4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 11 — Alamein
SO back the New Zealanders rattled and bounced and bumped just ahead of the enemy, back to the Alamein Line, and sheltered and shook themselves out in a miserable clump of sandhills known as Kaponga Box (holes, mines, gun emplacements) where 6 Brigade had settled down during the Minqar Qaim affair. Sixth Brigade held the Box itself and the rest of the Division, on the alert, waited a few miles east.
Rommel reached for the Nile on 1 July. His men struck first near the sea at Alamein railway station, around which the South Africans were ready and waiting. The Springboks held. Trying to isolate them, Rommel's forces swung at the centre of the line and won ground on Ruweisat Ridge. Feelers reached out for weaknesses further south. Units probed to the brink of the impassable sands in the Qattara Depression without getting much further towards Alexandria. By mid-July the line from the Alamein station stretched almost directly south over 35 bone-bare miles. There it stayed, both armies groggy, until the end of a sweltering August.
The three-tonner headed off to the water point, a heap of empty cans jangling and thumping behind. Slipping, skidding, gripping again, she just made it through a patch of loose sand. Sighing thankfully, Shortie eased her out into two-wheel drive. He wiped his sweaty palms hard against the sides of his pants, spat happily out the window, and grasped the wheel again.
‘Waddyer know, Alf?’
‘You know now in the ’14–18 war….’
‘Arr heck, Alf, turn it up.’
‘No, this is straight, Shortie. Now in France a line was a line and no mistake, but here the blokes are all over the shop. One day we drive ’em up six miles, next we cart ’em back page 202 seven.’ He spotted a distant plane, stiffened, relaxed. ‘We're split up, bombed up, — up. Your tires are a goner with shrapnel and there's no replacements. “Use your initiative, driver.” Arr hell. Either that or your radiator or your petrol tank cops it.’
He stretched uncomfortably and, cupping his hands, scratched himself thoroughly. ‘We're shifting in and shifting out, just get dug in and off again like a cat with the skitters. And boy oh boy they even had poor old 4 Platoon digging slitties for trucks in bloody great sandhills. I ask you now.’
A platoon (No. 4) from 4 RMT Company swung into action in the morning of 3 July and took 19 Battalion in to lend a hand when the Italian Ariete Armoured Division led the first attack on New Zealanders in the Alamein Line. One three-tonner joined vehicles ferrying back 300 prisoners taken with 44 field guns. The Italians pulled back with crippling losses. While this was going on 6 RMT Company's lorries rumbled west to the south of the attacking Italians, then drove north of the Box with 5 Brigade's riflemen to El Mreir. This move was one of the most dramatic sights of the desert war. A staff car led 6 RMT's three-tonners, about a hundred of them, like a convoy at sea. The fleet was shelled heavily and it seemed few could survive such a hammering. Yet, showing superb control and holding perfect formation, the lorries rolled on until they disappeared from sight. ‘I watched with a proud emotion that was somehow near to tears,’ writes one RMT man.
Then 4 RMT Company carried riflemen of 4 Brigade on a surprise swoop south of the Box and up to just west of 5 Brigade, now dug in at El Mreir. The trip was about 25 miles. The day, 5 July, was black for 4 RMT Company. Just after noon drivers of I Platoon, with the Maori Battalion, ran into savage dive-bombing. Drivers McGillicuddy1 and Moss2 were killed instantly, Drivers Jensen,3 Peters,4 and McLeod5 died of page 203 wounds, and Corporal Dan Ford6 and Drivers Lithgow7 and Reisima8 were wounded. A truck was ruined and another almost wrecked. A few hours later the platoon endured another bombing attack. This time only a couple of tires were blown off. Bombs raked yet did not harm the other two platoons. The settled-in 5 Brigade experienced heavy mortaring and shelling, and fragments killed Driver Seaman,9 of 6 RMT Company.
‘We've copped it a bit this time, Shortie.’
‘We have that, Alf.’
‘Well if you've got it coming there's nothing you can do about it, I say.’
‘No more bombs to dodge, anyhow.’
‘Well, you only die once.’
‘Trouble is some jokers never even live once.’
A few days later a Stuka's bomb burst four yards from a vehicle loaded with ammunition, grenades, and mortar bombs. The lorry began to burn. Risking his life, Driver Robinson,10 of 4 RMT, extinguished the fire and saved the load and the vehicle. He later received the MM.
The two brigades settled down in the heavily bombed El Mreir area and prepared for a thrust to the north. Fifth Brigade already had made a good start by inflicting heavy casualties on the Italian Pavia Division in a strong attack at night. The plan for a drive north was called off, however, and enemy forces seeping south threatened to outflank the Division. This sent the RMT on the move again, back with the two brigades to behind the Box and not far from the page 204 starting-out point of a few days ago. This difficult night move on 7–8 July took from seven to eleven hours to cover some twenty miles. Everywhere vehicles began to stick in soft sand. Towed out, they stuck again. Weary drivers felt more and more the strain of long hours with little sleep. The night seemed endless to several 6 RMT men towing out vehicles damaged by bomb and shell.
‘Ah, it's a crook life and no mistake. I tell you nobody knows what We're doing. Nobody. Roll us one, Alf. Desert Mould, eh? Fair enough. You struck it lucky in the mail, Alf. Arr, these stinkin’ matches….’
‘Yep. Soft sand everywhere. You never saw the like of it. Stuck they were by the dozen. The Brens got ’em out in the end. Took ’em five and a half hours to make Amiriya, it did. Wouldn't it?’
A composite company11 of NZASC vehicles under Captain Coleman took 6 Brigade riflemen from the Box into reserve at Amiriya. The company got through after floundering in soft, sandy patches. On the trip two vehicles used up eight and ten gallons of water, and drivers used up reserve curses. The Box lay empty. German and Italian units laid on a full-scale attack, sent back exuberant progress reports, were congratulated and urged on by the Afrika Korps, occupied the Box, realised it was empty, and received sharp words from the Afrika Korps for fooling about. Out of the inferno emerged the solitary occupant, an indignant New Zealander who, asleep in his slit trench, had missed the brigade move.
RMT movement slowed down—but not the bombings— when 4 and 5 Brigades, retiring from El Mreir, took up positions running across the Alam Nayil ridge some miles east of page 205 the ‘vanquished’ Box. A determined tank attack on the ridge was beaten back. Trucks near the infantry's positions were shelled heavily. Two drivers were killed, Driver McKay,12 of 4 Platoon 4 RMT, and Driver Anstiss,13 of 1 Platoon 6 RMT. The pause ended a few nights later when 6 RMT set off with 5 Brigade in the first stage of an attack north on Ruweisat Ridge. The 4th RMT followed with 4 Brigade on the night of 14–15 July, 1 Platoon leaving the Maori Battalion in reserve and carrying in its place 26 Battalion, ‘keen as mustard’, just back from Amiriya. The attack on Ruweisat Ridge ended in disaster,14 and among the Division's dead were Drivers Halliwell and Martin,15 of 1 Platoon 6 RMT. Sadly 6 RMT's 3 Platoon drove back in the general withdrawal towards Alam Nayil ridge with the remains of 22 Battalion. But in a few hours the platoon's trucks were filled again with lively new passengers, men of the rested Maori Battalion, ‘one of the greatest lot of chaps we've ever carried’. Before the next move another 6 RMT man, Driver Jim Cartwright, was to meet his death. He was killed while with a detachment from 1 Platoon picking up mines with the Engineers. Although units now were beyond the range of most enemy guns, from sunset to sundown Stukas, Heinkels, and Dorniers prowled and struck.
‘Hey, what's that? Stukas?’
‘Can't see, Alf.’
Dust-caked eyes peered into the blue. Shortie suddenly grinned, then thumped the steering wheel delightedly.
‘What an army, Alf, what an army! Joe Hunt isn't in it! With Jerry over every day, now what do they start bitching about? I ask you!’
‘You tell me.’
‘Pigeons, Alfie boy, pigeons! Can you beat it? Remember that order?’page 206
ROUTINE ORDERS NO. 242/42
|WESTERN DESERT||18 Jul 42|
940. DISPOSAL OF CARRIER PIGEON MESSAGES:
Flights by Carrier Pigeons carrying messages for all the Services are now taking place in the MIDDLE EAST. Under normal circumstances, the birds on release fly direct to their loft without alighting. Occasions will arise, however, when pigeons through injury or exhaustion may be found away from their lofts. Personnel finding such birds will take the following action:—
On no account must pigeons in flight be shot, unless they have just been identified as enemy birds as in para (1) (b) above.
All ranks must realise the vital importance of carrying out these instructions.
‘Wish I was a pigeon,’ said Alf.
‘Magnoon,’ said Shortie.
‘Pigeons can go home,’ said Alf.
‘Wouldn't mind even being back in Syria.’
‘Wouldn't mind even a few days back in Maadi myself, flap or no flap.’
‘Boy, how they did their scone. Even the cooks burnt the tucker, they reckon.’
‘Wish I was back home.’
‘Looks as if there's a new stouch coming up.’
Shortie groped for a damp, crumpled cigarette. ‘Arr, these stinkin’ — matches.’
On the night of 21–22 July 6 Brigade struck north-west to El Mreir, with 5 Brigade guarding the flank. Once El Mreir was reached the new British 23 Armoured Brigade was to follow through and up to the north behind the Germans. Sixth Brigade ran into tanks and had heavy casualties. The British tanks arrived a little late but broke through and penetrated the enemy lines before they were knocked out. Drivers saw 80 tanks go forward and about 15 return. Scattered shelling killed Driver Baillie,16 of 1 Platoon 4 RMT. The RMT platoons gathered up the weary riflemen and went back with 6 Brigade in the direction of Alam Nayil ridge. Both sides had fought to a standstill. The whole front became stabilised and remained so until the end of August.
‘Next time I'm in Cairo I'm going to buy a dirty big galabieh.’
‘Sandhappy? Desert getting you, eh?’
‘My oath. Grab a Wog bint an’ settle down.’
‘Ten kids and a camel. Sweet as a nut.’
‘No housing problems, son. Just dig a new slittie for each new kid.’
It was an accursed spot—bare, dusty, windy, evil, without protection from a spiteful sun or sudden bombers. Flies gathered in detested myriads. They swarmed over food and liquid, even page 208 appearing drowned, with a gritty layer of sand, at the bottom of mugs of tea, no matter how carefully a drink was protected. They formed dirty chains over the sweat-smeared steering wheels of trucks and pestered and bit men lying in slit trenches with canvas or cardboard propped over their heads for pathetic patches of shade. ‘Maddened by tormenting flies,’ one man recalls, ‘I covered myself in a ground sheet and howled and sobbed like a kid. I'd never cracked up before.’ One night winds from far swamps brought a wave of mosquitoes. Men veiled themselves and sweated under infuriating folds of netting. In cabs hot as ovens RMT drivers brought up supplies, helped shift ammunition, mines, petrol, and barbed wire, and took part in one or two infantry moves. Desert sores and tinea increased. Men envied comrades going out to cool, clean hospitals with malaria, jaundice, or dysentery. Everyone was browned off, fed up, sick to death of the heat, the sand, the flies, and a war gone stale.
Every day was the same. Every piece of desert looked the same. For weeks the dreary desert lay dotted with trucks. Some vehicles began to look as if they had taken root. They looked stocky, squat, and rather sullen. Men lay alongside in shreds of shade or sprawled in nearby slit trenches. Other trucks joggled about like important bugs. Trailing wisps of dust, they moved in any and every direction. What pattern, what plan if any, lay behind all this?
Alf's voice rose in contemplation from the tiny patch of shade in the lee of the three-tonner: ‘ “Good God”, said God, “I've got my work cut out.” ’
Shortie's oily hands flapped at a halo of flies then fumbled the half-inch butt in his mouth. ‘Arr,’ he said, ‘these stinkin’ bloody Wog matches.’
A roar in the sky, and Corporal Bert Millis17 dived neatly into the nearest slit trench. He climbed out black as a sweep, covered all over from head to foot in soot and ashes. The slit trench had been used repeatedly as a fireplace. ‘But it could have been much worse,’ grinned Bert.page 209
The crisis had come. A small group sat in anxious debate. Every possible fact was considered, weighed, and discussed. At last Bruce Creswell,18 Kenyon-Ormrod,19 ‘Lofty’ Williams, and Alick Trenwith20 convinced Andy Thomas that now was the time to act and open the two tins of beer he had picked up long ago at Daba. Just as a screwdriver punctured the two precious tins and the delicious froth oozed out invitingly, a German fighter roared overhead, turned, and dived. Seldom had one German aircraft received such a barrage of muffled curses from the bottom of slitties. At last four furious men emerged. In a moment they were all smiles, congratulating and thumping on the back their hero of Alamein, the fifth man. He had stooped down to place both tins reverently on the ground before bounding for cover.
A few inches of sand saved the lives of Allan Crawford,21 Ron McCarthy,22 and Will Willcox23 when Stukas dropped two bombs, one on either side of their truck. Crawling out from their shallow shelter, the three found the load of petrol had been blown to bits. Why the petrol did not catch fire is still a mystery.
Captain (‘Boundary Bill’) Davis chose a day thick with German 88s to tour his platoon with the payroll. At every lorry he found drivers at home in their slitties. Nobody would pop up for a moment to sign the roll. At every trench Davis stooped obligingly. Not once did the foe catch the captain bending.
From cups of tea Jim MacKay, Ian Hutton, ‘Snow’ Whyte, Bert Millis, and Jim McKenna24 looked up to a dogfight breaking high overhead. A pilot parachuted out. Then his page 210 plane, riddled and abandoned, tipped into a roaring dive straight at the drivers. A mad dance broke out, directed by the plane which zigzagged as it fell. To and fro the drivers raced unhappily. His eyes fixed on the falling aircraft, Jim MacKay, the fastest sprinter, ran backwards, overtaking and passing the rest as they tacked desperately about the desert, until he vanished with a lost cry into a deep slit trench. A final twist from the plane wheeled the running drivers about. They flattened just before the awful, sickening crash. Five shaken drivers crawled to their knees. Breathlessly, they thanked their lucky stars. Then the air became blue. All the racing about could have been avoided. They had gone to ground exactly where they had been taking tea.
Daytime bombing, shelling, and mortaring took a toll of men and vehicles. Then the medical men and workshops experts took over. So it went on.
Night usually brought relief to a good many RMT drivers, but others warmed up their engines when the shadows deepened. RMT parties threaded their way through minefields into the darkness of no-man's-land, carrying either fighting patrols or mines, barbed wire, and iron standards for new defences. Dark nights made drivers as careful as cats. Even short trips took a long time. Usually a driver had to find his own way to a rendezvous. Finding safe tracks through the wire and the mines and then returning were further tricky problems. The need for silence—‘ “wet” on the chains and stop ‘em rattling!’ — was always impressed on drivers taking part in working parties. Few needed reminding that enemy units probably were out and working close by on the same thing. Work had to be done without lights. Loads had to be distributed to a number of different places where the engineers took over. This kept drivers out for most of the night. Often they would leave no-man's-land just before dawn. More than one RMT driver, bushed in ‘friendly’ minefields, waited for the dawn to guide him to safety and risked the chance of observed shelling. Many drivers became experts at navigating their own way home by taking a bearing on a distant cluster of stars which rose in the east about 2 a.m. One such way home page 211 led them through a wadi where a solitary palm tree grew. This palm was deeply loved by all night drivers.25
While munching a wayside snack drivers of 4 Platoon 4 RMT saw a stolid figure in boiler suit, topee, and dark glasses go past in a staff car. Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader, was coming to see for himself.
Mr Churchill sent a special message to the New Zealanders towards the end of August, when the two RMT companies, platoons now withdrawn from the well-dug-in battalions, were stationed in the Swordfish area, a few miles behind the Alamein Line: ‘… I heard someone say the New Zealanders were “a ball of fire”…. You have played a magnificent part, a notable and even decisive part, in stemming a great retreat…. You will be cherished by future generations who, through your exertions and sacrifices, will go forward to a better and a fairer and a brighter world.’
Now General Alexander replaced General Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Forces, and General Montgomery (‘there will be no withdrawal and no surrender’) took command of Eighth Army. Before this the Duke of Gloucester had made a brief call. Sergeant Tom Gill went off to see the Duke, who gave him the BEM for his thermosbomb action in the early days. Tom returned overjoyed. ‘Look’ —and he showed himself off proudly to envious comrades—‘see what they handed out for the doings. Lovely fit, eh? Brand new outfit all over!’
After Ruweisat 4 RMT's long association with 4 Brigade came to an end. Badly mauled, the brigade, fated to play no further part in the African campaign, was sent to Maadi to reorganise as an armoured formation, and many drivers missed page 212 good and gallant companions. To complete the Division 9 (British) Armoured Brigade later joined 5 and 6 Brigades. From 19 September 2 New Zealand Division faced the future two-thirds Kiwi and one-third Tommy, a trusty and happy combination. The newcomers were three tank regiments— 3 Hussars, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, and Warwickshire Yeomanry—and a battalion of Sherwood Foresters. They brought 145 beautiful tanks with them. When British tanks adopted the silver fernleaf sign,26 an English veteran remarked, with a sigh: ‘This white fevver don't look good to me, chum.’
Lance-Corporal Max Tait27 bent down, picked up a message, and blinked as he read: ‘Men of New Zealand ! … The English in New Zealand have one sole object; to take advantage of the natural wealth of your country and to make themselves rich at your expense….’ Hard on the heels of the enemy pamphlet came a timely routine order announcing 6d and 3d rises in domestic and wife's allowances and ending: ‘ “wife” and “children” have the same meaning as hitherto.’
The RMT men thought Swordfish area, inland from Burg el Arab, a vast improvement on Alamein. Few flies were about; the move back coincided with the arrival of a large mail from home; and the sand in parts was good enough for football, cricket, and baseball. PT before breakfast began and, although the ‘stand-to’ for an hour at dawn and again at dusk was unpopular, 6 RMT promptly rounded up two German airmen when their plane crashed in flames. The stand-to originated, 4 RMT's war diary reported, ‘through information that Germans have massed 4,000 paratroops.’ All that fell, however, were the ‘Men of New Zealand!’ pamphlets, a few bombs (a delayed-action one blasted a crater seven feet deep and 21 feet page 213 wide), and pyramid-shaped devices called ‘Caltraps’, metallic contraptions with sharp and barbed points designed to puncture tires. Caltraps had been used in Greece but were rarely seen in the desert.
The ‘Pass’ plates, taken from slots in front mudguards, were returned with the top half sporting a silver fernleaf on a black background. The bottom half, in red and green, bore in the centre the unit number: 48 for 4 RMT, 37 for 6 RMT. Drivers had always taken pride in their vehicle insignia, looking on it as a symbol of unity, purpose, and spirit. The importance and responsibility of an RMT driver's job was emphasized by the very stiff sentence of 180 days’ detention given a 4 RMT driver who had left his lorry on the eve of an attack. (The driver who took this man's place was captured and later lost his life.) Two 6 RMT drivers, charged with drunkenness in the field (‘… did consume rum knowing it to have been dishonestly acquired’), converting a lorry, and drunken and negligent driving, were sentenced to 90 and to 60 days’ detention respectively.
Evacuating lock, stock, and hookah an entire Arab village, no less, was a highlight of this month. Once all natives were cleared from this area in the deep south, any movement would be only that of the enemy. The wells at Maghra (as the place was known) would be poisoned. The drivers were told that enemy patrols might be about. Perhaps this knowledge gave men the necessary iggri to drive or tow their vehicles out of this desolate spot. This particular job tested drivers as no other sand had done, and the performance of drivers of heavily loaded three-tonners was astounding. RMT again lived up to its reputation for taking vehicles through the worst country imaginable.
The 40-mile journey south for the 61 RMT trucks began at 6 a.m. on 24 August. Some of this country was supposed page 214 to be impassable—and it was. The sand seemed to flow like water up to axles at times. Going down into the blazing hot depression, drivers had the advantage of momentum and empty trucks. Coming back was a different story: engines overheated and three motors gave up the struggle by blowing the top out of a piston or a con-rod through the sump.
At Maghra, 32 feet below sea level, they gathered up the whole village, including the animals: goats, dogs, sheep, hens, lice, bugs, ticks—and hideous smells. ‘These Wogs,’ wrote an RMT man, ‘were the most evil smelling of any we had the misfortune to meet. Even after much cleaning and hosing, the vehicles still had smells clinging to them.’ ‘You have never seen such a collection as we had on our trucks: tents, bedding, cookpots, personal gear, sheep, dogs, goats and Wogs all in together of course, and not forgetting the scraggy chooks and chickens. Luckily camels had been sent on ahead,’ said Ellingham. ‘Whenever we halted for a meal most of the animals bolted and had to be recaught before we could move off. I have never seen such a circus. Smell! You couldn't get within 100 yards of the trucks. How the drivers took it beats me. But what surprised me most was how those Wogs knew that desert. To them it was like the streets of anyone's hometown. They could tell you all the tracks and what they would be like, soft, hard or stony.’
After going about 18 miles the circus stopped for the night, the tail close to RAF beacons. Captain Burt gave orders to move. Curses and, ‘Doesn't Boy Blue know his own mind?’ Safely bedded down a few miles off, the drivers watched Jerry trying to bomb out the beacons. Awakened at 4.30 a.m. by talking, chanting, crowing and bleating, drivers looked out in amazement on to a mass of small fires: ‘The damned Wogs boiling up. It was no good trying to do anything about it then; we just had to hope for the best.’ Moving off, drivers felt most reassured at seeing the massed tanks of 7 Armoured Division guarding the far end of the Alamein Line. To their disappointment, these proved to be old vehicles with cardboard dummy tanks fitted over them, most realistic from about 300 yards away but most docile close up. The Tommies were not at all pleased that outsiders had dared to look upon this page 215 clever deception. ‘On seeing my hat badge,’ Ellingham recalls, ‘the OC asked me what unit I belonged to. On telling him 4 RMT he quickly thawed out, became most hospitable, and asked after many of the chaps who had been on the first trip west with them in 1940.’ The 1940 reputation always stood 4 RMT in good stead with the Desert Rats and 4 Indian Division.
Describing the journey's end near Alexandria, Captain Burt writes: ‘While Captain Ellingham was having a trying time convincing the headman that we had not absconded with his dreadful women (a few lorries were temporarily missing), we for our part were doing our very best to get rid of our great unwashed, together with all their livestock, large and small.’
While the RMT went about its tasks behind the line, on the night of 30 August Rommel threw the whole of the Afrika Korps into a final attempt to master Egypt. The main attack came in a ‘right hook’ in the south. General Montgomery allowed the attackers to penetrate several miles then pounded them from the flanks with artillery, anti-tank guns and dug-in tanks, while the RAF struck against transport columns. The invaders ran into strong fortifications, and the right hook stopped short. Out on a limb, the enemy reluctantly returned to his sheltering minefields while the New Zealand Division harassed him on the flanks, first with gunfire, then with an infantry attack. The putsch—or, as Rommel preferred to call it afterwards, the ‘reconnaissance in force’—was dead within a week. The German had met his master.
The New Zealand Division was due for a spell. RMT platoons brought up British troops to take over the New Zealand defences and then helped withdraw the Division to a rest area. Next, three-tonners took parties of battle-weary riflemen to precious leave in Alexandria and Cairo. Thirsty crowds mobbed the beer bar at the New Zealand Club. Those old pinpricks began smarting again. Six New Zealanders attacked a British field security officer, another six landed up in jail for breaking windows, and sixty raided the banned Berka. The OC Cairo area, Brigadier J. I. Chrystall (a New Zealander in the British Army), took a dim view of this. Complaining of page 216 ‘drunken and disorderly behaviour’, he suggested closing the beer bar. Promptly General Freyberg, now fully recovered from his Minqar Qaim wound, said that this would only make things worse. Disturbances were no more than could be expected ‘under the circumstances’.
Divisional leave over, in mid-September RMT platoons mailed off to New Zealand their Christmas cards—about 5000 altogether—and returned to business with the riflemen,30 while the Workshops and Headquarters men pulled back to new areas. As luck would have it, the 4 RMT party camped ‘adjacent to the target range for the arty and during the morning shells were landing in the W/Shops area.’ This camp site was remarkably temporary.
Platoon drivers took their battalions into a dummy attack which would duplicate the Division's assault in deadly earnest on Miteiriya Ridge next month. Already ‘enemy’ positions protected by minefields had been carefully prepared in a special training area. The plan began with a night approach. RMT's job after dusk was carrying riflemen about 14 miles to the point where battalions spread out and took up attacking positions. From 8.30 p.m. on 24 September laden lorries grumbled forward into the night. The 4th RMT, in two dark columns 50 yards apart, followed along the 5 Brigade trail which MPs had marked with a shaded red light every 1200 yards. The going was tough, and soft patches of sand soon brought trouble. A hot pace set by the leaders quickly caused stragglers. In such bad going speed should have been kept at four miles in the hour, with halts to allow the tail to catch up. Time and again many vehicles had to be helped out of difficulties, and quite a few did not cover the 14 miles until a foggy dawn was breaking. The 6th RMT struck it lucky, moving peacefully enough past 6 Brigade's green lights at a steady seven miles each hour.
For the next two days, while troops kept as still as possible to avoid observation, drivers worked on vehicle maintenance and replaced broken springs.page 217
The artillery opened the night attack exercise with a creeping barrage. On foot the riflemen advanced between boundaries marked by smoke shells and tracer. Sappers, among drivers’ best friends, and with good reason too,31 cleared lanes through minefields ahead, their sensitive detectors changing from a low-pitched hum to a high note near any metal. By 2 a.m. battalions were on their objectives. Next morning, when Crusader and Sherman tanks had beaten off a mock counterattack, the battle was considered over. RMT trucks gathered up the victorious battalions and took them back to the ceremonial parade for General Montgomery. Much shuffling and cursing took place during a rehearsal on 29 September for the parade next day. Lining up trucks neatly took a long time. When this was done, drivers marked their positions for the next day with little heaps of stones or with petrol tins. After two hours’ work, when the trucks were straight at last from front to rear and from the sides, 4 RMT was ordered 150 yards forward.
For the parade each RMT company formed up in five rows, with each truck about fifty yards from the next. The 4th RMT's 133 vehicles stretched over almost a mile. After a brief talk the short, shrewd-eyed General (‘rather like a jockey’), wearing an Australian slouch hat with the fernleaf glinting among other Eighth Army badges, made a quick inspection of the vehicles. He showed keen interest in drivers and their trucks, and asked many questions on the general work done, the number of original members with the companies, and the condition of vehicles. He left saying all looked well, fit, and confident.
General Montgomery's interest in vehicles’ performances and condition had been underlined by an urgent appeal from General Alexander to cut waste in the Middle East. Waste not only was ‘gravely impeding our operations’ but ‘unless checked may lead to disaster’. The new commander gave hard facts about army wear and tear. Calling for strict economy, he explained that the replacements over 24 hours were enormous. Every day 104 vehicles were written off beyond repair, page 218 2000 tires went out to replace worn-out ones, 2000 tons of petrol and 85 tons of lubricating oil were used up, and 140 tons of tin-plate were made into petrol tins.
October had scarcely begun when a violent storm brought hailstones as large as golf balls. For two weeks both RMT companies worked hard on day and night manoeuvres and exercises with their brigades. Battalions practised mounting and dismounting, and in one typical move 500 vehicles of 6 Brigade, spaced with 150 yards between them, moved about ten miles with three changes of direction, at night drawing into a column with a nine-vehicle front and about twenty yards’ dispersion.
By flag signals, which in turn were passed back by other flag-wavers, leaders controlled and manoeuvred their motorised fleets with increasing skill. These flag signals were as familiar as winking traffic lights to RMT drivers:
|‘Prepare to advance’||blue flag held vertically and dropped to indicate move forward.|
|‘Halt’||red flag held vertically.|
|‘Form desert formation’||blue flag held vertically.|
|‘Form column of route’||yellow flag held vertically.|
|‘Right wheel’||blue flag pointed to the right.|
|‘Left wheel’||blue flag pointed to the left.|
|‘About turn’||blue flag waved in a circle above the head.|
|‘Right turn’||red flag pointed to the right.|
|‘Left turn’||red flag pointed to the left.|
|‘Close to 100 yards interval and distance between vehicles’||series of ‘dots’ with yellow flag.|
|‘Close to 150 yards’||red and yellow flags held horizontally.|
|‘Armoured fighting vehicles in sight’ (Halt. Guns in action.)||red flag punched in direction of attack.|
|‘Aircraft attack’||red and yellow flags held vertically.|
|‘Calling officers for brigade orders’||red and blue flags held horizontally.|
By the time the Division had driven back to await new orders in the coastal sand dunes near Burg el Arab, both brigades (about 1160 vehicles altogether) could roam featureless desert by day or by night with the compact precision of naval convoys.
In two night moves under a full moon, RMT drivers took riflemen of 5 and 6 Brigades to their fighting positions within striking distance of Miteiriya Ridge, and then pulled back to the coastal camp. On manoeuvres, moonlight glinting on windscreens had given the show away from quite a distance. This time drivers carefully camouflaged all windscreens with sacking and smears of oil and sand, and drove with them laid flat or fixed open.
The fuse was laid, awaiting the match.
Then, when the air grew full of metal wings, when a thousand hungry guns awoke and the infantry went forward, the RMT men went for a swim, had their teeth inspected, and went to the pictures.
11 After a brief rest at Amiriya detachments from the composite company brought back 6 Bde's battalions in turn, and 3 Pl returned to 4 RMT Coy. 6 RMT Coy remained intact except for 4 Pl which, attached to Div Sup Coy, delivered up to 15,000 gallons of water daily. Both companies' workshops and headquarters remained behind the Box.
14 New Zealand losses in killed, wounded and captured were over 1,400.
25 Over the weeks 4 Platoon tirelessly carried petrol and ammunition to the front. Formations were settling down. Riflemen and engineers had more time to strengthen forward positions. Men from this platoon and some from 6 RMT, working with other NZASC companies, also carried up hundreds of sheets of corrugated iron, load after load of barbed wire, thousands of mines, sandbags, and netting. With little labour available, drivers usually loaded and unloaded. The platoon had a change for a night or two when it was switched to 22 Bn for a local move at the end of August. Detached from the main convoy, drivers under Cpl Tom Cushing and L-Cpl Harry Dodd ferried two companies of the West Kent Regt to forward defences and brought back Maori Bn men. These trucks were held up for several hours by intense shelling. A number of heavy shells burst in garish sheets of flame, providing a startling initiation for the unseasoned West Kents.
30 4 RMT Coy: 1 Pl to 28 Bn, 2 Pl to 22 Bn, 3 Pl to 21 Bn, and 4 Pl to 23 Bn. 6 RMT Coy: 1 Pl to 25 Bn, 2 Pl to 26 Bn, and 3 Pl to 24 Bn. 4 Pl 6 RMT continued water-carrying duties.