4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 6 — Towards the Frontier
Towards the Frontier
PREPARE now, what's left of you, New Zealand Division, for your third campaign—and 4 RMT Company for your fourth. Over in Greece lie 291 New Zealanders who will never come back. In Crete, where only one-third of the Division fought, are 685 more. Through the raw earth the grass rises again, and back in New Zealand a thousand urgent telegrams beginning ‘DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR …’ are folded and put away, and the photograph looks down from piano or mantlepiece or bedside table until time takes it to a drawer, to a box, to a dusty cupboard, to a backyard bonfire, to ashes over the ground where the grass roots and the grass seeds are waiting.
Some of the wounded who get back will fight again: some of the 371 from Greece, some of the 967 from Crete. It's home for the rest, home or pottering around base camps. That's how it works out, and whichever way you look at it you can't do anything about it. Nothing.
And half-way between, shocked and stunned at their sudden severance from the Division, are the prisoners of war, never to doubt that by next Christmas it'll be over, sure. Greece caught 1856 New Zealanders, Crete 2180. That Christmas is a long time coming. Besides all this, wipe off all the artillery, the vehicles and heavy equipment that crossed the Mediterranean with the Division. That's had it, too. Write it off.
What's ahead for the rest, the old hands and the reinforcements? They're back at it again in Maadi and Helwan, back at the same old tricks, marching, drilling, practising, manoeuvring, while more reinforcements and new equipment come in to patch up the holes, to fill the gaps, to set this thing of flesh and metal ticking away again. They drink Stella and Pyramide out of cut-down beer bottles, go on leave, go on the shicker, go on the mat. They write letters, maybe saying aloud as they do: ‘Dear Mum. I am sending you a quid, but not this week’, page 105 or ‘Dear Mum. This Army life is a bastard.’ They sit in the sand in the dark and kick holes with their heels and lean back on elbows and drink again, and the talk goes back to the last few weeks and the old outfit will never be the same again. It never is. It never was.
On 14 June 1941, 4 RMT Company's other ranks numbered 146, 325 men short of full strength. The company needed 216 drivers, 19 driver-mechanics and 23 fitters, among others. A week later the shortage dropped to 174 (111 drivers are still wanted, 13 driver-mechanics, more fitters, more cooks….). By the end of June, at the foot of the company's weekly returns, in the space for signature of commander a new name appears: ‘Ian E. Stock, Capt.’1 Major Woods had relinquished command of the unit on 26 June and Captain (shortly afterwards Major) Stock had taken over. At the end of July,2 in charge of the company's sections, now only 48 men short, were Captains Good, Broberg, Julian,3 and Coleman, Lieutenant Blanch,4 and Second-Lieutenants Burt,5 Gray,6 Fernandez,7 and Smith.8
All Workshops tradesmen went to work with new and complete kits of highly prized American tools. They overhauled the officers' new PUs (pick-ups), handy, tough runabouts, 15–cwt. Dodges, rigidly springed on an all-steel body. They checked over the new four-wheel-drive Fords, which arrived steadily until the company was fully established with 147 three- page 106 ton load-carriers. At first, after the trusted old Bedfords destroyed on the beaches and in the olive groves of Greece, these Fords seemed a tinny job: steel cab, steel tray and sides, and very short in the wheel-base. But time and work proved their usefulness. Spares were easily got. Engines could be changed quickly. The four-wheel drive was popular. Ahead of these vehicles lay tremendous tasks, yet they would serve the Division faithfully until the end of the war.
Trucks or no trucks, route marches continued until Major Stock was confident his drivers would find ‘no hardship now in marching 40 miles in 48 hours’. This, and training in weapons, camouflage, road discipline, and transport manoeuvres at Fayoum, across the Nile south of the Pyramids, welded the unit together again. Jobs ran from picking up new arrivals and stores from troopships nosing into Suez Canal to carrying infantrymen on brigade exercises and to taking 5000 bivvy tents (about 25 tons) to men preparing defences west of Alexandria.
In the Canal Zone each of the Division's three brigades trained for combined operations to get the feel of a division working together again. There had been other changes too. More sturdily equipped, the artillery now should have a better show against tanks and aircraft. A new general hospital had arrived.
Three months after Crete the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, in a seven-question cable to General Freyberg on 16 September, asked: ‘Are you satisfied that the Division is ready for action both in respect of training and equipment?’ To that question the General could reply: ‘Yes. The Division is trained, and when the deficiencies [some light tanks for the Divisional Cavalry and some light anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank rifles] are made up it will be fit for war in every way.’
But the New Zealand Division was little more than one-sixth of the force gathering for battle. All around, on Egypt's land and in her sky, the strength grew. Every day ships were bringing vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and more and more were coming, streaming out steadily from the assembly lines of Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa. In July tanks and trucks began to turn up in bigger and better numbers page 107 from the United States. Between July and October almost 34,000 trucks and 2100 armoured vehicles were landed in Egypt. Among new artillery and small-arms supplies were 600 field guns, 200 anti-tank guns, 3700 Bren guns, 80,000 rifles. From Britain came these tanks: Cruiser (19 tons), Matilda (26-odd tons), Valentine (17 tons). The 13-ton Stuart tank appeared from the United States.
Deep in conferences, schemes, maps and reports were the men of mystery—the planners, the brass hats. General Auchinleck, taking over command from General Wavell on 5 July, saw the official birth of Eighth Army on 1O September. Details of the plan of attack ran to almost any subject under the sun: ways of deceiving the enemy, distributing 95,000 mines, recovering damaged tanks and vehicles, Navy and Air Force co-operation, security, checking rumours, dummy tanks, a field propaganda section to find out if loudspeakers could be used effectively against the enemy….
The supply problems were gigantic. Gathering for battle were 118,000 men—almost the entire population of Wellington city—and 17,600 vehicles. Soldiers would eat each day 200 tons of food. Every day the vehicles carrying them would use 1500 tons of petrol and oil; guns and rifles would need 480 tons of ammunition a day, and 350 tons (79,400 gallons) of water would be wanted. Altogether the Army would need 2972 tons of supplies every day.
How would men get their day-to-day supplies when Eighth Army left its bases and struck into Libya on 18 November? The railway ended at Misheifa; the pipeline carrying water from Alexandria would go no further than Sofafi. So three forward bases were being stocked night and day, and from these bases, with everything needed piling up high as a house over acres of desert, trucks built handier field supply dumps further forward. The New Zealand Division, when the time came for it to be attached to 13 Corps with 4 Indian Division, would draw rations and water from 29 Field Supply Depot, beyond the railhead at Misheifa, from 16 to 19 November, and then from 50 Field Supply Depot, to be set up east of the gap in the frontier wire at El Beida through which the New Zealand Division would pass. The 29th FSD was pre- page 108 paring to supply in the days just before the attack about 36,000 men and 6000 vehicles daily. To keep clear the supply lines, over which lorries hurried to dump reserves in the forward areas, Eighth Army was staying well back from the frontier and, by avoiding large-scale troop movements, hoped not to forewarn the enemy, stiffened in April by Germans under General Rommel and now besieging Tobruk.
The Axis forces had recaptured Cyrenaica from the Western Desert Force, weakened by the demands of Greece and Crete. The enemy did not press into Egypt but dug in at Capuzzo and Sollum, close to the sea on the Egyptian frontier, to cover the siege and manned a string of forts—the Omar forts—stretching south-westwards. This Capuzzo-Sollum area is a good prize for any army. Stretching ahead from Baggush to Tobruk is a low plateau with a flat coastal strip petering out at Sollum. A 500-foot escarpment, rising inland to run northwest over 50 miles, meets the coast near Sollum and spreads up to Bardia. This 500-foot escarpment is a tough barrier for anything on wheels advancing westwards near the coast. The escarpment's two main passes are at Sollum and Halfaya, seven miles south-east. An army intending to enter Libya without using these passes must make a long detour of at least 100 miles to the south. The Germans and Italians held these passes; but they had failed so far to take Tobruk.
And while the Army prepared, the Navy and RAF continued to engage the enemy.
In mid-September the New Zealand Division's 4 and 6 Brigades settled into the defences of Baggush (158 miles west of Alexandria, 30 miles east of Mersa Matruh), where swallows holidaying from Europe's cold swooped and flitted prettily and the dusty date palms grew by the sea. Maybe the date palms were a bit like nikau palms—but not much. Maybe the swallows were magnoon (mad). How d'you make that out? Well, they've wings to go any place they like, and Hell, they come here, to this dump…. But many will remember old Baggush fondly, the place where they trained to their prime in the days of their youth. Fifth Brigade felt the same way, arriving at Baggush after a month's hard work on defences and roads in a little-known area in the desert south-west of Alexandria.9 As if anything would page 109 happen there. Just another army stunt to fill in time and keep you away from Cairo.
About 20 miles from Baggush, 4 RMT Company was back at Fuka again on 17 September, occupying bivvies already dug by the Indians. Work began at once, carrying supplies, petrol, and ammunition up to forward dumps rising to back the November advance into Libya. D Section landed up in Sidi Barrani one afternoon with Cypriots of a pioneer corps; A and B Sections distributed within a couple of days 42,200 two-gallon tins of water. It was a great day for C Section's mascot, ‘Tiny’, whenever one of his section's lorries took sheep to the Indian Field Butchery at Matruh. Drivers talked about pensioning him off after the war in a comfy kennel on a New Zealand sheep-run. As official news trickled in about the fate of drivers left behind in Greece and Crete, the Mobile Film Unit turned up to screen ‘Nancy Steel is Missing’. Through October the sections worked hard, towards the end running many night details to fox Jerry, besides carrying riflemen on brigade manoeuvres and practising desert movement. This month the company's mileage was up to the 240,000 mark—from the earth to the moon. Each day the company used about 1200 gallons of petrol, enough to send a ten-horse-power car one and a half times round the world. Air raids around Fuka did little damage except to blow an ammunition train to bits. Says 4 RMT's war diary:
‘Small bomb estimated at 25 lbs found in sea by swimmer and brought into shore and [left near] orderly room.’ Right on the nail next day, routine orders reminded all swimmers to remove dentures—army property—before taking a dip.
But now 4 RMT Company is not alone. Another mechanical transport company has been formed within the Division.
The story of 6 RMT Company begins on 14 October 1941, when Colonel Crump,10 head of the NZASC, announced the formation of a new mechanical transport company. In com- page 110 mand was Captain Hood,11 from the NZASC Section of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Hood, Lieutenant Fenton and Second-Lieutenant Brown12 left the Western Desert on 15 October for Maadi Camp, where they received instructions about forming the new company, which had to be ready for work in the Western Desert within a month. The 6th RMT Company would carry riflemen of 6 Infantry Brigade into the Libyan campaign.
Possibly never in the history of the New Zealand Division was the forming of a unit attempted in so short a time. But Captain (soon Major) Hood's previous experience as Adjutant of HQ Command NZASC proved invaluable. He knew the make-up of operating NZASC units, the stores and equipment needed, and the depots through which they were drawn. He knew how 4 RMT Company worked, and on these lines 6 RMT Company would take shape.
The task was a big one. Within three weeks 127 vehicles had to be collected, plus all mechanical parts necessary to maintain such a fleet. On top of this were tons of stores, rations, ammunition, and equipment needed by a company operating for weeks in a barren desert. The men to form the basis of this company—6th Reinforcements, plus a sprinkling of echelon men—were away from Maadi ferrying vehicles to the Western Desert. On their return they were posted at once to the company.
Ordnance depots were asked for stores and vehicles. By 18 October the OC, his two lieutenants, and 57 other ranks marched out from Base Training Depot NZASC to ‘Q’ area, at the end of the road beyond the Lowry Hut and underneath the escarpment dividing Maadi Camp from the city of Cairo. The area was shared with men of 2 New Zealand General Hospital, from whom tents were borrowed to hold 400 men. This party for the next two days slogged away erecting tents, cookhouses, and other houses in readiness for more men and page 111 more stores. The first vehicles, 50 of them, arrived from Eighth Army vehicle park at Tel el Kebir on 23 October. The rest were collected by company drivers from the same park within a few days. By 21 October most of the men were settling down, some of them from the Infantry Training Depot, for the NZASC had suffered 80 per cent casualties in Greece and Crete. A bustling week changed the once-barren ‘Q’ area into a busy, tented village. Stores rolled in from depots all over the Delta. The men were keen. Vehicles were thoroughly checked, and any suspicion of a loose nut or a mechanical fault received quick treatment. Anyhow it paid to look brisk and occupied, for the OC had ordered route marches for those not on duty. Nobody wanted two-hour exercises climbing up the escarpment and marching along to the Citadel.
The largest administrative task was organising the men into three operating sections, a workshops group, and the headquarters administration group.13 The fourth operating section, D, was to be added later. Each operating section received 36 vehicles, 33 of them 50-cwt. Chevrolet load-carriers, and three 15-cwt. vehicles, two for section officers and the third for section defence. The Workshops Section, or E Section, started off with six load-carriers and two breakdown vehicles equipped with winch, and an officer's car. Headquarters group consisted of an orderly room, quartermaster's store, cooks' wagon and a baggage wagon, all of which were three-tonners, plus the OC's car, a water cart and a defence lorry. Two drivers took turns in driving each lorry. One driver signed for his lorry, and it was his responsibility to see that it was properly and regularly looked after.
As with 4 RMT Company, each section of 30 load-carriers and three spares could lift an infantry battalion. Each section was divided into sub-sections of six lorries, with a corporal and lance-corporal in charge. Within each section was a small headquarters group: the section officer, a subaltern, a sergeant in charge of administration, and a transport sergeant. Also on the strength of section headquarters travelled the cooks (two page 112 to a section), two spare load-carriers with reserve petrol and stores, and three men working the light anti-aircraft defence.
Workshops Section, though not up to full strength, started out with the latest in mobile repair equipment. Two load-carriers carried machine shops which, complete with lathes, could repair everything except major breakdowns. Two vehicles carried the stores and spare parts Workshops would need, and the Workshops carpenter and blacksmith had a vehicle apiece. Two vehicles with winches operated as breakdown repair wagons. Completing Workshops' total of ten vehicles were a load-carrier used by the cooks and a car for the Workshops Officer.
Headquarters Section handled all the administrative duties of the company and could also travel as an independent unit. Its vehicles were the OC's car, a three-tonner for the orderly-room staff and also for the company quartermaster's stores, a baggage lorry, a petrol-carrier, and a cooks' truck. There was also a water cart and a 15-cwt. defence truck. Other men in headquarters were the postman and the RAP orderlies.
In nine days the company was formed into a self-contained and fully-operating unit. At night drivers picketed vehicles, spending most of the daytime checking and rechecking the lorries' mechanical parts. Despatch riders were particularly pleased with their new Matchless motor-cycles. And the company's first job turned up, a small but pleasant duty only remotely connected with the business of war: three lorries left on 23 October for the Western Desert crammed with Christmas cards and tobacco for the Division.
Moving the complete 2 General Hospital (except, bad luck, the nurses) and the Casualty Clearing Station to their field station at Garawla was the company's first big job. From Tel el Kebir trucks took the complete stores for a 600-bed hospital. They also picked up 120 Flint stretchers and brackets. These were fitted later to the truck trays so that in an emergency lorries could be used as ambulances.
The company was away, 310 strong, at 10 a.m. on Sunday, 2 November, Captain Collins 14 leading the long line of over page 113 a hundred vehicles up the hill, past the Lowry Hut, and then to the right through Maadi Camp. Men gathered by the roadside: ‘What outfit's this?’ Vehicle after vehicle flashed by: three-ton Chevrolets with four-wheel drive, extra-wide sand tires and high sand-coloured canopies; the lighter vehicles of the administration and defence sections; the despatch riders; and, at the end, vehicles carrying the hospital's men and stores. Down the leafy streets of Maadi, along the river road to the Khedive Ismail Bridge, where donkey carts are laden with market-bound water-melons, then past Cheops Pyramid on the way to the ‘blue’. Past Mena House and vehicle parks, then three miles on to the desert proper under the shimmering haze of midday heat.
A halt for lunch—drivers in the rear feeling they had no sooner stopped than the leader pulled out again—then on 45 miles to Wadi Natrun for the night halt. The tarsealed highway covered old caravan tracks linking Alexandria and Cairo. The swish of the tires, the haze, the heat from the engine made drivers drowsy; the spare drivers dozed off in their seats, one leg in the cab, the other resting on running board or mudguard (it was impossible to find a comfortable spot for the head). At Wadi Natrun vehicles dispersed, 100 yards apart; drivers stepped down from the high cabs, walked to the wheels, then to petrol tanks, and then, satisfied that oil levels, radiator and tire pressures were correct, looked after themselves. They slept in bedrolls spread on the clean sand.
Before 8 a.m. 6 RMT was under way again, following the black streak of bitumen 45 miles to Amiriya, the Arab village near the crossroads leading to Alexandria and to the Western Desert. Palm trees dotted the settlement, almost lost among the Army's dumps, large petrol, water and ration points, a transit camp and an airfield. Refuelled, the convoy crossed the causeway over broad salt marshes onto the coastal road, passing blue flashes of the Mediterranean, odd clumps of tall date palms and patches of small fig trees. Thirty miles on, near El Imayid, urchins from Burg el Arab village raced beside trucks to swop eggs (fresh and otherwise) for biscuits and cigarettes. More petrol and water were taken on at El Daba, 30 miles short of Fuka, and with seven miles to go the company page 114 bivouacked for the night. Next morning, 4 November, the trucks with medical men and stores went on to Garawla, while the rest of the company pulled in to Fuka, settled down next to 4 RMT Company, and dug in.
Two men sharing a bivvy tent, only six feet by five and about three feet high, usually dig down a foot or more then run a foot-deep trench along the centre. This makes two firm ledges for the bedrolls and gives a man a chance to move about without crouching too much. In time the place is prettied up. Odd bits of sacking, canvas, or cardboard turn up to line the walls and to check the sand from trickling down. A box at the top of the trench makes both a fine table and a container for a spare primus, over which tea, toast (sopping in margarine) and tinned bacon are prepared for night feeds. If parcels have been arriving lately, there's cake, shortbread or gingernuts, and tinned oysters too. Unfortunately not only bivvies but underground orderly rooms and cookhouses have to be dug as well. B Section cooks of 6 RMT settled on a small rocky plateau surrounded by acres of good diggable sand-soil. For two days half of B Section rapped, scraped, and cursed away until a better cookhouse site was chosen.
From Fuka A Section was the first of 6 RMT to move off, leaving before dawn on 6 November with 9000 gallons of water for Eighth Army's forward base at Bir el Thalata. The trip was completed by moonlight and the unloaded water containers camouflaged with scrub and netting. Two days later General Freyberg inspected the company, the first time he had inspected a complete New Zealand transport company, and told Major Hood that the formation of 6 RMT was a British Army record, so far as he knew. In the evening the company suffered its first death when an RAF lorry ran over Driver Talbot,15 of Workshops Section, in the blackout. Early next morning Second-Lieutenant Pool led 56 load-carriers from B and C Sections westwards of Siwa Track and dumped 25,000 gallons of petrol. It was an important job, for here the Division would refuel on the move towards Libya, and 6 RMT's cargo was to have kept the entire Division going for another 50 miles. page 115 But this petrol had been loaded very carelessly by Arab labourers the day before at Sidi Haneish. The flimsy petrol tins had received rough handling and, despite drivers' protests, dented and sometimes leaking tins had been loaded. Jolting on the way damaged more containers. Although this dump would be increased by the Divisional Petrol Company, the Division would be short, and 6 RMT drivers wondered just how much those leaky containers had affected the Army's plans.
Leaving behind guards from 21 Battalion who had travelled with the convoy, the two sections returned to Fuka to find A Section had gone off temporarily16 to 5 Brigade to carry 28 (Maori) Battalion forward on the 11 November move. B and C Sections stocked up with water and spare petrol (16 gallons for each lorry) and joined 25 and 26 Battalions for their first troop-carrying tasks. The company came under 6 Brigade's command, and Company Headquarters and Workshops joined 6 Brigade Headquarters group.
Capturing a fort in the desert is the scheme. The fort is protected by mines and barbed wire. The gunners open the attack, their squatting 25-pounders pumping across a thick fog of smoke, which spreads neatly, quickly, good and thick, between mines and the fort. As the shells ripple through the air, from four to eight 4 RMT lorries speed forward, filled with the first wave of the attackers, 100 to 200 riflemen, about one or two companies. The drivers see that the wind is blowing towards the fort. Good. No chance now of the man behind the wheel getting smoke-blinded and hitting mines, or wire, or emerging apologetically on the enemy side of the fog. Don't waste time getting the boys up there—while you're mucking about the arty is using up its ammo. Up to the minefield, the smoke coiling strangely just beyond, and out dive the riflemen, bayonets fixed. They sprint 25 yards straight ahead and lie down, so the RMT lorries can turn without delay. Now page 116 get those lorries out of it, smartly, before the smoke goes. They may be wanted badly later on.
The smoke is thinning and the gunners switch to high-explosive shells. That keeps the enemy's head down, and so does fire opening up from the tanks and mortars, nice and handy. The riflemen advance by bounds, now up, now flat, ‘close as you are brave enough’ to the advancing barrage of exploding shells.
The barrage lifts. The riflemen charge and seize a patch in the enemy's front line. Now, alone, they must hold on at least twenty minutes. The tanks are halted by the mines, the guns have fired all the rounds they can spare, and the smoke has gone. So watch for the counter-attack; open up at the machine guns and any movement, get the two-inch mortars going, hold on. Hold on up there while the engineers clear lanes through the minefields, freeing the tanks to bite forward again. Now the dust flies once more as up to the mines comes the RMT again, lorries packed with riflemen for the killing blow, about a thousand of them, the bulk of the brigade's men with bayonets. Out they come; away go the 4 RMT lorries. Behind the tanks, now moving up the cleared lanes, go the infantry as a second wave of tanks joins in the attack.
The first tanks are into the fortress; in a moment the riflemen are in too. One by one clumps of defenders smash up or surrender until the riflemen well and truly hold the fort. Prepare now for the coming counter-attack. See there's no snarling up of the transport now pouring in: lorries and trucks with ammunition and tools, carriers, medical chaps, wireless trucks, the odd staff car, anti-tank guns, 25-pounders, maybe a few light anti-aircraft guns.
Victorious. But the cook's truck is lost again….
That was a dummy fort. Those were just exercises, the New Zealand Division's three brigades rehearsing for war near Baggush in the mellow October of 1941. Not a single shot flew in anger. Those ‘tanks’ were just stand-ins for the real thing, just a few lorries with a superiority complex. But those exercises and other trips into the desert gave the Division experience of movement and manoeuvre; gave drivers the feel of page 117 flag signals, of keeping position among the 800 and more vehicles strung out in long columns of each brigade, of orderly driving over the quickly changing surface of the desert, now rocky and pitted, now hard and smooth, now soft with wind-piled sand. It got them into the routine of mobile warfare. As General Freyberg reported to New Zealand's Prime Minister in October, this, like all modern battles, was in the first place a battle of machines and exploitation by lorry-borne fighting troops of all arms.
So on to ‘NZ Div Exercise No. 4’, everyone pretending this was just another stunt, and few indeed being really misled. The Division rose out of the ground, like some great conjuring trick, left its camouflaged tents and dugouts, and climbed into 2836 vehicles—just 300 more vehicles than all the taxis throughout New Zealand in 1953. The fleet moved off in three massive groups:
Fifth Infantry Brigade Group (Brigadier Hargest17) moved in 1006 vehicles, 33 of them B Section 4 RMT lorries containing not troops but supplies. For the campaign the section was attached to the Divisional Supply Column. Carrying the Maori Battalion (for three days only) was A Section 6 RMT. Moving other riflemen of the brigade were lorries of 309 General Transport Company, the British Army unit lent for the purpose by the RASC. Completing the group, and also making up the other two brigade groups, were field artillery and anti-aircraft and anti-tank gunners, engineers, machine-gunners, the Petrol Company (complete within 5 Brigade Group), part of the Divisional Supply Column, a field ambulance, and a section of Divisional Ordnance Field Workshops.
Fourth Infantry Brigade Group (Brigadier Inglis18) had 803 vehicles, 132 of them of 4 RMT Company (A Section carrying 18 Battalion; D Section, 19 Battalion; C Section, 20 Battalion). page 118 Complete in this group was the Survey Troop. Moving independently at the end of the group was New Zealand Divisional Headquarters Group (General Freyberg), containing the Division's headquarters staff and signalmen, the headquarters of the Division's artillery, engineers and ASC, a field hygiene section, military police, the postal unit and the pay office, 136 vehicles in all.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group (Brigadier Barrowclough19) had 918 vehicles, 129 of them from 6 RMT Company (all together when A Section returned from 5 Brigade to carry 24 Battalion). B Section carried 25 Battalion; C Section, 26 Battalion. The Ammunition Company travelled complete within the group.
Out on to the bitumen road at Baggush emerged each brigade in turn. Down dozens of tracks on both sides of the road, only 20 to 25 feet wide, came 5 Infantry Brigade's one thousand lorries, trucks, Bren carriers and staff cars, converging on the starting point on the morning of 11 November—Armistice Day. The halt was about 60 miles away: up to Mersa Matruh, south-west to the end of the bitumen on Siwa Track, then into the desert for ten miles. Brigade vehicles, booked to cover 15 miles each hour, were supposed to be spaced ten to the mile, making a column more than 100 miles long and taking nearly seven hours to pass one point. But there were several mix-ups, none serious. B Section of 4 RMT, attached to the Divisional Supply Column, moved off at noon and reached the desert rendezvous at 8.30 p.m. The 6 RMT section bivouacked with the Maori Battalion at dusk.
Next day 4 Infantry Brigade and Divisional Headquarters groups were off to join 5 Brigade in the desert. Among the 939 vehicles were 4 RMT's Company Headquarters, Workshops, and three operating sections. They pulled up near 5 Infantry Brigade from just before sunset to after dark. Two-thirds of the Division was together now. The RMT sections page 119 found the ten-mile desert strip very dusty and rough travelling. The Divisional Petrol Company had set up a petrol point nearby where the 25,000 gallons dumped by 6 RMT lay, enough it was thought to take the Division 50 miles. The Petrol Company began issuing petrol and oil.
About midnight on 13 November 6 Infantry Brigade Group's 918 vehicles settled down in the desert. The trip had given 6 RMT drivers little trouble. The Division was now complete and ready to go. Engines silent, the transport, 200 yards apart, rested in a great oblong about twelve miles long and eight miles wide. No advance took place on 14 November. The only movement was the occasional turning of vehicles to keep tell-tale shadows as small as possible as the sun slid across the sky. The story was out, officially, that the ‘exercise’ was over; the Division was bound for Libya.
The entire Division, together and fully mobile for the first time, moved forward on 15 November. From 16 to 20 infantrymen were packed together under the canopy of each RMT lorry. They had with them all their equipment and their reserve rations. A dozen squatted on their bedrolls laid out along the sides of the truck tray; the odd-men-out settled down where they could among the boxes of ammunition, petrol, water, and rations stacked in the centre of the tray. Nobody could call this luxury travelling. The truck jolted, bucked, bumped, dodging potholes and boulders to lurch over bushes of camel-thorn rooted under hard-packed mounds of wind-blown sand. Still, the infantry said, riding under any conditions was better than marching—any day.
The Division's mass movement towards the frontier is an amazing scene…. This day I will remember always, always. The sand below is stiff with bones of old armies with all their banners and bravery since the year dot. Ai-wah. But they never travelled like this, never looked like this. Never sounded like this. Never felt this way. Never…. Vehicles stretch from horizon to horizon. Any rise in the ground reveals to men looking back further black dots of yet more trucks appearing in the far distance and grinding on at a steady pace of seven miles each hour to cover 50 miles by nightfall. From time to time sand-coloured RAF page 120 fighters pass over the advancing New Zealand fleet. ‘It seems impossible that such a colossal array of vehicles can keep order,’ writes Captain Coleman, of 4 RMT. ‘Now we realise the value of the exercises rehearsed again and again during manoeuvres, where every driver learned with almost uncanny instinct his relative place in the group. Keeping place in convoy, by day or by night, adds to the success of the moves. It's only achieved by rigid concentration of the drivers.’
‘Our drivers are grand,’ writes Lieutenant Clubb,20 of 26 Battalion (carried by C Section 6 RMT). ‘ “Lofty”, veteran of a dozen service routes in New Zealand, handles his lumbering three-tonner loaded with men, kit and rations, with a skill that has merited the reputation of the A.S.C.’
Before dawn on 16 November, from 5.30 to 6.30 a.m., men stand to, well muffled, greatcoat collars turned up, balaclavas pulled well down. ASC commanders are worried. Too much petrol has been used up in yesterday's 50-mile move, about 40,000 gallons instead of the estimated 25,000. One gallon, instead of taking a vehicle the estimated six miles, has lasted for only three and three-quarter miles.21 The Petrol Company draws more petrol in special trips to No. 2 Forward Base while drivers, LADs, and mechanics make sure trucks are in trim for the night move ahead of over 25 miles. The 4th RMT's first casualty of the campaign, Corporal Jaspers,22 of B Section, is buried after a fatal accident the previous day. It's strange, think drivers attending the funeral of their comrade, that a man should survive the perils of Carson's patrol in Crete only to meet death a little later in a peaceful desert.page 121
With the return of darkness vehicles close up to ten-yard intervals and move off, the leading brigade followed by the two groups of the other brigades. Engineers and MPs have gone ahead, placing shaded green lights on poles at two-mile intervals to mark the track by night. Each brigade has a leading car just ahead with a panel of dim lights at its rear. This discreet ‘glow-worm’ car follows the lamp-marked route; behind the car follow the nine blacked-out parallel columns of the brigade. But all is not easy going this night of 16 November. Soft sand ahead joggles the columns into ‘concertina’ movements; boulders, shingle, rough patches and clouds of dust add to the scramble in the darkness. Some vehicles close up nose-to-tail, others draw apart and in trying to catch up speed up to 30 miles an hour—bad for the lorries, worse for the flung-about passengers. Major Stock writes:
The column, rumbling in low gear through the blackness of the night, suddenly slows down. This usually means bad going in front. Drivers strain eyes trying to pick out what's ahead. In five or fifteen minutes they approach a bad dip, with three or four of the earlier vehicles just discernible, bogged down. This is it, you look for the tailboard ahead and it has already disappeared, speeding up for its run through the bad going. You put your foot down, your only thoughts being to get through and not to lose contact with the truck in front. As you are almost into it a Div Provo looms up from the blackness and shouts ‘Straight ahead Dig—watch the bump at the bottom’ or ‘Give her the gun, the going's good.’ You give her the gun, keeping your fingers crossed that no springs will be broken, and away you go like Ben Hur and up the other side of the wadi, hoping the chap in front has cleared it in time to let you keep going. We've made it this time, but luck doesn't always hold.
The November nights are cold. The driver's hands become numb on the wheel, pain develops at the back of the neck through constant straining to see into the night ahead, and the eyes are running with the cold wind coming through the open windshield. Everything is going along nicely when the truck in front brakes—you do the same and find yourself in a soft spot. Out spare driver and out spare man at the back to wave the other vehicles on so there'll be no break in the column. Then to the work of getting her out of the bother. You try her again and the big four wheels just thrash around and dig in deeper. All right, get the blokes out at the back and let them push. Then the fun begins. The infantry are mostly page 122 asleep or dozing—they are all as cold as blazes. Once out from the shelter of the canopy they get colder still. The RMT stops some fancy names.
But with sturdy shoulders to the wheel the truck is soon on her way again, trying to get back into the column. Every driver is jealous of his own position in the line, and woe betide the chap who tries to break it, unless he is known. Our driver has to find someone he knows before he can get back into the line. He peers into the darkness. ‘That's Jim, he's got his spare covered with a bivvy—yes that's Bill with the camel tank strapped on the bumper, so Mick must be next—Hey Mick, let me in after Bill.’ So in we go and the advance continues.
The 25-mile march ends. Before dawn lorries scatter according to plan so that first light will not give enemy aircraft a juicy target of closely packed vehicles. Each battalion moves separately, and quite a distance is covered before the brigade's hundreds of vehicles are properly spread out. While the infantry brew up drivers cover vehicles with camouflage nets—like fish-nets stuck with strips of subdued pink and green material, sacking and tufts of scrub. Now is the time, while others take it easy, when the LAD men and the driver-mechanics go to work, examining engines and chassis with the skill and understanding of surgeons, anticipating and detecting trouble, swiftly and thoroughly repairing damage done during the move. In the campaign ahead they will work tirelessly, keeping trucks mobile, giving drivers complete confidence in their vehicles. Keeping the Division rolling is the work of the LAD23 and the Workshops men. They are dependable.
Daily maintenance tasks done, 6 RMT drivers swop impressions of their first night move carrying troops. Some can't believe such a large fleet of 2800-odd vehicles could move so far at night without some trucks getting lost for keeps. Other drivers discuss falling asleep during halts and the rotten feeling on waking to find the truck ahead vanishing. The young 6 RMT page 123 Company, with no other experience of brigade manoeuvres at all, is learning the hard way.
More lessons and shocks lie ahead of new drivers in the second night march on the evening of 17 November. Within an hour of their moving off on the 30-mile journey a violent electrical storm slashes the darkness. A 6 RMT driver, Gibbs,24 writes:
Soon the lightning sheets shoot over the brigade column and in an instant every vehicle is seen lurching crazily forward. In the same flash the driver has a chance to note his position in the convoy, and he makes a desperate effort to correct his place. If he is far behind and the ground in front is flat he risks a dash forward, but this must be done in the blinding blackness following the lightning flash. Perhaps the next flash reveals him charging headlong toward another vehicle and he has barely enough time to avoid a smash.
Voices are lost in the roaring din of the thousand motors; drivers work overtime, one minute changing up, the next down, braking, swerving, in short giving their utmost to keep up with the inexorable moving force.
Following a three-tonner is like driving along a lighted highway compared with the lot of the driver who has to follow a gun limber. The black outline of the large three-tonner can be seen at least a couple of yards away and a driver coming out of a dust cloud has sufficient time to brake. The driver behind the artillery waggons has no warning until he sees a gun barrel poking almost through his windscreen.
Nobody ever wants to travel behind the ack-ack.
The route this night leads 6 Brigade briefly through a patrol camp of 4 Indian Division. These unfortunates must feel that all the devils in North Africa are on the loose. Long before the Brigade Group reaches the Indians' area they hear the thunder of its approach. New Zealand infantrymen looking back from the lorries see many near-tragedies as the Indians leap from the path of one vehicle into the line of another. Some vehicles stick in unseen slit trenches, which means more delays, but still the advance goes on.
Past the Indians low ridges of invisible miniature escarpments sometimes send lorries leaning over to angles of 30 degrees page 124 or more. Each driver keeps going, hoping in the darkness that the old bus will right herself again.
In daylight a small eight-foot escarpment is summed up quickly and the driver makes the best approach. Even then several attempts may be necessary to get the lorry over it. At night the driver's first warning of coming to a sand bank is the front of his vehicle rearing up and the motor stalling. Then the only thing to do is to send the co-driver out to see if the following vehicles are far enough back to allow the stalled vehicle to reverse. Both front and rear low gears are engaged and the driver sets the lorry to it, with all the petrol power it can take.
The performance of the four-wheel-drive lorries this night is amazing. Truck after truck lurches up steep gradients and with a final twist rights itself and continues after the vanishing column. On worse than usual banks, tracked vehicles and breakdown wagons from workshops sections come to the assistance of the struggling drivers and trucks. Descending the escarpments is, if anything, a more tricky process and many a driver suddenly finds himself running along the edge of an escarpment with the lorry gradually leaning more and more to one side. How does the land lie out there in all that blackness? To even the truck up now, should the driver pull the steering wheel to the right or to the left? That many vehicles don't capsize is a compliment to the drivers and to the makers. One 6 RMT driver, skilled in the handling of coal lorries for years before the war, comes down one of these escarpments safely. Reaching flat ground he changes, he thinks, to normal gear. He doesn't know he has changed into reverse gear, and back he goes, retreating innocently into the night until his spare driver notices something's not according to Hoyle. Other weary drivers had the illusion that they are driving down a vast tunnel or along the bottom of an enormous cutting.
The jolting in the dust-clouded blackness confuses even expert drivers and exasperates into silence even the most expert swearer among the flung-about infantry behind.
At I a.m. the nightmare journey ends. Down the lines passes the message ‘bed down’ … ‘bed down’ … ‘bed down’…. But some drivers don't hear. Slumped over the wheel, already they are fast asleep.
2 In the November 1941 campaign the officers with the sections were: A Sec, Capt Julian and 2 Lt Burt; B Sec, Lt Surgenor and 2 Lt Battersby; C Sec, Capt Coleman and 2 Lt Fernandez; D Sec, Lt Blanch and 2 Lt Smith; Workshops, Capt Broberg.
9 Later known as the Alamein Line.
10 Brig S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Bronze Star (US); born Dunedin, 25 Jan 1889; Regular soldier; NZASC 1915-19; CRASC 2 NZ Div 1940-45; commanded 2 NZEF (Japan) Jun-Sep 1947; on staff HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948-49.
11 Maj A. G. Hood, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 29 May 1912; company manager; OC NZASC Sec 14 Lt AA Regt Aug-Oct 1941; OC 6 RMT Coy 14 Oct 1941-2 Feb 1942; Assistant Director Supply and Transport Army HQ (in NZ) and O i/c NZASC training May 1942-Jan 1946.
16 D Sec 309 (British) Gen Tpt Coy, which carried infantry of 5 Bde into the Second Libyan Campaign, was working at Siwa on 10 Nov. A Sec 6 RMT took this section's place, carrying the Maori Battalion until 14 Nov. Returning from Siwa, the British section took 24 Bn forward in 6 Bde's first move on 13 Nov. Next day, with the Division together, the two sections returned to their companies, A Sec 6 RMT now carrying 24 Bn as first intended.
17 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and two bars, MC, m.i.d., Legion of Honour, MC (Gk); born Gore 4 Sep 1891; farmer; MP 1931-44; Otago Mtd Rifles 1914-20 (CO 2 Bn Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde Jan 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
18 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Palmerston North; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915-19; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Jan-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde 1941-42, 4 Armd Bde 1942-44, 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947-50.
19 Maj-Gen Rt Hon Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre; Auckland; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915-19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK 1940, 6 Bde May 1940-Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div Aug 1942-Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.
21 The Division's petrol position caused anxiety until the frontier was crossed. Rough travelling in low gear and the rigours of two night moves played havoc with estimates. Besides, much petrol must have seeped away from leaky, flimsy containers. Plans had been affected, too, by many shrewd drivers taking good care to stock up well beyond their petrol quotas. The Division, poised on the frontier on 18 November, had only enough petrol for 90 miles instead of 150 miles. The emergency was met by taking a lorry from each section of the RMT companies and adding them for a day to the Petrol Company. The trucks intercepted a convoy near Conference Cairn and returned with 44 lorry-loads, 28,160 gallons. (4 RMT's 166 vehicles, travelling from Fuka until 4 p.m. on 18 November, averaged 5.75 miles to the gallon.)
22 Cpl E. C.Jaspers; born Waipawa, 12 Nov 1915; electrician; accidentally killed 15 Nov 1941.
23 Light Aid Detachments were manned by driver-mechanics. One vehicle was set aside for this work in each operating section. LADs formed the liaison with Workshops Section and were entirely responsible for keeping all vehicles mobile while in action. They carried spare spring assemblies (when available) and main leaves, spare petrol pumps, radiator hose, spark plugs, tires (when space permitted), tubes, and in fact all parts necessary except for major breakdowns. They would fit or oversee the fitting of spring assemblies, etc., and generally kept their section vehicles in tiptop shape.