CHAPTER 8 — Return to Egypt
Return to Egypt
Those men of Divisional Signals who had returned direct to Egypt from Greece occupied the old unit area in Helwan and settled down to await whatever might turn up to relieve their enforced inactivity, denuded as they were of all transport and equipment except what Lieutenant-Colonel Allen had contrived to bring away from Monemvasia. There was some restriction on daily leave because of the unsettled political situation in Egypt and the presence of enemy troops on the Libyan frontier, where Germans, who a short time before had made their first appearance in the Middle East, were now concentrated in Cyrenaica, confronting the slender British garrison which had been shorn of its strength to provide substance for the expedition to Greece. Most units in Helwan Camp, including Divisional Signals, were required to mount pickets of approximately a third of their strength for daily tours of duty of twenty-four hours.
L Section disembarked with Headquarters 6 Brigade at Port Said on 2 May and went immediately to El Tahig Camp. Three days later they entrained for Helwan and reached the camp at midnight on the 5th.
Details of establishments for ancillary units of the newly formed 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment were published on 4 May, and these included figures for the signal section, which was to consist of one subaltern, one sergeant, and thirty-one rank and file. Men for the section were to be drawn from the 5th Reinforcements, which arrived in Egypt on 13 May.
Because of the unsettled political situation in Egypt throughout the month, there was a considerable increase in the number of British troops normally employed on internal security duties. New Zealand troops were used to assist British units in the Cairo Area, in the Delta, and in the Canal Zone.
About the middle of the month a party of three officers and two other ranks from the remainder of the unit in Crete rejoined page 169 Signals in Helwan, and a few days later a second party of two officers and eighty-three other ranks arrived. This second party had become separated from the first during its embarkation at Suda Bay and returned to Egypt in another ship.
The last days of May brought many anxious thoughts for those men of the unit who were with the Division in Crete, but the arrival on 1 June of Major Grant and his party, which had been Force Signals on the island, allayed to some extent the fears fostered by reports of the desperate fighting which had taken place in the closing stages of the battle. The next day Captain Pryor and his party, which had been New Zealand Divisional Signals in Crete, arrived. On the same train from Amiriya was J Section, which marched with Headquarters 4 Brigade into its old area at the eastern end of the camp. Lieutenant-Colonel Allen visited J Section very soon after its arrival and spoke to the men. As they jumped off the trucks and gathered around him, he glanced with approval at the odd assortment of rifles, bayonets and German machine-carbines which they carried, and with faint distaste at their unshaven faces.
A few days before, on 28 May, 6 Brigade had moved to Moascar, in the Suez Canal area, and with it went L Section, which almost immediately on its arrival began to receive a considerable quantity of new signal equipment to provide communications within the brigade. Sixth Brigade was to prepare defensive systems against possible enemy airborne attacks on Kantara, Ismailia and Suez.
On 9 June men of the recently formed 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Signal Section, who were mainly from the newly arrived 5th Reinforcements, marched into Divisional Signals for training. They were followed on the 14th by F and H Sections, and later by C, J and K Sections. E and G Sections did not join Divisional Signals until after it had moved to Maadi Camp on the 26th. This convergence of sections at the headquarters of the unit was the result of a training directive issued earlier in the month by Headquarters New Zealand Division, which stated that, because of the shortage of signal equipment and the large number of reinforcements to be absorbed into the unit and trained, the whole of Signals should page 170 be concentrated under the Commander Divisional Signals in one camp area for a period of intensive training.
On 29 June the whole of Divisional Signals, except L Section at Moascar, assembled for its first complete muster parade. It was a proud moment for Lieutenant-Colonel Allen. He inspected each section in turn and then addressed the parade, announcing that a comprehensive programme of training was to commence on the morrow and would continue for four weeks. This programme was very thorough. It was midsummer and U Area, at the north-eastern end of the camp, was probably the least pleasant part of the whole camp, so that the training scheme was hardly popular with the men. Each day started at 5.30 a.m. with a period of infantry training. As the season advanced these early morning periods became darker and darker, so that towards the end of July there was considerably more light from the moon than there was daylight.
The men were put through their infantry drill by selected section officers, some of whom had been instructors of the New Zealand Permanent Staff before the war. In another part of the area all officers above the rank of lieutenant were assembled under Lieutenant-Colonel Allen for instruction in the intricacies of company drill. But for the Colonel's determination and the steely glint in his eye that boded ill for any hint of unseemly levity, these company drill parades would have been hilariously funny. Each platoon, or section, was represented by two signalmen who held a piece of string the length of the front rank of a platoon. There were two of these ‘string’ platoons and the string-holders were manoeuvred to represent a platoon in line or in column of threes. The officers were then given ‘appointments’ ranging from company commander down to platoon sergeant, and were required, according to the Colonel's directions, to move the two platoons about in the various stages of company drill. Some officers wove the two platoons into unbelievable tangles, whereupon the Colonel expressed his disgust in brief and well chosen phrases. The signalmen who held the strings barely restrained their eagerness to rush back to their lines and tell their tent mates how the officers had flinched under the Old Man's terse and biting comments.
The programme of training ended on 24 July with a page 171 ceremonial parade inspected and reviewed by Major-General Freyberg on the hockey ground at the Maadi Sporting Club. Altogether, seventeen officers and 270 other ranks, including twenty-five from L Section who travelled from Moascar for the occasion, took part. The proceedings opened with a general salute as the GOC and the official party entered the ground. After the GOC had inspected the parade he presented decorations to two officers and one signalman. Major Agar received the OBE, Captain Smith the MBE, and Signalman Mundy the MM. All three awards were for services performed in the Libyan campaign of 1940.
An interesting notice in routine orders on the 26th announced that the sum of £820 iis sterling had been contributed by units of the New Zealand Division to the Royal Naval Welfare Fund. The money, of which Divisional Signals had subscribed £23, represented the appreciation felt by all ranks of the Division for the work of the Royal Navy during the evacuations from Greece and Crete.
In November 1940, when the Division first moved to Helwan Camp, the responsibility for the administration of Maadi Camp and the training of reinforcements devolved upon Headquarters 2 NZEF Base. The Composite Training Depot was formed on 9 December and was commanded by Major Carruth,1 an officer of the Divisional Cavalry, who had for his second-in-command Captain Vincent, Divisional Signals' first adjutant. Although Vincent was second-in-command of the depot, which was responsible for the training of reinforcement drafts from New Zealand, his immediate responsibilities lay with the Signal Training Company of the depot.
From these modest beginnings there grew up gradually a signals training organisation which, in March 1941, became the Signal School Base. The staff and training equipment of the Signal Training Company were transferred to the new school, whose first commander was Captain Vincent. Its strength at its inception was fifty-four all ranks and it occupied Area G, at the corner of Russell Terrace and Duigan Road.page 172
The school consisted of a school headquarters and two wings. No. 1 Wing was designed to train up to 100 Divisional Signals reinforcements in wireless, line communication, Morse and switchboard operating, despatch rider and signal office duties, and instrument maintenance. No. 2 Wing performed the same functions for up to 250 regimental signallers at one time.
Captain Vincent was commandant and chief instructor. The appointment of second-in-command and adjutant was held by Captain Dasler, who was seconded from Divisional Signals for six months' tour of duty at the school.
Immediately the school was formed it became also the base camp of New Zealand Corps of Signals. All reinforcements and others of the corps who had not accompanied Divisional Signals to Greece were transferred to the school from the Base Reception Depot for instructional and administrative duties. There were sixty-nine of these troops, and they were given the task of fitting out the new classrooms under the direction of the school staff in preparation for the first twelve weeks' course of instruction.
The school area was well equipped with wooden hutments, roomy structures with concrete floors. Most of these huts were subdivided by central partitions into two compartments, each with separate entrances. Seven rooms were allotted for use as classrooms. The first of these was fitted out as a line and instrument room. On the walls were hung large boards on which were fixed the component parts of all line instruments in use at that time. There were also large wall diagrams depicting instrument circuit arrangements and the correct method of adjusting and manipulating the controls of instruments. Four other rooms, where instruction in Morse operating was to be given, were wired to provide several sets of Morse keys and headphones at each table. A sixth room was allotted for instruction in wireless and signal procedure. The walls of this room, too, were adorned with charts and diagrams, and several types of wireless sets were arranged on tables along the walls for demonstration purposes. The seventh room was used for general lectures, and in it were arranged a number of demonstration models to assist instructors to teach electricity and magnetism, the tactical employment of a divisional signals in battle, and page 173 many other subjects which had a special application to signal communications.
By 27 March the school was ready to begin its first two courses of instruction, one for Divisional Signals and the other for regimental signallers of Divisional Cavalry, artillery regiments and infantry battalions. Each course was of twelve weeks and the subjects taught in both groups covered a wide field. In Morse operating Divisional Signals personnel were expected to attain an operating speed of twenty words a minute before they were considered ready to be posted to the Division. The standard required of regimental signallers was sixteen words a minute. Other classes dealt with signal procedure and the modified forms in which it could be used on stable circuits; the operation and manipulation of the various types of wireless sets and visual signalling equipment, such as the daylight signalling lamp, the heliograph, ground-to-air signalling apparatus, and even the humble Morse flag; laying and maintaining field cable and the correct use of terminal equipment such as the six and ten-line universal call switchboards, telephone sets, Fullerphones, and superposing units.
At this early stage in the school's activities no provision had been made for the training of electricians and instrument mechanics, but plans for this most important phase of the school's work were already in preparation.
In U Area, Maadi Camp, where Divisional Signals had fretted impatiently through the last stages of a hot summer in uncomfortable, sand-ridden, tented quarters, the boredom of existence in a base camp was quickly being dispelled by the work of re-equipping the unit for another excursion into the field. By 12 August most sections had received almost their full scale of transport and signal equipment, and a steady flow of reinforcements from Signal School Base had brought most of them up to full strength.
The first section to move out from Divisional Signals was 14 Anti-Aircraft Signal Section which joined the regiment on 5 August. The regiment was then under forty-eight hours' notice to move out from Maadi Camp on internal security duties under the direction of Headquarters British Troops in page 174 Egypt. The next move occurred on the 12th, when the OC, one sergeant and twenty-one other ranks of K Section moved out to join Headquarters 5 Brigade at Kabrit, on the Suez Canal, where for several weeks the brigade had been training in combined operations. Three days later Second-Lieutenant Tonge2 and eight other ranks left to join Lieutenant McFarlane and the rest of the section at Kabrit. On the 15th, too, L Section moved with 6 Brigade from Moascar to Helwan, where the brigade occupied the old 4 Brigade lines. The anti-paratroop defence duties in the Canal Zone, on which 6 Brigade had been employed since late May, were taken over by 5 Brigade the same day. J Section moved out from U Area to Kabrit on the 16th to rejoin 4 Brigade, which was about to commence training in combined operations.
The 27th August was a day of much movement in Divisional Signals, E Section rejoining 4 Field Regiment, F Section 5 Field Regiment, G Section 6 Field Regiment, and H Section 7 Anti- Tank Regiment. The last to leave U Area, C Section, rejoined Divisional Cavalry on the 30th.
Fifth Brigade received orders on 31 August to move to a position about 20 miles south of El Alamein to complete defence works in an area known as Fortress A, which was laid out with battalion defensive positions to the north-west and south. The brigade began the move from Moascar to the Western Desert on 3 September and arrived at Qaret el Abd next day. The signal communications planned for the fortress were very extensive, and all line circuits were to be buried or trenched throughout their length. Immediately the brigade arrived in the area CSO 10 Corps sent his staff officer, Major Roe, to instruct K Section in the layout of the communications, for which 40 miles of American E cable, two 10-line universal call switchboards, and a number of telephone sets were supplied from Corps Headquarters. The work of preparing the fortress defences and communications continued until 2 October, after which the brigade recommenced training. By this time the work of burying brigade and battalion lines in Fortress A was almost completed, despite the immense difficulty encountered in digging trenches in the rocky ground.page 175 page 176
From 4 to 6 September J Section provided communications for 4 Brigade, which was engaged in combined operations training on the Great Bitter Lake. E Section was also employed in these exercises, and in the same period carried out training with 4 Field Regiment in the provision of communications in beach landings. Both E and J Sections arrived in the Western Desert about the middle of the month with 4 Field Regiment and Headquarters 4 Brigade, and occupied positions in the Baggush Box.
Advanced Headquarters New Zealand Division had arrived at Baggush on 13 September. With it was Divisional Signals. The Division's task was to take over the command, care and maintenance of the Baggush Box from 4 Indian Division and 161 British Infantry Brigade.
On 17 September New Zealand Division, less 5 Brigade, which remained under the operational control of Headquarters British Troops in Egypt, passed from 10 Corps' command to 13 Corps. At midnight on 26-27 September Eighth Army, which officially came into being on 10 September, took over operational command of all troops in the Western Desert. This was announced in an economically worded memorandum from Headquarters British Troops in Egypt, which said: ‘hq western army is re-designated hq eighth army. The revised designation will be taken into use as from 27 sep 41’.
The New Zealand Division came under the direct command of Headquarters Eighth Army on the 28th, but 5 Brigade continued to be under the operational control of Headquarters British Troops in Egypt.
A change of command in Divisional Signals occurred on the 27th, when Lieutenant-Colonel Allen left to command the Central Infantry Training Depot at Maadi Camp, and Major Agar was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel and took command of Divisional Signals. On the eve of his departure from the unit which he had commanded for two years, Colonel Allen published a message in routine orders:
Outside Creforce Headquarters above Canea, looking west
Training and refitting after Crete—a line detachment on exercises
[Signed] Stanley F. Allen
Commanding New Zealand
On 28 September the initial steps, so far as 2 New Zealand Divisional Signals was concerned, were taken in the formation of the air support control signal section which was later to be known as T Air Support Control Section. This section, for which a nucleus of one officer, one sergeant, five corporals and two signalmen-electricians was supplied by Divisional Signals, formed part of an army element which was combined with a somewhat similar RAF organisation. Both operated in unison at the headquarters of the higher army formation fighting the battle.
Second-Lieutenant Foubister, then second-in-command of A (wireless) Section, was appointed to command the new T Air Support Control Section (or T Section, as it was more conveniently known later). With the nucleus of one sergeant—Sergeant Moran, also of A (wireless) Section—and seven other ranks from New Zealand Corps of Signals, the section was built up from regimental signallers undergoing training at Signal School Base.
This new form of signals organisation was introduced because of the need for providing the commanders of forward brigades in battle with a means of calling for air support on targets already selected by tactical reconnaissance aircraft of the RAF.
Direct air support, or defensive support, of troops on the ground employs the principle that all aircraft available for the purpose are used against the most suitable and vulnerable page 178 targets during battle. Some of these targets, however, will be outside the range of ground observation and, therefore, will have to be selected by air reconnaissance. The tentacle system used by the army air support control signals organisation was employed as a secondary means by which commanders of formations, usually infantry brigades, could convey quickly to the RAF in the rear their immediate needs in air support. These tentacles were wireless detachments from air support control sections which the higher commander, usually a corps commander, allotted to those forward brigades he considered most likely to require direct air support. The tentacles worked on a wireless net, of which the control station was sometimes at Army Headquarters but usually at Corps Headquarters.
The method employed by Eighth Army was for a brigade commander in need of immediate air support to pass his request to the rear by a signal written on a special message form designed to reduce transmission time to a minimum. On receipt of the signal at air support control headquarters, the control staff, which included an army representative—usually a GSO 2 delegated by the army or corps commander—accepted or rejected the request according to the suitability of the target, the availability of aircraft, or the urgency of the task. If the request was accepted orders were transmitted direct by the air support control staff by means of RAF rear air support links (RASL) to the landing ground selected to supply aircraft for the task.
Normally, a tentacle on the same group as those operating at brigades was stationed at divisional headquarters to intercept traffic passing between forward brigades and air support control. This enabled the divisional commander to keep a close watch on the extent to which his brigades were being assisted by direct support.
Other wireless sets, netted on a group in the same way as tentacles, were employed at the headquarters of brigades for controlling supporting aircraft in the air and for intercepting wireless reports from tactical reconnaissance aircraft flying over the battlefield. These sets belonged to the RAF component of the air support control organisation and were known as forward air support links (FASL).page 179
The air support control signal section, the army component of the organisation, consisted of seven tentacles and three control sets. The personnel were 1 officer, 1 sergeant and 46 other ranks, who included 2 wireless operators and 1 electrician for each tentacle, and 12 wireless operators, 3 electricians and 3 despatch riders at air support control headquarters.
The air support control organisation evolved in 1941 was the forerunner of the air support signal units (ASSU) which attained such conspicuous success in the Italian campaign of 1944 and 1945. It is only fair to add, however, that this success was brought about largely by the vastly improved availability of suitable aircraft for direct support purposes. In 1941 RAF resources in aircraft in the Middle East were very slender, and in many cases requests for direct support were declined for the reason that aircraft were not available. But these considerations in no way detract from the very creditable work performed by air support control signals at that time.
Fifth Brigade came under the command of Eighth Army on 5 October. It had recommenced training three days earlier, after its labours on the preparation of the Fortress A defences, and rejoined the Division at Baggush on the 6th.
Early in October Divisional Signals was engrossed with the unfamiliar details of the new call-sign procedure which had recently been introduced in the Middle East, and which was to replace the old system of designating the headquarters of formations and units with four-letter code-names. The new procedure employed combinations of letters arranged in groups of three taken from a call-sign book which contained several thousand of these three-letter groups, each of which was different from any other. The procedure was designed to enable all call signs in use to be changed daily at a prearranged time. The task of studying the new procedure and instructing signal office staff and wireless operators in its use was entrusted to Second- Lieutenant Stevenson, of D (operating) Section, who was also to lecture staff officers at Divisional Headquarters in the use of another recently introduced security measure, the new radio-telephony code. As both procedures were to be brought into use on 16 October, a great deal of intensive study and instruction page 180 had to be crammed into two weeks to ensure that all concerned were reasonably proficient in their use.
A new war establishment for an infantry divisional signals made its appearance in October, although General Headquarters Middle East stipulated that it was not to be taken into use immediately. Its most interesting feature was the increase in the number of wireless sets held by A (wireless) Section, infantry brigade signal sections, and field regiment signal sections. In A Section, four of its No. 11 sets were replaced by No. 9 sets, and an additional No. 9 set was provided for use as a rear link to Corps Headquarters. Three of the new No. 9 sets were included in the establishments of infantry brigade sections to provide a more reliable rear link to Divisional Headquarters than the No. 11 HP (high power) sets then in use for that purpose were capable of giving. The new establishment, however, like the quartermaster's ledger, had a debit side too. The number of detachments in B (cable) Section was reduced arbitrarily from three to two and, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Agar's interpretation, lowered the amount of field cable authorised to be carried by the section from 96 miles to 56. The Colonel's reaction to this drastic curtailment of the unit's cable resources was strong and immediate, and when the establishment was brought into use, a satisfactory compromise had been reached with General Headquarters Middle East Forces. Although, at this date, the new establishment was not authorised for immediate use, Headquarters 2 NZEF was able to arrange for the implementation of that part of it which provided the increase in No. 9 wireless sets, and these were drawn from Headquarters Eighth Army on 25 October.
Earlier in the month (on the 3rd) Second-Lieutenant Foubister and Sergeant Moran had marched in to Signal School Base at Maadi to select from the regimental signallers undergoing training there men for the new T Air Support Control Section. By the 8th they had begun training at General Headquarters Troops Royal Signals, at Mena Camp, with each of their ten wireless sets No. 9 fitted into a 15-cwt truck. Six days later Foubister tried out his men on a wireless exercise. Although the new section, with the exception of the sergeant, two other NCOs and an electrician from A (wireless) Section, page 181 were drawn from the 5th and 6th Reinforcements and had had little or no experience with wireless, the results of this first exercise were gratifying.
The section left Mena Camp on the 16th and made its way to the Western Desert, where it was to come under the command of 13 Corps. On the 18th it bivouacked in a position near the main road about three miles east of Qasaba and immediately recommenced training.
Major Vincent, CO Signal School Base, arrived at Baggush on 25 October on a farewell visit to Divisional Signals. He was shortly to return to New Zealand to take up a training appointment, and this was the last that many of his former charges were to see of him for many a long day. Before he left he was specially charged by Lieutenant-Colonel Agar with the task of injecting some imagination and realism into the training which was to be given signals reinforcements before they left New Zealand for the Middle East. Vincent was succeeded in his command of Signal School Base by Major Grant, who returned to Maadi Camp with him on the 27th.
During October a number of exercises held in the desert south of Baggush were designed to test each brigade in turn in set-piece attacks against prepared ‘enemy’ positions. These exercises provided first-class training for Signals in divisional-brigade communications, both line and wireless. Their most conspicuous features were the sense of realism they imparted and the insight they gave Signals into battle conditions, which no previous communications exercises had done to such a revealing extent. Towards the end of the month an exercise conducted by Headquarters Eighth Army was held to try out the new air support control signals communications, the new call-sign procedure, and the new RT procedure.
November opened with a programme of intensive wireless training, in which all wireless detachments were to have at least three hours' practice in handling traffic. Lieutenant- Colonel Agar attached considerable importance to this training. Still acutely aware of the disquieting inferiority disclosed in the Division's wireless communications in the Greek campaign, he was resolved that his unit would be adequately prepared for its signals tasks before the Division took the field again. He page 182 had discussed this matter with the GOC, to whom he emphasized the urgency of adequate and properly planned wireless training in readiness for the forthcoming operations. The training included the use of dummy aerials and minimum lengths of rod aerials for communication over short ranges, and practice in the use of ground aerials. A rigid drill for station discipline and control of wireless detachments by signal office superintendents was laid down.
The intensive training exercises of October and the thoroughly practised wireless drills of early November were the harbingers of imminent moves which were to carry the Division westwards into the arid wastes of eastern Cyrenaica to meet the enemy again, this time on terms more equal than those which had turned the scales so decisively in the Germans' favour in the Balkan adventure six months before. Rumour had not been idle in the meantime, but the artistry of her wiles had little scope for expression at that time, when almost every soldier in the Division was able to measure with practised eye the preparations for final ‘exercises’.
3 R9 is the maximum on the old scale of signal intensities.