4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 14 — Mule Pack Company
Mule Pack Company
‘THE Mule Pack Company did one good thing in the war. It ran a magnificent race meeting.’
‘It certainly did that.’
‘I remember my bet was off to a flying start. It had half a lap lead right to a few yards from the finish. I thought I'd clean up a packet. Then it stopped dead. Wouldn't shift. The blasted thing never finished.’
‘We all must have had similar experiences. Mine started off backwards. Just wouldn't go any other way. Those things didn't seem to get the idea of racing, you know.’
Years after old battles and far cities are forgotten, returned men will remember that race meeting in Tunisia. Here's how it all began:
To Comd NZASC
From Rear 2 NZ Div
15 April 1943
Please arrange collect 150 mules with local pack saddles from Sfax 16 Apr stop Responsible officer to sign contract and examine soundness of mules ….
They gathered them up all right after a lot of trouble, not all of it from flying heels. Many of the mules and donkeys, old grey beasts, had had it. Some drivers swore that one or two of them had only three legs. Some Arabs temporarily maimed their beasts by sticking long pins into feet and muscles. The working party finding sound mules critically short, counted in donkeys on the basis that two donkeys equalled one mule.1
Of the first 150 animals inspected, only 48 donkeys and 24 mules were up to army standard—‘almost as bad as medical gradings among the “Deep Thinkers” in New Zealand,’ grumbled one tired onlooker. After chasing Arabs, complaining to admin- page 270 istrators, reproaching sheiks, even hunting up in his palace the Caid himself (a sort of overseer of sheiks) who promised ‘mules trés hautes’ and ‘donkeys trés grandes’, at last by 20 April they got 1 New Zealand Mule Pack Company up to full strength: 101 mules, 96 donkeys, and also, of course, six officers, five sergeants and 150 others. Of these, 47 men had come from 4 RMT, 39 from 6 RMT, 35 from other NZASC units, and the rest from the battalions. Divided into three platoons,2 the company settled down at Sidi Bou Ali in a pleasant little spot protected by trees and cactus and containing a good supply of well water. The idea was that the company, once trained, might pack ammunition, supplies, and water to isolated positions in the Tunisian hills. Happy in their work the muleteers roved the waterfront and scrounged drums and ropes for feed bins, troughs, and halters. Adding to the 60 native saddles collected at Sfax, they persuaded Cavalry Barracks at Sousse into releasing 50 pack-saddles and harness, and gathered the rest from here and there. From 5 Field Ambulance they collected ointments and dressings for animals suffering from galls and cuts. They fed, watered, groomed, exercised, and began to cherish their animals, which were now responding well to good care and a steady daily ration of green feed, 6 lb. of hay, and 1 lb. of oats (only half a pound for donkeys).
The donkeys handsomely repaid such devotion, for Sidi Bou Ali stock, denied good fresh donkeys for years, was becoming badly inbred. When the southern donkeys from Sfax turned up, every intelligent native rushed 1 Mule Pack Company for stud service. Thanks to spring and a timely doubling of the grain ration all demands were met and honoured to the full. Delighted Arabs departed with beasts contented at last, and happy Kiwi owners, pocketing stud fees of up to 300 francs, heard no complaints from their doubly dear donkeys.
One little ‘donk’ was very undersized. He could carry only a couple of four-gallon water cans, one on each side of his back. From the army's point of view he was ‘US’ (unservice- page 271 able). If he stalled and sat on his haunches, his driver simply bent down and lifted him to his feet again. A good prod in the right quarter soon sent him on his way. Diminutive in most respects, ‘Monty’—that was his nickname—had extremely short legs. Drivers soon developed a warm spot in their hearts for the little chap, and they quickly took pity on him when the stud operations got under way. From ammunition boxes and bits and pieces an adequate ramp was built, and ‘Monty’, placed on an equal footing, played his part too. One morning he could be found nowhere. In vain men hunted high and low. Then one driver, inspired, raced off. Sure enough he found ‘Monty’, ears cocked, poised expectantly on top of his ramp.
Muleteers and their charges learned how to pack ammunition correctly and safely over rough distances of up to twelve miles. Then, fearful with movie and still camera, flashlight, notebook and microphone, Public Relations men swarmed over the company. Sweeping aside suggestions, advice and warnings, the action-minded experts in no time had the Mule Pack Company ‘looking good and realistic—authentic. What? Eh?’ Behind the cactus smoke-candles outburned any tank; in front small incendiary bombs snapped and exploded. In between reared greatly alarmed mules and muleteers. When the uproar at last died down Frank Gillard, a radio commentator, was heard over the BBC delightfully describing ‘this all-British outfit’ as yet another example of RASC adaptability. However, the photographs—apart from those showing a mule discarding water cans to sit squarely upon its driver—looked magnificent.
After all this 1 Mule Pack Company never went into action. The Tunisian war ended before it was wanted in those mountains ahead. The company curled up and died after just one month of life behind the line. Nobody except a few NZASC men would have known—or cared—about its life and death had not an inspired thought led to this one glad entry in the company's war diary:
6 May 1943: Sgt RItchie suggested that Coy personnel wished to run a race meeting….page 272
One day later:
To: comdr hq comd nz asc
7 May 43
Subject: UNIT SPORTS
I hereby respectfully request your permission to hold a Unit Race Meeting on 12 May 43, circumstances permitting.
At a meeting held to inaugurate the ‘Nz mule & donkey turf club’ it was decided to ask you to accept the position of patron.M
Trusting these proposals will meet with your approval,
D. F. COLEMAN, Capt.
Hq i nz mule pack coy
Hq comd nz asc
Dated 7 May (.) Comd NZ ASC approves proposals as set out (.)
[Sgd] A. G. GRAY, Capt.
Within a matter of moments:
Subject: UNIT RACE MEETING
8 May 43
ALL NZ DIV UNITS
An invitation is extended to all Offrs and ORs to attend the Spring Meeting of the Nz mule & donkey turf club, at Sidi bou ali, commencing at 1230 hrs on Wednesday, 12 May 43. Entrance to course ¼ mile north of 1 Nz mule pack coy's area, on Axis track.
Programme for Meeting attached.
D. F. COLEMAN, Capt.
The New Zealand Mule and Donkey Turf Club (Inc) was away to a flying start, rules drawn up, officials chosen:
Patron: Col S. H. Crump
President: Capt D. F. Coleman
Judge: Capt S. W. Ellingham
Starter: Sgt D. N. M. Ferguson
Stewards: President, Judge, Lt A. T. Gray, S-Sgt T. W. Gill, Sgts. D. N. M. Ferguson, W. Ritchie, J. C. Rogers and J. R. Taylor, Cpl J. T. James, L-Cpls H. Telford and E. V. W. Wilson, Dvrs C. H. Black, L. W. Briggs, W. R. Brown, A. H. Brownlie, C. G. Carter, J. R. Murphy, S. Livingstone, M. K. St. John, S. J. Sampson, D. R. L. Strong, P. G. Sullivan, P. B. Ussher and F. W. Wilson.page 273
Totalisator Manager: Dvr W. G. Gerard.
Totalisator Supervisors: Lts L. F. Irvine and A. E. Thodey.
Clerk of Course: Sgt W. Ritchie.
Secretary: L-Cpl E. V. W. Wilson.
The rules, eight in all, banned saddles (blanket and surcingle only), limited one animal to one race, and wound up in grand style with: ‘Thieves, vagabonds, urgers, tipsters, prostitutes, those consorting with prostitutes, all those convicted on charges contravening the Gaming Act 1943 (Sidi bou ali), and other undesirables are hereby Warned off the course.’
Unprecedented activity swept the Mule Pack Company lines. The Turf Club had just four days to prepare, and they swore they'd make a go of it. A track was cleared, levelled, graded, and roped off. Gangs prepared sites for the birdcage, the tote, the band, and the latrines. Nominations opened and closed in a welter of weird names and breeding details. ‘Platoons,’ noted the war diary, ‘confined working of the majority of animals to training preparations for races.’ Various Turf Club committees reported steady progress. What about saddle cloths? Corporal Hendrey3 was painting them up and fixing the numbers. What about racing colours? A search round the Division was collecting enough differently coloured football jerseys. Entertainments? Fifth Brigade Band was coming; the Mobile Cinema Unit agreed to lend its sound system for course announcements (in the hands of Drivers Black4 and Peek5); Captain Selwyn Toogood6 would give the racing commentaries. Afternoon tea would be available. Sergeant Gill and Corporal James7 took over catering, but the numbers that came reduced this service to the provision of free hot water only. How were the programmes? Already fixed, with 850 race-cards run off by 6 RMT Company fans, reported Lance-Corporal Ted Wilson,8 who page 274 later produced ‘Reminiscences’, a presentation booklet on the activities of the Mule Pack Company.
Tote. What about a tote? No good without a dinkum tote.
Driver ‘Gerry’ Gerard,9 of 1 NZ Supply Company, was a Canterbury farmer before the war and a very keen sportsman, good at tennis, shooting and–this above all–racing and hunting. At Sidi Bou Ali the major sent for him. ‘What the dickens is wrong now?’ Gerry wondered. He was to organise and run a tote.
He arrived as the Mobile Cinema Unit began screening ‘Stolen Heaven’ in the company area. At once he nosed out 50,000 numbered tickets from a transport office in Sousse for use at the tote. In no time he had the tote—and a dividend barometer—made up, and was explaining the working of it to his staff. The unit of investment was 20 francs; no torn notes would be accepted; the tote would not give change; and on the hoisting of a white flag (all correct) two dividends would be paid on each race, at the ratio of 75 per cent for first place and 25 per cent for second. Fractions on the tote pool would go into the next race's pool.
Scrounging, borrowing, lifting, without spending a penny, the company was ready and keen to go over the top on 12 May.
After an early lunch mules and donkeys were taken over to the course. The news swept through the Division. Here was something to write home about. From 11 a.m. until well on into the afternoon trucks streamed into the area, quickly dispersing under the direction of MPs. Doors opened and slammed. Party after party of cheerful, expectant patrons made off to the race track. Attendance figures rose in leaps and bounds to far beyond all expectations. When the GOC, Major-General Kippenberger,10 arrived the crowd, six to ten deep, lined the track on both sides of the straight. Every unit in the Division was represented. Nurses were there in strength. British, South Africans, Indians, Americans rubbed shoulders, remembered and lied about home-town races. Altogether over 4000, probably 5000, turned up to see the mule Derby.
Undaunted by the huge crowd, the tote staff pitched in and page 275 with few hitches saw the job through in triumph. The tote handled 600,400 francs—or £3002, more than the pre-war turnover of more than one country club in New Zealand. Illegal but overlooked, dozens of bookies helped out the overburdened tote, and the best of usually good dividends returned 680 francs for 50.
A happy holiday spirit rose from the sheer novelty of the thing, plus 5 Brigade Band's brisk music, the amusing running commentaries, the unexpected humorous events. Punters roared over many a close finish, especially in the main event, the Tunisian Cup, a duel between three favourites all the way up the straight, Stung winning in the last two strides from the first favourite, Red Tape. The Tunisian Cup, described as ‘a beautifully hand-painted, small-sized vessel of the bedroom variety’, was presented by General Kippenberger, who spoke of the meeting as a happy inspiration enthusiastically and efficiently carried out—a most enjoyable day's outing for so many members of the Division.
sfax maiden of 270 fr. 1st 200 fr. 2nd 70 fr. For donkeys petits. 2½ furlongs.
Kindergarten, A. R. Jeffries’ (Left Hook—Maori) (A. R. Jeffries). Dividend, 210 fr.
Saint, A. B. Clanfield's (Hullo—Virginity) (R. Newman). 140 fr.
Old Bill, J. L. Power's (Bairnsfather—Shell Hole) (J. L. Power).
sousse stakes of 360 fr. 1st 270 fr. 2nd 90 fr. For mules petits. 3 furlongs.
Clink, B. Brockbank's (Red Cap—Out of Bounds) (A. Griggs). 680 fr.
Grand Sport, F. V. Smith's (Hard Luck—OCTU) (F. V. Smith). 400 fr.
In the Mood, S. Livingstone's (Fond Hope—Cuddle) (F. Richardson).
maadi derby of 360 fr. 1st 270 fr. 2nd 90 fr. For donkeys grandes (alleged three year olds). 2½ furlongs.
Waitoto, G. Buchanan's (Arawhata—Okura) (L. Hutchins). 130 fr.
Black Smoke, A. Waddington's (Soot—Chimney) (A. Waddington). 230 fr.
Detention, R. H. Thomson's (The Colonel—Long Term) (R. H. Thomson).
tunisian cup of 1100 fr. and a cup to the winner. 1st 770 fr. 2nd 220 fr. 3rd 110 fr. For mules hautes et grandes. 4 furlongs.
Stung, J. Loveridge's (Bee—Hive) (R. Craw). 150 fr.
Red Tape, M. Newton's (Old School Tie—Bludgers’ Hill) (M. Newton). 40 fr.
Doubtful, J. Tarrant's (Himself—Paddock) (J. Tarrant).
sidi bou ali stakes of 450 fr. 1st 270 fr. 2nd 110 fr. 3rd 70 fr. Donkey free-for-all. 2½ furlongs.
Shufti, H. Telford's (Kiwi—Out of Bounds) (H. Telford). 150 fr.
Boozer, W. Sutton's (Six o'clock—Pubs) (W. MacKay). 100 fr.
Rommel, D. G. Griffiths’ (Monty—North Africa) (D. G. Griffiths).
enfidaville nursery of 1900 fr. A sweepstake of 50 fr. nominations and 50 fr. acceptance for 12 horses to be drawn. Winner to take all. [Note: first three places all went to Mule Company officers.] 4 furlongs.
Black Bint, L. F. Irvine's (Foxbridge—Wahine) (L. F. Irvine). 125 fr.
Salutation, A. E. Thodey's (Theio—Queen's Salute) (A. E. Thodey). 100 fr.
Pack Drill, M. Newton's (Orderly Dog—French Leave) (A. R. Delley).
To quote 1 New Zealand Mule Pack Company war diary: 13 May: 1x3-ton vehicle went to racecourse and personnel cleaned up the area …. pack saddles and gear handed in…. page 277 14 May: …. All personnel and vehicles to be sent back [today] to their respective units….
An issue of two bottles of beer per man was made gratis to Coy personnel as the result of profit made from totalisator ‘fractions’ at the race meeting, and enthusiastic reception given OC's address to Coy. All Personnel, with exception necessary HQ Offrs and ORs were despatched to various Coys and Bns by 1930 hrs.
The Officers and Men of the 23 NZ Battalion who attended and thoroughly enjoyed your Spring Meeting wish to tender to you and all those responsible, their sincere thanks for and congratulations on one of the best shows ever turned on for the entertainment of the troops in the field that it has been our privilege to see.
With the hour for goodbye at hand, let us join Bev Hendrey on the return of the animals to their owners, who had gathered in the market square, Marche d'Olives, in Sfax. Bev says:
The instructions to all drivers of the 50 6 RMT trucks who conveyed the animals to their destination were: (1) on arrival at the unloading point, the ‘Jennets’ were to be led to a hitching rail and (2) tied securely while (3) all male animals (i.e. the ‘Jacks’) were to be hobbled and (4) on no account released until the Wog owners had claimed them.
Shortly after our arrival the Caid, accompanied by his retinue, marched with much dignity into the square to see fair play, to supervise the counting and take part in the official handover. Meantime some of the ‘Rumpty’ drivers, seeing the possibility of some light entertainment, proceeded with the offloading, but (as they later claimed, ‘Who were we to know the difference?’) inadvertently hobbled ‘Jennets’ and released quite a number of highly spirited ‘Jacks’.
Needless to say as a result of this studied oversight pandemonium broke loose. In every direction in the market place braying donks pursued their handicapped mates. In the centre of the scrambled confusion the Caid and his henchmen, stifled in the mounting dust and uproar, trying to count up to 150-odd donkeys and mules, beating back the alarmed owners, sidestepping charging, fleeing and even actively victorious brutes, called down the curses of Allah on those ‘Muskwise Kiwi bastards'….
On this final scene the curtain gently falls on 1 NZ Mule Pack Company.
2 OC: Capt D. F. Coleman; 2 i/c: Capt S. W. Ellingham; Adjt: Lt A. T. Gray; 1 Pl: 2 Lt A. R. Delley; 2 Pl: 2 Lt A. E. Thodey; 3 Pl: 2 Lt L. F. Irvine; CQMS: Sgt T. W. Gill. The unit's insignia and mascot was a large grey rocking-horse.