New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
Coincident with the losing of provinces and divisions in Libya, II Duce's troops were being very roughly handled by the Greeks, who were not without hopes of as complete a victory as had been won in North Africa.
Hitler at this period was moving diplomatically in the Balkans —the kind of diplomacy that is backed by armies. Roumania soon saw Teutonic reason and Bulgaria gave no signs of defiance, so that the situation speedily arose where Germany was in a position to march against Greece or Turkey or Yugoslavia.
Our counter was to offer the Greeks some armoured troops, field artillery and anti-aircraft batteries for the defence of their Bulgarian border, but this was declined on the grounds that such a gesture was more likely to provoke than restrain aggression. Later the Greeks altered their opinion and asked what assistance could be sent in the event of a German attack. General Wavell was ordered to send every available unit to Greece, for early and substantial help could come only from North Africa, where any danger of an enemy counter-offensive, it was thought, could be disregarded. But while this decision was being implemented a German light division was landing in Tripoli.
In spite of having to denude his western front, the completeness of the victory in Cyrenaica decided General Wavell to allow the operations against Italian East Africa to proceed.
In the meantime there was no lack of employment for the Engineers; there were kit and equipment deficiencies to be made good, some accumulated pay to be disposed of and an infinity of small jobs to be done around the camps. There was also routine training, shifting battalions across the Nile in night exercises with assault boats and rafts, and the breaking down of infantry prejudices concerning a close acquaintanceship with anti-tank mines.
About the middle of February the tempo began to quicken and stores up to G1098 scale—the war equipment of a unit—became freely available. The issue of tropical kit was proof page 61 that wherever the Division was going, and it was clearly going there soon, the potential battleground was likely to be, climatically at least, very hot. As Lieutenant Wheeler1 saw it:
‘Orders for equipment and movement came rolling in, cancelling and contradicting each other. Much paper and time might have been saved if a composite order could have been sent us somewhat on these lines—
“At 1600 hours all ranks will be issued with battledress to make them think they are going to a cooler climate.
“At 1800 hours all ranks will be re-issued with shorts to make them think they are going to a hotter climate.
“At 2000 hours all ranks will be issued with solar topees to prove to them that they are going to Hell.”
‘By 2000 hours all ranks didn't care if they were going to Hell. As a courtesy gesture from Peter Fraser or the King or someone, we had been issued with a bottle of beer per man. This barely touched the sides as it sizzled down our parched throats but it started a fashion and set us on the way to a practical expression of the jubilation that was seething through the camp.’2
Pursuant to a directive from Headquarters New Zealand Division, the Engineer units departed from Cairo and its environs.
‘Divisional training will be held in March. The Div. Comd. directs that the exercise be carried out with as much realism as possible. Security measures such as would be adopted for a real Op will be put into effect at once. For instance, orders for the move will be delayed until the last possible moment. Units are being supplied up to G 1098 scale, and will be brought up to WE immediately. Existing camp areas will be completely evacuated. Base kits will be left behind. Only Fd Service kits will be taken. In short the Div. trg is to be regarded as a full rehearsal for active service.’
The Second Echelon, en route from England, arrived at Port Tewfik on 3 March and entrained for Helwan, where the ‘Glamour Boys’ of 7 Field Company had about three weeks seeing the sights and tasting the ‘juice of Egypt's grape’ before they followed the rest of the Division to Amiriya transit camp.
Eleven days after 7 Field Company had marched into Helwan, page 62 8 Field Company (Major A. R. Currie3), re-embodied after turning itself into 18 and 19 Army Troops Companies, also marched eagerly into Maadi.
It was to take its place as the Division's third field company in the ‘exercises’ and its rate of equipment up to G1098 was a miracle of ease and celerity. On 5 April the company moved to Amiriya and loaded its vehicles and equipment on the transport; the following dawn the German troops in Bulgaria crossed the frontier into Greece; 8 Field Company unloaded its gear and returned profanely to Cairo, this time to Mena Camp, where it remained for the next few months.
Nineteenth Army Troops Company, which was already in Greece, took over the role of 8 Field Company although it was neither equipped nor trained as a field company. The position then was that Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton had under his command in Greece a Headquarters, 5 Field Park Company, 6 and 7 Field Companies, and 19 Army Troops Company acting as a field company.