4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 1 — The Beginning
THIS is the RMT —the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company.1 This day, 9 December 1940, it will drive into its first action. The RMT is the first company of the 2 NZEF to go into action in the Second World War.
The 4th RMT Company's story goes back to that first Tuesday in October, in the ripe spring of 1939. That was when the First Echelon marched (and, in some cases, was assisted by more sober comrades) into New Zealand's three main camps: Ngaruawahia, Trentham, and Burnham. These men, volunteers for our Special Force, as 2 NZEF was called in the beginning, wore civilian clothes and carried small suitcases or sugar–bags. The old soldiers shook their heads….
The quartermasters handed out tin plates, pannikins, and clumsy knives, forks and spoons coated against rust in a loathsome grease. Each man picked up a sacking palliasse and stuffed it with straw. For candlesticks, old triangular bayonets, salvaged from heaven knows where, turned up. Old, too, were many of the khaki serge uniforms of assorted shades and sizes, their folds filled with flakes of naphthalene, their four–starred brass buttons heavy with green. Greatcoats in two sizes (too page 2 big or too small) were mustard-coloured survivals from 1916, some with disturbing bullet holes. But the black boots and the grey blankets were good, very good. All this and a lot more had to be carted to the six-man tent (huts were not ready for everyone then), which took some finding for a start.
‘Sorry. I'm a stranger here myself.’
Shuffled from queue to queue in that first dazed week, paraded for gear, for meals, and for paybooks, mystified by bugle calls,2 asked for name and number at every turn, thankful they had brains enough to avoid such an organisation in peacetime, detailed for fatigues in cookhouse (those great bloody gauze bags of raw mincemeat) and latrine (the horror of the first cigarette butts), commanded to swing-those-arms-keep-in-line-pick-it-up-pick-it-up-watch-your-dress-ing, volunteers consoled themselves by reminding each other of the only thing the Army could not do: it could not make a man a mother.
But after a while the unit began to shake itself out of this mess. The 4th RMT Company, scattered among the three training camps, would not meet up together until Egypt was reached. In the meantime in each camp was a little pocket of RMT: A Section (now moved from Ngaruawahia) in Papakura and commanded by ‘the boss’, Captain ‘Granny’ Whyte,3 with Lieutenant Muller4 helping him; B Section in Trentham under Lieutenants Woods5 and Broberg6; C Section in Burn- page 3 ham with Captain McAlpine7 and Lieutenant Good.8 RMT's job was to carry riflemen about and to lend a hand with the multitude of transport tasks required by a modern army. To look after its trucks was a sort of mobile repair shop called Workshops Section. This Workshops Section and Company Headquarters, with its clerk, typist, despatch rider, sergeantmajor, and so on, the small administrative staff of the company, began to take shape in Trentham. Later drivers and technicians from Papakura and Burnham went to Trentham to complete Workshops Section and Company Headquarters, CSM Rhodes9 leading the southerners and Staff-Sergeant Upton10 heading the others.
Once rifles were issued, drivers settled into the routine of rifle drill, copious instructions on the Lewis gun (never used), preliminary infantry training, route marches, map–reading, and lectures about the organisation of the Division and how the Army Service Corps fitted into the picture. Few even saw the inside of a truck. Nobody seemed to know exactly what this RMT outfit was. Besides, no RMT had been with 1 NZEF in the First World War—and was it really necessary? Trucks were in short supply in those early days, and on the parade ground of Trentham RMT men reluctantly stood-in for trucks, glum and apprehensive while ‘sump’, ‘petrol’ and ‘water’ were examined and checked.
From 14 December it was goodbye to it all for a fortnight, with a £3 gratuity, a travelling warrant, and a pass safely pocketed within each new drill uniform. When the men were on leave a good many people wanted to know: ‘Why are you in the Army? There are more men in the Maginot Line than they know what to do with.’page 4
In the new year the address for letters became:
Number, rank, initials, name,
2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force,
C/o GPO, Wellington.
Any day now….
Then it was past the pubs and the eating places where so much of the soldier's pay stayed, past the offices and shops (keep in step and give ‘em a good show), down those streets walked in happiness or in loneliness on leave, past the crowds and the children held up to see, with a bit of cheering and waving, and a blaze of band music. It was listening to speeches (mostly too long) from about five lots of officials trying to say the same thing. But the small handkerchief glimpsed waving, then abruptly arrested and dabbed to eyes suddenly wet, said it: New Zealand's goodbye to the First Echelon of her Expeditionary Force that morning of Wednesday, 3 January 1940, in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.
And crowds through the camps in the afternoon, and cakes for the trip, and best frocks, photographs, and talking and laughing, just a bit on the artificial side, maybe.
Shouldering black-stencilled kitbags and sea kits, the Trentham RMT men boarded the transport Orion at King's Wharf, Wellington, on Friday, 5 January. Soon they were joined by A Section and Captain Whyte from the Papakura troop train. The RMT men in this ship numbered 284. The rest of the company (94) from Burnham embarked in the Sobieski at Lyttelton on the same day. Next morning the convoy joined up and swung westward through Cook Strait.
Over the widening water lay New Zealand in her pakeha centennial year. Visitors to the Exhibition in Wellington were nearing the million mark. From the top of a crazy house a model of a man laughed incessantly upon the crowds below. Bing Crosby fans sang ‘Pennies from Heaven’, and Claudette Colbert was appearing in a film, ‘It's a Wonderful World’.
The last to be seen of New Zealand was Mount Egmont, with a bit of cloud, at 6 p.m. The next land was near Sydney, page 5 but men did not get ashore until Fremantle was reached on 18 January. ‘We knocked about a bit and the Aussie kids were mad on getting our badges and shoulder titles and buttons. When you walked it still seemed the boat was rocking.’ Next day there was an unnecessary route march to Perth, about 14 miles in all, with the temperature over 90. ‘Three hours 40 minutes it took us. This is not my idea of a joke. We bet the zoo wasn't crowded that day.’
The sea grew bluer and bluer. Sunsets resembled cinema-organ music. A lot now slept on deck, Mae Wests for pillows. All the good Westerns were out of the library and only sea stories were left. The ship's cinema was always crowded.11
‘We crossed the Equator on 28 January and everyone said: did you feel the bump? Colombo, 30 January, another hot march, three hours leave, and what a pong! The Romantic East! Niggers came out in boats to sell fruit and stuff. What they do for a pair of bust tennis shoes would set your hair on end.’
Aden, 8 February: ‘Pete met an old beggar saying “No mother, no father.” He must have been 90.’ The Red Sea: lectures…. ‘The wind came hot and dry, and you could see the land far off looking white, like snow.’ Port Tewfik on 12 February, and so, wide-eyed, wondering, by train through Cairo suburbs to Maadi. ‘P.S. These marks are sweat, not tears.’
The 4th RMT went up into the Western Desert, up into ‘the blue’, into a desert as large as India; it left Maadi on 18 June, just eight days after Italy declared war—with Holland, Belgium, and France now prostrate. If there was any fat in this wasteland by the Libyan border, the RMT, suddenly the most advanced unit of the First Echelon, certainly lived on it now. The company's fortunes had changed with a vengeance. At Maadi the RMT had not exactly cut a dash. For many weeks it had only a handful of trucks. The company was the youngest child in the NZASC brood, and veteran page 6 drivers, instancing RMT's lowliness in early 1940, love to say that at a ceremonial parade for the British Ambassador in Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson, and Lady Lampson, when 4 RMT's turn came to march past the saluting base even the band had packed up and gone. The visit was commemorated in an unprintable song to the tune of ‘Steamboat Bill’.
All that the RMT did at Maadi, apart from route–marching and drill, was to learn how to care for, maintain, and look after trucks. The 380 men shared (like the miracle of loaves and fishes) about a dozen old Morris trucks, one Humber car, and 27 Norton motor–cycles. The most important job was to teach men to drive a lorry properly. Each of the three sections hoped to get 30 lorries to itself one day, and there were supposed to be two first–rate drivers to each lorry. RMT aimed at having at least one reliable driver ready for each truck by the time its permanent vehicles rolled in. Sergeants, corporals, and despatch riders, with much agony, learned to handle the motor–cycles in the sand, but once in the desert the NCOs stuck to the trucks, and only the despatch riders kept motorcycles.
Hardly anybody had handled a heavy lorry in his life. In one section, for example, of 90 men only three (yes, three) had driven heavy transport vehicles in New Zealand, and only 30 had car licences. The remaining 57 had never even driven a car. For an hour or so each week drivers coached non–drivers in starting, changing gears, and steering on a hard, firm stretch of sand at Maadi. The learners then passed on to more advanced instructors, and finally had to pass a gruelling test over really tough going of soft sand, rocks, and hummocks.12 When the fleet of trucks did arrive shortly before the move into the blue, the three sections had barely enough No. 1 drivers to take over each truck. As it turned out, after a short time in the Western Desert, practically any driver could be page 7 sent confidently on any task, a tribute to the corporals for studying, nursing, and developing their men.
But by mid-May (with reports of the Italian Army moving restlessly on and behind the Libyan border), the company had received at long last 98 three–ton Bedford lorries, 16 30–cwt. trucks, three one–ton trucks, and nine cars. Each vehicle bore the divisional sign, a white fernleaf on a square black background, on the front left mudguard, and the company's colours, green and red, and its number, 39 (later changed to 48).
RMT was beginning to perk up.
Then, on 18 June, with the riflemen of 18 and 19 Battalions packed aboard, the three-tonners left for the Desert on the RMT trail which would lead some 500 times round the world before the war ended five years later. Down by the Nile they went, passing the sweet white sails of its feluccas, the flame trees, and naked children dabbling in mucky canals; over the Khedive Ismail Bridge to Giza and Cheops' Pyramid, nearly 500 feet high, nearly 5000 years old, where the ragged young descendants of the Pharaoh's people begged for biscuits, cigarettes and baksheesh; past Mena House into the wastes of desert, the hypnotic black thread of the bitumen road stretching ahead; on to the turn–off to Alexandria. They dispersed for the night and were away next day, with glimpses of the blue Mediterranean, sparkling white sand dunes, and the strange pink of salt marshes. And so they came to Garawla, near Mersa Matruh, by dusk, a wind blowing the sand and making it hard to see ahead. In the night they were welcomed by bombs falling just beyond the dispersed lorries.
At Garawla (nothing more than a couple of huts and an airstrip) RMT's passengers set about hewing and blasting the never–used ‘Kiwi Canal’, an anti-tank ditch some 6000 yards long, twelve feet wide, and five feet deep. On the last day in June the company, 370 strong, moved to Smugglers' Cove, some five miles east of heavily bombed Mersa Matruh. The RMT, now virtually taken away from 2 NZEF until the campaign in Greece, began a long and pleasant period of service for the British under the command of Western Desert Force. While to the west small British mobile columns engaged and harassed the cautious enemy along the frontier, Western page 8 Desert Force prepared secretly and stealthily for the counterattack. The RMT's part was to help fetch and carry everything from water, food, petrol and oil to ammunition, leave parties, and mines. And Naafi (Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute) canteen goods—the fat of the wasteland—spirits, beer, tinned delicacies, cigarettes, tobacco—yes, indeed, and these luxuries drivers considered fair game to be ‘acquired’ by luck and by subtleties. The Naafi run had to be rotated strictly. The booty was concealed with equal cunning. Steve Tripp,13 for example, buried a crate of beer in a military cemetery. The company built up dumps and kept them full, carted supplies over open desert (and not-so-open desert pocked with boulders, potholes, shingle, thorn bushes, and treacherous sands), and followed, with the assurance of camels, faint tracks to as far as Siwa Oasis, some 160 miles inland. Siwa was the forward base for the Long Range Desert Group, and the RMT party, usually a corporal and three or four trucks, often came back with a welcome load of dates.
Communications were difficult. The railway stopped short near the indifferent port of Mersa Matruh and the only road was the one along the coast. Western Desert Force, being far from amply supplied with transport, warmly welcomed the New Zealand drivers and their three–tonners.
The RMT men made themselves at home in remarkably quick time, A Section even adopting a young Arab waif, ‘Mahmid’, until officialdom frowned. Trucks, frequently called out on jobs for days on end, took on a homely appearance, with a photograph of the wife (or the girl friend) fixed prominently before the driver or the spare driver (for there were two drivers to a lorry), ‘and a photograph of the mother-in-law well behind his head’.
A typical three-tonner, developed by its two drivers over a period in the blue, became something like this. Bits and pieces were hung and fixed here and there with the skill of a high–country sheepfarmer adding ‘just a bit more’ to an already overburdened packhorse. Between the two drivers in the cab rose something like the little cupboard in the bathroom. It page 9 had a shelf or so, and there they kept brush, comb, mirror, toilet gear, and any opened foodstuffs—a half–finished tin of jam and margarine (soldiers from the world's largest butter–exporting country ate margarine throughout the war), the current packet of Naafi biscuits, and so on. While the truck bowled along the ‘pantry’ could be tapped for a snack. Bolted under the tailboard was a large metal box, about four feet long, completely filled with reserve tinned food. Then slung along the sides under the edge of the tray were other lockers with more food. In the gap between the cab and the tray, by the spare wheel, rested a five–gallon water container, complete with tap. That was the water supply, apart from the usual tins of reserve water. Slung under the trapdoor in the middle of the tray (the trapdoor was for inspecting the transmission) lay a shallow locker for hard-tack food.
For light during rest and repose in the back of the lorry, the trouble lamp (the wire–cage protected electric light on a flex connected to the truck battery) was fixed semi-permanently inside the canopy. With all headlights absolutely banned, the only other drain on the battery was for starting. With the canopy well roped down and absolutely lightproof at night, there was always plenty of power for reading, writing home, playing cards, eating, and yarning. The trouble lamp worked from a switch rigged up alongside the resting driver. He didn't even have to get out of bed. Now, drivers were supposed to sleep on the floor of the desert or on the bare floor of the truck, with a humble groundsheet and a couple of blankets. In no time, however, every driver had a comfortable mattress (from bombed–out houses in Matruh) or a folding camp bed. And usually some flat spot was left to settle down on, even when the lorry was loaded up.
About the most useful part of a lorry was the exhaust manifold. A tin of M and V (meat and vegetables) was placed on this and, presto! after a couple of miles breakfast was hot and ready. When away from the cooks' truck14 men also whipped up hot meals and brewed tea in no time on primuses page 10 or petrol fires. Every lorry carried an ample emergency supply of petrol. Drivers washed their shirts in petrol; water was scarce.
What about navigation and desert craft? Why didn't this raw company from Maadi disappear without trace in the trackless desert, like the Persian host on the way to beat up Siwa Oasis thousands of years ago?
Two British 7 Armoured Division navigators with sun compasses went out with 4 RMT Company on its first job in the desert, a four–day job building a dump. A khamsin, the most furious and the thickest of all dust–storms, chased the company home. From then on 4 RMT worked on its own.
For a start trucks worked mainly between Smugglers' Cove and Matruh, shifting the supply dumps and dispersing them in the desert. This was virtually all road work, the convoys going only a few hundred yards out from the bitumen road into the desert. This was the first series of jobs.
By now two personalities in particular were widely known. One was Bill Tanner,15 the company's sanitary corporal, a small, merry, deep–voiced man whose work (and play) was of the best. He carried a pet tortoise with him and looked, some thought, like a tortoise. That became Bill's nickname, and the stories about Bill would fill a book—but not this one. The other personality was Padre Roy Jamieson16 who, through his understanding and simplicity, soon became part of the company's life. He was awarded the MBE ‘for great devotion to duty and outstanding service, not only as a chaplain but as a leader.’ Padre Jamieson kept his sermons and services short and apt, ‘and when he left us after seeing us right through the desert, 4 RMT was never quite the same again,’ writes one driver. ‘His commonsense helps many of us still.’ One church parade in 1940 Graham McMillan17 remembers vividly for different reasons. ‘Somebody had found a little sheltered cove where a good many of us could gather without much danger of being bombed,’ he said. ‘We all piled into this little page 11 cove, somebody had a fiddle to provide the music, and away the service went. Well, what with the roar of the waves, we could hardly hear Padre, or the fiddle, and by the time the service ended, half our boots were awash from the incoming tide.’
After road work the desert trips began, carting rations for 7 Armoured Division. This was work for one or two subsections (six or twelve lorries) under corporals, and there were six sub-sections, each of six trucks, to A, B, and C Sections. Only officers had maps and prismatic compasses, and they couldn't be everywhere. One of the senior NCOs would pioneer the route to the dump. Drivers would go there in convoy and come back in convoy. Then it was considered everyone knew the way.
This is how the route was pioneered. First, the NCO (or driver in charge of the convoy) would study the map before leaving, watching for and memorising landmarks, escarpments, and bad bits, and would fix a route in a dead straight line. He didn't take the map with him. His starting point would be on an intentionally simple angle (say 45 degrees) from one of the milestones (or kilometre pegs: white, with the number painted in black) which bordered the coastal road. Reaching the particular peg with his loaded trucks, the NCO in charge of the convoy would get out and stand by the peg. Here he would make his turn (in this case 45 degrees) giving him the angle he had fixed on the map. Parade ground drill (Right turn! Left turn! Rotten! As you were!) long ago had taught him to make an exact, right–angle turn. Half of such a turn would be 45 degrees; a third would be 30 degrees. So far, so good.
His turn made, the NCO, fixing his eyes on a bush or a tiny feature, would walk straight towards it until the following truck was 20 to 30 yards along the line, which was now established for the waiting convoy. All the other drivers had to do was to follow the truck ahead. The NCO knew the distance (say 50 miles) to the destination, probably a couple of camouflaged tents in camel–thorn. The leading truck now had to drive 50 miles dead straight, a most difficult task, for trucks drift to the right or to the left, just as human beings do when walking for any length of time.
The NCO in the leading truck (he wasn't driving, of course; page 12 he had quite enough to do already) would pick another bush or rock on the skyline about 300 yards ahead. He glued his eyes to this bush (peering into the future), while the No. 1 driver (in the present) dodged any rough stuff ahead, from boulders to potholes to big bushes. When he had almost reached the bush, the NCO would quickly pick another one dead in line, and so on to the journey's end. The strain on him was not light. Sometimes in his sleep he would dream of dancing bushes.
When swerving to avoid obstacles, it was essential that the driver passed round the first obstacle on the left-hand side and dodged the next one on the right-hand side. This, soon becoming automatic, brought the driver roughly back into line again and helped prevent side-drift.
Another aid to navigation was to use a shadow in the cab as a sun compass. Allowance had to be made for the sun shifting round and taking the shadow with it.18
Occasionally, without stopping the convoy, the leader would climb out on to the spare wheel at the back of the cab and look at the convoy behind. If one truck could be seen behind, all was well, but if his dozen trucks were sprawled in an arc round the horizon he was great-circle sailing and had to get back on his rhumb-line smartly. In such small convoys one rule could not be broken: trucks had to follow dead behind one another. After the required distance, the 50 miles, had been checked carefully on the speedometer, the trucks, which would be creaking and groaning at four to five miles an hour if the going was uneven, would stop. The leader would climb out on the cab roof and look around hopefully. If he could not see the objective, he sent trucks on a limited scour in different directions, and one of them would find the dump.
By such methods, rough as they may seem, RMT trucks could travel considerable distances and at the end would be no more than half a mile or so out. The usual journey was 30 to 40 miles.
Just when a well-marked track was fixed in the desert, the dump would be established on another map reference and the whole thing began again. Of course, going back was nothing page 13 —-all that had to be done was to follow the tracks or, if the ground was stony, to head due north for the coastal road, where the distance from Mersa Matruh could be fixed by the nearest kilo peg. As for night travelling without map or compass: if no stars shone no truck moved. Every RMT man knew how to find the Pole Star and its pointers, so that if some were obscured he could work from the others. Fixing onto stars (such as Orion) that moved in the night could be most misleading. The stars were very big and close and personal to every man in the desert. Often before falling asleep in his bleak slit trench, a man would gaze at the stars with something close to adoration.
Frequently scattered far and wide on the individual carrying tasks handed out to the small six-lorry sub-sections, the drivers soon became confident and, above all, dependable. One of the highest peaks of efficiency was reached by one man in 1940. The drop arm of his steering gear broke, it was impossible to make temporary repairs, and he was by himself, alone in the bare desert. He put his three-tonner in creeper gear, wedged his accelerator down with a stick, and walked alongside the front wheels, kicking them into line whenever they bumped off course. He did this for one day, stopped during the cloudy night, and continued on next day, going north until he hit the coastal road. He sent a message back with a passing truck to Workshops and stayed guarding his lorry until the breakdown truck arrived. On the other hand, one RMT man became nicknamed ‘Dipstick’. He was a newcomer to the company and evidently to vehicles too. In the periodic oil-change and checkup, he drained the engine all right, but after a couple of hours told his corporal he had not been successful in refilling the motor. On investigation it was found he had been attempting to refill through the tiny dipstick hole.
Spacing the lorries and maintenance could not be neglected in the Western Desert. ‘There'll come a time….’ instructors had said over and over again. Spacing was based on the scatter value of the current enemy bomb, and trucks were spaced at all times so that no bomb could get two of them. Two hundred and fifty yards was considered safe. Night movement was nose-to-tail. Light and horn fuses were drawn from page 14 all trucks. On road work in the daytime a section would take up to five miles of road, and when night approached trucks dispersed methodically in sub-sections in open desert on one side of the road, ready to complete the task next day. The day finished with getting the trucks ready for tomorrow. The routine, laid down in the ‘Good Book’, had been learned thoroughly. Petrol, water and oil were checked and replenished; anything which had worked loose was tightened up, and any small mechanical adjustments were made at the end of the day. In this way the RMT got off each day to a clear start. Repairs beyond the scope of the driver-mechanic in each sub-section were handled by Workshops, where much enthusiasm developed into a great deal of skill. When the time came for Lieutenant McDonagh,19 from Petrol Company, to inspect all New Zealand transport in the desert in November 1940, he considered the RMT fleet the best maintained of the lot.page 15
In the completely motorised New Zealand Division hit and run methods of maintenance could not be tolerated, particularly in an isolated desert war. The Army laid down virtually foolproof Vehicle Inspections (nothing was overlooked) and Maintenance systems and they became second nature to us. The Commanding Officer's technical adviser was the Workshops officer; the Platoon (or Section, as they were first called) Commanders were responsible for the operation, inspection and maintenance being carried out by the drivers. Daily maintenance (and glancing at the instruments on the dash to anticipate trouble) became instinctive. It was often noticed that during halts and night bivvies, as the infantry were cleaning their weapons, the RMT drivers also maintained their vehicles. A good driver, proud of his truck, kept 100% fit; reckoned the cost of his vehicle not in £ s d but in men and women power, materials, rubber, petrol, oil and valuable shipping space; remembered the responsibility of the load he carried. Its monetary value may have run into thousands of pounds, but its monetary value was secondary to the men in the line depending on the drivers getting that load there. If the load was personnel, then it was priceless.21
From early insistence on correct spacing (if in doubt in the first few weeks someone would pace the distance; besides, Colonel Essie, officer commanding all the RASC in the Western Desert, could be relied upon to appear in the most fantastic places and shout: ‘Disperse those trucks!’) drivers naturally adapted themselves at the end of the year to two formations, ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘Air Formation’, for troop-carrying by day. At night they closed up nose-to-tail.
The arrowhead, or inverted V formation, with 250 yards between trucks, was used when limited numbers of trucks carrying troops were crossing open desert. This formation was safe against bombing, but was too neat and tidy to give protection against strafing. In air formation the trucks were page 16 staggered so that no more than two were in line in any direction, and each about 250 yards away from its neighbour on all sides.
The Italian Air Force, unlike their Army, was active. The bombing of Mersa Matruh reached a peak of five raids in one afternoon in July. Three RMT men were out of luck that month. The 2 NZEF's first casualty through enemy action came when a formation of Italian Savoias swept in over Matruh at 2 p.m. on 12 July. Corporal Pussell,22 wounded in an arm and a leg, was evacuated to hospital. Six days later four bombs fell in Company Headquarters. Driver Graham23 suffered from shock and abrasions, and Driver Andrews24 was wounded in the right leg. There were no further battle casualties in the First Echelon during the month.
Sudden and violent explosions halted a convoy of six A Section lorries rumbling along the Sidi Barrani-Matruh road in the darkness at 4.10 a.m. on Friday, 13 September. The trucks were carrying men on leave from 7 Armoured Division. Thermos bombs, unknown until then, littered the area. This new Italian device looked like a khaki-coloured thermos flask measuring about seven inches by two, with an aluminium spiral spring or cap at one end of the canister, and was exploded by vibration. These bombs had been dropped by aircraft. A blast threw Driver Osborn25 on to one, which exploded, fatally wounding him. His was the first death from enemy action in the company and in 2 NZEF. Further casualties were prevented by the presence of mind of Corporal Tom Gill,26 who was in charge of the convoy. He forbade any further movement whatsoever. Investigating at dawn, he posted pickets at each end of the convoy, and sent for medical help and for engineers to deal with the bombs. He switched a fully loaded ammunition column close behind from the danger area, and page 17 for his work received the BEM. He was helped by Drivers Townsend27 and Walding.28
Arthur Brumby,29 of Workshops Section, exploded a supposedly ‘dud’ thermos bomb while taking it to bits to see what made it tick. Bill Lupton,30 nearby, was bowled over backwards. White and shaken and with a badly lacerated hand, Brumby swore the last screw had set it off. At the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) all he could think about was how to find another thermos bomb and prove his theory.
That day, 13 September, the Italians advanced into Egypt by the coastal road. They reached Sidi Barrani (a few houses and a landing ground) on 16 September, dug in, and stayed there, establishing a number of strongly defended camps, two of them called Tummar East and Tummar West, a few miles south. Altogether the advance was 65 miles.
Air raids on Western Desert camps and dumps increased. On 22 September the RMT moved back to Fuka, where regular leave parties left for Cairo and Alexandria, and a most successful anniversary dinner (lamb and mint sauce) was held. Although the nearest Naafi had scanty supplies, beer was abundant for once, and this is the reason why. Driver Logie31 and one or two comrades seized a truck and hastened a hundred miles back to Alexandria. Mustapha Barracks and even a few cafes had nothing, so they went to the brewery itself, where stocks were exhausted. ‘We talked them into filling a truckload of bottles on the spot,’ says Logie, ‘and got back just in time for the reunion.’
By now, characters and hard cases were part of the company's life. A random run around A Section, for example, reveals these more-printable nicknames: ‘Cascara’, ‘Soap Box’, ‘Horse Thief’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Brusher’, ‘Gharry’, ‘Grandma’, ‘Labour Battalion’, ‘Clark Gable’, ‘Mother’, ‘Know-all’, ‘Bulldust’, page 18 ‘Gramophone’, ‘Playboy’, ‘Neck or Nothing’, ‘Half Pint’, ‘Sleepy’, ‘Swamp Rat’, ‘Tucker Box’, ‘Moaner’, ‘Fancy Pants’, ‘That'll be the Day’, and ‘Tent Peg’.
About this time a candid routine order concerning dive-bombing attacks warned: ‘On no account will troops look up from slit trenches except when firing as the white of their faces is immediately conspicuous.’ With the RMT based at Fuka, most of the First Echelon worked away at defensive positions some 18 miles west at Baggush. The majority of the Second Echelon was in England, and the Third Echelon, still at sea, did not begin to arrive in Maadi until 30 September.
The RMT's first tasks, often under arduous conditions, had been carried out excellently and with devotion to duty and determination, maintaining the fine traditions of the NZEF in the 1914–18 War, said Major-General Freyberg in a message. Typical of further messages of thanks and congratulation was the note from Major-General M. O'M. Creagh, commander of 7 Armoured Division, to Lieutenant-General R. N. O'Connor, commander of Western Desert Force: ‘May I bring to your notice the excellent work done by the New Zealand R.A.S.C. Coy., which has been working as third-line in this Division. Their work with the Division has been first class in every way and I can say no more than we much regret their departure.’
1 Some RMT men speak of the Reserve Motor Transport Company. So, to keep the record straight:
The Army Act, Pt V, Sec 190 (40) says: ‘The expression “horse” includes a “mule” and the provisions of this Act apply to any beasts of whatever description, used for burden or draught or for carrying persons in the like manner as if such were included in the expression “horse”.’
Ibid. (40a): ‘The expression “carriage” means a vehicle for carriage or haulage other than one specially constructed for use on rails.’
Amendment 110/General/4762 adds: ‘and the expression “trailer” means carriage constructed or adapted for being drawn by a mechanically propelled carriage.’
Thus, in the Army Act, the term ‘mechanically propelled carriage’ is used to embrace all such vehicles and the term ‘motor’ or ‘mechanical’ transport is not used at all. The RMT's name probably derives from the Reserve Mechanically Propelled Carriage Transport Company (or Column).
In the index to the Manual of Military Law one reads: ‘Motors. (See Carriages.)’
2 Soldiers made up words for all bugle calls except the last call at night, Last Post. C. E. Montague, in Disenchantment, calls it ‘that most lovely and melancholy of calls, the noble death of each day's life, a sound moving about hither and thither, like a veiled figure making gestures both stately and tender, among the dim thoughts that we have about death the approaching extinguisher—resignation and sadness and unfulfilment and triumph all coming back to the overbearing sense of extinction in those two recurrent notes of “Lights Out”. One listens as if with bowed mind….’
3 Lt-Col G. H. Whyte, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Te Puke; born Pahiatua, 23 Aug 1895; company representative; 3 Auck 4 Bde and ASC i Bde 1917–19; OC 4 RMT Coy Nov 1939–19 Jan 1941; CRASC 5 Div (in NZ) Dec 1942–May 1943; CO Trg Bn, Trentham, Nov 1943–Oct 1944.
5 Maj B. A. N. Woods; Wellington; born NZ 2 Jul 1892; traveller; i NZEF (Auck Mtd Rifles and Anglo-Russian Armd Car Bde); OC ASC Comp Coy 7 Nov–1 Dec 1940, Base Sup Coy 10 Dec 1940–10 Feb 1941, 4 RMT Coy 10 Feb–26 Jun 1941.
8 Maj G. G. Good, OBE, m.i.d.; Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia; born New South Wales, 14 Nov 1913; dental mechanic; OC 6 RMT Coy 2 Feb 1942–11 Sep 1943, NZASC Base Trg Depot 11 Sep 1943–22 Apr 1944, Pet Coy 7 May–20 Jul 1944.
11 Films shown on the voyage: ‘Air Hostess’, ‘Two in a Crowd’, ‘After the Thin Man’, ‘Anything Goes’, ‘Roman Scandals’, ‘Kid Millions’, ‘The Street Singer's Serenade’, ‘Man in Possession’, and ‘Breezing Home’.
12 Here, and in the desert, men had sand trays (long metal troughs) and the far more useful sand mats (canvas strips with wooden battens) for getting stuck trucks out of loose sand, and one tow rope among six trucks. While in the desert the RMT had mud tires (with deep herringbone grooves); re–equipping for Greece, the company was given sand tires (wide, flat–surfaced tires with a very shallow tread) for the Balkan mud. Similarly, drivers spent the first cold winter in shorts and shirts and, with the return of good weather in Greece, received battle dress.
18 In sandstorms such convoys of 6 to 12 trucks froze in their tracks until the sky began to clear. Watching the way the wind blew helped keep a sense of direction.
21 A three-tonner's average load was about three tons of freight, or about 620 gallons of petrol, or 25 men without kit or equipment, or 20 with equipment, or 18 fully equipped with kitbags, or 30 prisoners of war or native labourers.