasler and his B Section linemen, Corps Signals Western Desert Force had an Indian line construction section commanded by Subedar Joginda Singh, a Sikh of imposing appearance and attractive personality. He was an ex-champion wrestler and it was rumoured that he had his own way of dealing with any infringements of discipline within his section. He was subsequently twice decorated and granted a King's commission.page 47
As the days passed the network of communications grew rapidly from the relatively simple organisation with which Corps Signals Western Desert Force began—a few lines from the Western Desert Force headquarters at Baggush to the Matruh garrison, the rear and advanced headquarters of 7 Armoured Division, and two RAF army co-operation squadrons which had been placed under the operational control of the force. There was also a fairly simple system of wireless communications, but at that time wireless silence had been imposed throughout the area. Except for a number of sets operated by A Section for the interception of Italian wireless traffic, the main burden of communications fell on the line circuits and despatch-rider letter service.
The first wireless task of any importance fell to A Section when a detachment manned by Signalmen Riseborough,1 Moran2 and Browne3 accompanied Lieutenant-General R. N. O'Connor, Commander of Western Desert Force, on an extensive reconnaissance of the forward areas, during which they covered 400 miles of desert in nine days. In the neighbourhood of Buqbuq, near the Libyan frontier, the small party was attacked by three Italian planes; this so incensed Browne that he leaped from the truck and fired three shots with his rifle, an action which he claimed was the first by a New Zealander against the enemy in Africa.
The cable section was now beginning to experience some trouble with overhead lines damaged by bombs in the desultory Italian raids which occurred regularly at night over the area. At Matruh the section carried out a major deviation job on the main permanent line from Headquarters Western Desert Force to 7 Armoured Division. Passing through the town on the main pole route, this line had sustained considerable damage from enemy raids, and the deviation, designed to reduce the effects of bomb damage, took the line about four miles around the outskirts of Matruh.
CORPS LINE COMMUNICATIONS TAKEN OVER BY NZ DETACHMENT
(WESTERN DESERT FORCE SIGNALS) ON ARRIVAL BAGGUSH, 10 JUNE 1940
In the camp area at Baggush life was proceeding smoothly, despite the increasing pressure of work caused by the arrival of more and more units in the area. There was a little time for recreational pursuits, the most popular of which was the daily swim in the pleasant sea-water lagoon near the camp. Here the outer rocky reef prevented the dangerous undertow prevalent on other parts of the coast.
About this time an amusing incident occurred when Lieutenant McFarlane, emerging early one morning from the underground signal office where he had been on duty as signalmaster, observed a low bank of vapour lying close to the ground and apparently advancing towards the headquarters area. A gas attack at this time seemed improbable, but McFarlane, not to be prevented from using his slight knowledge of anti-gas measures by fear of ridicule, decided on the spot page 50 that it would be better to be safe then than sorry later. He therefore gave the gas alarm. At that time it was not the custom to carry anti-gas respirators during normal working routine, and as the camp area was a good half mile from the headquarters, the signal office staff was defenceless against the supposed gas attack. McFarlane ordered the men to saturate their handkerchiefs in their urine and tie them over their mouths and nostrils, but before this drastic action could be taken, the vapour, which was merely a low fog caused by local humidity conditions, was suddenly dissipated by a fresh breeze blowing in from the sea. Poor McFarlane had to face much good-natured raillery over this incident, but many of the wiser heads had their own private thoughts about such commendable and timely application of anti-gas principles.
Bomb damage from air attacks continued to disrupt the overhead line circuits, especially in the Matruh area. To make the circuits less susceptible to interruption, the cable section worked hard on the installation of an underground system. Some 6500 yards of 14-pair 40-lb. armoured cable was laid from the eastern end of the RAF landing ground, south of the main road, to the headquarters area at Baggush, and then across the road to the western end of the landing ground, where it rejoined the permanent-line route. The trenching for the cable was done by Cypriot pioneers, and rock outcrops were drilled by sappers from 4 Indian Division. As standard cable-laying gear was not available, a 3-ton lorry was rigged with railway sleepers bolted to the frame and was used to support bottle jacks borrowed from the Egyptian State Telegraphs and Telephones Department. This improvised equipment required very careful handling, but the work was carried on without any serious hitch.
Other underground cabling work was being carried out by the section in the Matruh garrison area, where the existing cable had sustained some slight fractures owing to the shifting of the sand dunes in which it had been laid some years ago. At a point near the junction of the main road and railway at the eastern approaches to the town, the cable ran into the garrison area from the poled-line termination for about three-quarters of a mile to the garrison signal office, and from there page 51 continued on to serve the various headquarters offices of the garrison. The general layout of the underground cable was in the form of a large reversed letter C, interrupted at intervals by concrete joint boxes, inside which the cable pairs were strapped across. It was decided that the completion of this partial loop to form a ring would provide a particularly useful underground parallel circuit which could only be interrupted by bomb damage if both arms were hit simultaneously. The circuit consisted of 25-pair, 12 ½-lb. DCLC cable. Some damage had also occurred at the entrance to the concrete joint boxes, where the movement of the cable in the shifting dunes had fractured the concrete seals and damaged the cable sheath. The greater part of the work on this cable system was carried out by Captain Smith5 and Signalman Mundy,6 both former cable jointers in the New Zealand Post Office.
Later, when the Italians began to intensify their air attacks on Matruh in September, the underground cable was damaged on a number of occasions, but repairs were quickly effected and communications seldom interrupted for any appreciable time. On one occasion the assistance of a Royal Engineers unit was required to remove an unexploded 250-pound bomb which had landed directly on the cable trench. Direct bomb hits on the cable trench had the effect of stretching the sheath, which caused the conductors to be broken for about four inches. Usually the armour remained unbroken.
About this time enemy aircraft dropped an unusual type of delayed-action bomb, which soon came to be known as the thermos bomb because of its resemblance to a thermos flask. Impact with the ground brought into operation an ingenious cocking device which made the bomb sensitive to the slightest vibration of the ground in its vicinity. Each morning after the nightly Italian raids, Royal Engineers had a busy time locating and exploding these bombs to prevent damage and casualties. On several occasions during these demolitions spans of overhead wires were brought down in a tangled mass, and B Section had a feverish time carrying out repairs to restore communications as quickly as possible.page 52
An increase in enemy movements in the frontier area early in September suggested that an Italian advance into Egypt was imminent. Since the start of hostilities in June contact with the enemy had been limited to patrol activities and attacks on his frontier posts. Operations continued on these lines throughout July and August until 13 September, when the enemy crossed the frontier and occupied Sollum, and the British forces in the forward areas commenced their planned withdrawal. The Italians reached Sidi Barrani, which was merely a collection of a few stone houses and a landing ground, on the 16th, and there they remained until the British offensive early in December.
For six oppressive months the headquarters of Western Desert Force remained static, but the amount of signal traffic increased enormously as the Western Desert began to fill up rapidly with troops and supplies in preparation for the offensive. The work of extending the system of communications went on steadily: existing permanent-line routes were adapted to meet the needs of the expanding forces, multi-wire underground cables were installed to serve important headquarters, and a network of field cable on the ground comprised the less important and alternative routes.
A few days before the offensive opened south of Sidi Barrani on 9 December, Western Desert Force began the advance which was to carry it to Benghazi in a few weeks. Signals now encountered their first tasks in mobile operations. At first the advance moved away from the permanent overhead line routes, so that a large part of the responsibility for communications fell on field cable, and much depended on the speed with which it could be laid and recovered as the advance progressed. By the early hours of 6 December Headquarters Western Desert Force was established south-west of Matruh and about 27 miles south of the coast. The main group of Signals was under the command of a Royal Signals officer, Lieutenant Lovelock. His senior NCO, Lance-Sergeant Tankard, with the assistance of Lance-Sergeant Vaughan7 and his signal office detachment, quickly set up his signal office and opened communication with page 53 7 Armoured Division. The signal traffic soon reached a high level, but three shifts working a 24-hour service handled it with ease.
Although Royal Signals, to whom New Zealand Signals had handed over Corps Signals Western Desert Force in November, was now responsible for communications, the greater part of the New Zealand detachment remained with the force and continued to provide communications under Royal Signals command. Those who remained were No. 1 Company (lines), commanded by Major Smith, and No. 2 Company (signal office and wireless), under Captain Feeney. Lieutenant Dasler remained with his B Section men, and Lieutenant Ambury8 continued as second-in-command to Feeney. Lieutenant McFarlane had returned, together with the despatch riders of D Section, to New Zealand Divisional Signals at Helwan. In November, when Lieutenant-Colonel Agar was admitted to 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Helwan and relinquished command of Corps Signals Western Desert Force to Major C. D. Clapp, of Royal Signals, Major Grant remained as second-in-command.
On the morning of 9 December British artillery opened the offensive which was to put the Italians to rout. The volume of signal traffic soared rapidly and the number of ‘Operations’ and ‘Important’ priority messages soon taxed the circuits to their utmost. After the expulsion of the Italian forces from their positions south of Sidi Barrani, Headquarters Western Desert Force moved forward and by dusk on the 22nd was established at Halfaya Pass, near the Libyan frontier. There had been no enemy troops in Egypt since 16 December, and the greater part of the Italian Cyrenaican Army had withdrawn within the perimeter defences of Bardia. By this time the British advance had converged towards the coast and thus had returned to the route of the civil poled-line circuits. In their desperate haste the Italians had made little or no attempt to demolish these lines.
The New Zealand linemen were in their element. From page 54 dawn to dusk they repaired and extended the lines to conform to the rapidly changing pattern of communications as the advance swept on, and the wireless detachments of No. 2 Company bridged the gaps while the lines were being extended and repaired. At the same time continuous wireless communication was maintained with mobile formations of 7 Armoured Division. When the enemy's retreat became headlong flight and the speed of the pursuit increased, the burden of communications fell on wireless to a much greater extent.
The New Zealanders spent Christmas Day near Halfaya, on the escarpment above Sollum. They were tired, dirty and unshaven, but in the right mood to appreciate the New Zealand Patriotic Fund parcels which arrived for the occasion.
Although another detachment of Royal Signals joined the unit on New Year's Eve, the New Zealanders were not released. When British tanks and infantry entered Bardia on 4 January, they moved westwards with Headquarters 13 Corps9 towards Tobruk and Bomba. On 11 January Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, now discharged from hospital and eager to join in the chase, arrived at Corps Headquarters, then at Gambut.
Immediately after the fall of Bardia on 5 January preparations began for the capture of Tobruk, which the enemy held in two perimeter lines of defence, of which the outer was 30 miles in length and the inner 19 miles. In the two weeks that elapsed before the attack was launched the perimeter defences were contained by 6 Australian Division and 7 Armoured Division. Headquarters 13 Corps remained at Gambut; after the fall of Tobruk it was to move westwards to Bomba.
On instructions from the CSO 13 Corps (Colonel F. A. H. Mathew), for whom he was acting as signals liaison officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, accompanied by his driver and batman (Signalmen Wrathall10 and Clarke11) and a Rhodesian line NCO from Royal Signals, set out on 16 January to reconnoitre west of Tobruk the poled-line circuit which followed the main coast road from Bardia, through Tobruk towards page 55 Bomba, Derna and beyond. They moved along the Trigh Capuzzo, through El Adem to Acroma, where they encountered the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division, and from there went northwards to the coast road, where they began the reconnaissance eastwards towards the perimeter defences of Tobruk as far as the advanced British posts would allow them to go. The Colonel then turned west again and moved along the coast road through Gazala to a point 90 kilometres east of Derna. This was far beyond the Support Group's screen, so the Colonel, deeming it imprudent to proceed farther, returned to Headquarters 13 Corps, where he reported that the circuits were in good condition except for some slight disrepair due to deferred maintenance and some damage near the perimeter defences caused by shellfire.
At this stage in the campaign Dasler's B (cable) Section linemen attached to 13 Corps Signals were organised in two detachments, one under Sergeant Bateman12 for main-line maintenance work, and the other under Corporal Jones13 to lay and maintain field cable. When the attack on Tobruk commenced at 5 a.m. on 21 January, Jones's detachment, which until then had been stationed at Headquarters 6 Australian Division, about five miles west of Headquarters 13 Corps at Gambut, was sent forward to 16 Australian Brigade to extend the line from the divisional headquarters as the brigade advanced. At Headquarters 13 Corps Bateman's detachment, together with a Royal Signals line detachment, was placed under Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, whose instructions were to bridge the gaps in the poled-line circuits through Tobruk as soon as possible after the town was entered by the Australians.
The road along which the main line lay ran straight from Bardia to a point about four miles south of Tobruk, where it branched sharply to the right towards the town and to the left towards El Adem, eight miles to the south. Some days earlier Bateman and his detachment had carried out some preliminary maintenance work on this line as far as the road page 56 junction, which was the forward limit of the Australian positions and where two battalions sat astride the main road. Working slowly along the line, examining spans and poleheads and making repairs where faults were found, Bateman's detachment proceeded with a little more caution to avoid going beyond the Australians' forward positions. But there was a dust-storm blowing, and in the poor visibility the detachment reached the road junction and continued on without noticing that they were approaching uncomfortably close to the Italian defences. Suddenly a light gun ahead fired several rounds straight down the road, to the consternation of Bateman and his men, who turned their 3-ton lorry around quickly and scuttled back towards the road junction and the safety of the Australian lines.
Tobruk fell on the second day of the attack, 22 January, and it was then that the linemen's work commenced in earnest. From the point he had reached on the main line just south of the perimeter defences a few days previously, Batemen set his detachment to lay quad cable (a rubber-sheathed cable containing four independent conductors) into the town to join up with the poled line running to the west. Meanwhile Lieutenant-Colonel Agar had set the Royal Signals line detachment to work inside the perimeter to restore the circuits in the centre of the town and on the western side of the defences, but as their progress was too slow he diverted Bateman's detachment to the west to work back towards Tobruk and meet them. By midday next day the main line running through Tobruk towards Bomba was completely restored, and line communication both forward and to the rear firmly established.
The A Section wireless detachments of New Zealand Signals under Lieutenant Ambury, which had been employed forward with an Australian brigade during the Bardia attack on 3 January, were withdrawn and redistributed for the Tobruk operations to provide more stable communications between Headquarters 6 Australian Division and 13 Corps, which had not been served very satisfactorily at Bardia by the Australian Signals. The No. 9 set detachment manned by Signalmen O'Hara, Hutt,14 Broadmore15 and Gaughan16 at 16 Australian page 57 Brigade was withdrawn to Headquarters 6 Division to work back to the control set at Headquarters 13 Corps, manned by Signalmen Moran, Butterworth17 and Hartigan.18 To replace the New Zealand set at Headquarters 16 Brigade, the Australians withdrew a set from one of their own battalions.
The happy-go-lucky attitude which these Australian Signals adopted towards their communication responsibilities was aptly illustrated on the second day of the Tobruk attack, when Signalman Lew Thomas,19 one of the linemen in Corporal Jones's detachment with 16 Brigade, was suddenly accosted by the operator on the rear-link wireless set to Headquarters 6 Division. Having closed down his set and climbed out of his vehicle, the Australian said casually: ‘Keep an eye on the set, will you? I'm off to see what there is in the way of loot.’ Thomas spent several uncomfortable hours at the set wondering what he was supposed to do until the operator returned.
Bomba saw the end of the campaign for most of the New Zealand Signals. On 2 February Captain Feeney and sixty-six other ranks returned to Tobruk, where they embarked for Alexandria en route to rejoin Divisional Signals at Helwan. During the sea voyage the men were employed as escorts for 1500 Italian prisoners being taken back to Egypt.
At Bomba Royal Signals took over all signal office duties, and the only New Zealanders who remained with 13 Corps Signals were the four wireless detachments. These detachments, together with an M Section detachment and under the command of Major Smith, moved on 4 February with Main Corps Headquarters to Msus, in the rear of 7 Armoured Division. The object of this move across the Benghazi bulge was to intercept the remnants of the Italian forces fleeing south towards El Agheila. Contact was made at Soluch and a sharp engagement resulted in the utter rout of the enemy. The armoured division then pushed northwards to Benghazi, which surrendered on 7 February. Major Smith, with his wireless and M Section detachments, entered Benghazi with Corps Head- page 58 quarters in time to take over the civil telephone exchange intact.
For the New Zealand Signals who served with Western Desert Force and 13 Corps in General Wavell's campaign of December 1940 and early 1941, the fall of Benghazi marked the end of their first desert operations. The task on which they had embarked so hopefully eight months before had yielded lessons of considerable value to Divisional Signals. Some of these lessons were to have a long and persistent effect on the work of the unit, particularly during the difficult desert campaigns of 1941 and 1942. Nor were these lessons for Signals alone. Captured enemy documents disclosed that the Italians had a very considerable knowledge of the British order of battle. It was with some misgivings that the staff of 13 Corps learned that the enemy had acquired this knowledge through defective security, particularly in the composition of signal messages transmitted by wireless.
At the same time the Corps' staff had a lively appreciation of the value of wireless in mobile desert operations, amply demonstrated by the ease of command and control given Headquarters 7 Armoured Division by its armoured office vehicles complete with wireless installations. During the fast-moving operations of the 1940 campaign the means of control by other divisional and formation commanders left much to be desired. Wide frontages, dispersion in depth, and great distances put a premium on wireless communications, which demanded sufficient reliable equipment and well-trained operators. Unskilled wireless operators are a hindrance to the conduct of successful mobile operations. In 7 Armoured Division the staff office and signal office were virtually combined, and this should have been the case at the headquarters of all other formations. There should be no separation between the command office and the signal unit, and it is wrong in practice and principle to make such a distinction as, for example, brigade headquarters and signal section. In war neither exists usefully without the other.20
The last of the New Zealanders who had served with 13 Corps Signals, three officers and seventeen other ranks, rejoined page 59 Divisional Signals at Helwan on 17 February 1941. A week later General Freyberg inspected and addressed a parade of all men of Divisional Signals who had served with Corps Signals Western Desert Force and 13 Corps Signals. In appreciation of the services rendered by New Zealand Signals in the campaign, Lieutenant-General O'Connor, Commander 13 Corps, published a special order of the day; this was conveyed to the commanding officer of Divisional Signals by Colonel Mathew, CSO 13 Corps, who wrote:
hq 13 corps
3 feb 41
Now that the bulk of the New Zealand Signals are being returned to you I am writing to tell you how much we have appreciated having them with us and how sorry we are to lose them. Without their help during the last few months we should not have been able to maintain the CORPS communications and we shall find it difficult to maintain in the future the high standard they have set. I enclose a copy of a Special Order of The Day issued by the CORPS Commander, which shows how much he valued their work. Thanking you again very much for lending this very useful contingent and wishing the whole of the New Zealand Divisional Signals the ‘Best of Luck’ in the future.
F. Mathew Colonel
Chief Signal Officer 13 corps