CHAPTER 11 — Back to the ‘Blue’
Back to the ‘Blue’
Agrim situation faced the New Zealanders on their return to the Western Desert. By 21 June Tobruk had fallen, with the loss of over 25,000 men and all their arms and supplies. A badly beaten Eighth Army was retreating in disorder. By 24 June the enemy, ‘in great and unexpected force’, had reached Sidi Barrani, only 80 miles from Matruh. Nothing, it seemed, could stop his onward rush to full and final victory in North Africa.
General Freyberg had always been averse to having the New Zealanders ‘boxed’ in a defensive role. Yet one of our Division's first assignments in the new situation was to garrison the fortress at Mersa Matruh and to man the Charing Cross outpost some ten miles to the south. By 23 June, when Petrol Company reached Matruh, along with other main groups of the NZASC, New Zealand battalions had already taken post in the western defences of the Matruh ‘box’, and others by nightfall were disposed on its eastern side in an arc which stretched from the coast to the airfield on the Charing Cross road.
At that time the Matruh defence-works were in very bad shape, full of rubbish and in some parts verminous. They had been prepared quite early in the war, some by an Egyptian brigade which had pulled out when Graziani threatened Egypt in 1940. Kippenberger, whose 5 Brigade Group now took over these posts, observed that most of the dug positions had caved in or filled with sand, much of the wire was on the ground, minefields were badly marked, communications non-existent, and the whole plan of defence obscure.1 Since the advancing enemy forces were mostly armoured columns, preparations were made to resist tank attacks. These precautions, besides the usual one of laying minefields, included the issue to our infantry battalions of the new anti-tank spigot mortars, and page 197 the replacement of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment's two-pounder guns with new six-pounders. The lighter weapons were issued to newly-formed anti-tank platoons in the infantry.
So, when the Petrol Company detachments began to arrive, carrying troops for the various sectors, they found within the fortress area a scene of some confusion. This was presaged by a torrent of traffic, equally confused, which they had met travelling eastward—away from Matruh—while they were pushing up towards the town and the new location of their Company Headquarters at nearby Smugglers' Cove. The site had been selected by Major Forbes, who reached Daba at 5 p.m. on 21 June and made Fuka an hour later, on ‘a glorious night, mild and clearly moonlit, but marred by the sad news of the fall of Tobruk’. Next morning Forbes found the road west of Fuka ‘full of RAF and tank transporters moving out, also South African transport and troops’. He reached Matruh at 11 a.m., eventually located New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, then set out to ‘recce’ the Smugglers' Cove area. Here he found ‘South African units coming and going and none knew whether they were to stay or not’. This situation soon sorted itself out, and a suitable area for the Company was found.
First Petrol Company platoon to arrive was No. 2, ferrying troops of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery. They had made record time on the long trek from Syria, leaving there on 16 June and reaching the Canal by the 18th. No trouble was experienced with the platoon's own vehicles, but at that stage they were towing a wireless pick-up and two limbers for the artillery. Led by Second-Lieutenant MacShane (formerly General Freyberg's driver) they passed through Cairo via Tel-el-Kebir on 19 June, refuelled ten miles on the Alex side of Mena, and staged for the night about a mile past Halfway House.
During the day Corporal Stewart's motor-cycle gave trouble and had to be loaded aboard a truck. Sergeant Jenkin needed to fit a new tyre to his ‘bike’ and Driver Katene2 had a puncture. The boys were told then that it was ‘the Western Desert again’, and some were not very happy about it. For the delusion still page 198 persisted that their destination was ‘home’. By 6 a.m. on 20 June MacShane's convoy was on the move again, after starting-trouble with the motor-cycles, some of the trucks, and quite a few of the quads, owing to a heavy night dew. That day the platoon had its first truck casualty when Driver Henderson's3 vehicle was hit by a 15-cwt and had its rear ‘diff’ torn off. It was towed to Amiriya by a Divisional Artillery breakdown truck and evacuated to 10 VRD. That night the convoy staged at El Daba, where all hands were paid, and many made a beeline to the NAAFI for ‘beer, glorious beer!’
Next day (21 June) 2 Platoon and the Artillery reached Mersa Matruh at noon. They went right through the town and on to the coast, finally stopping about eight miles west of Mersa. Most of the drivers made straight for the sea to cool off. At 6 p.m. they got orders to move again, back to Matruh; for by then the Division, which had expected to operate farther west, was scheduled to garrison the fortress. After the usual shovelling around our platoon found a spot to settle and eventually turned in—at 11.30 p.m. In the morning they off-loaded Divisional Artillery at a point two miles away, then moved to an area of their own, ready once again to operate under orders from Company Headquarters.
These orders were delivered personally on the 23rd by the OC, who informed 2 Platoon that they would be joining the rest of the Company that afternoon at Smugglers' Cove. After that the platoon was to take its 30-cwt tip-trucks back to Amiriya, where they would be replaced by three-tonners. Loading for the eastbound convoy was detailed as follows:
16 × 30 cwts to 10/11 South African Field Ambulance.
4 × 30 cwts to 6 NZ Brigade Band.
4 × 30 cwts to 4 NZ Brigade Band.
Meanwhile, No. 1 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Sam Burkitt, had uplifted troops of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment at their headquarters in Syria on 19 June, and four days later this convoy also was moving up towards Matruh. Burkitt states that he found progress difficult on that sector because of the large volume of traffic then moving both ways. His convoy reached Matruh at 6 p.m. on 23 June, only to meet with further difficulty there in quitting his load of gunners so that he could return as ordered to Company Headquarters. For Petrol Company officers knew that every available vehicle would soon be needed for supplying POL to the Division.
‘A/Tk moved to an incorrect location’, Burkitt states, ‘and then on to a still further incorrect location. Pending verification of correct area my vehicles remained loaded despite the urgent necessity of our returning to our own unit. This was straightened out towards midnight and we returned to our Company area at Smugglers' Cove.’
Thus by 24 June the bulk of Petrol Company, with the exception of Workshops which had remained at El Daba, was together again at Smugglers' Cove. After reveille at 4.30 and breakfast at 5.30 on a fine cool morning, the operating vehicles proceeded to their various allotted tasks. No. 1 Platoon, like No. 2, was to return its 30-cwt tip-trucks to Amiriya and exchange them for three-tonners. Loading for 1 Platoon's eastward journey included British troops from the Matruh leave and transit camp to establish a new L and T Camp at Fuka; nurses and their equipment for Alex; and wounded men evacuated from 58 General Hospital.
Company Headquarters, with vehicles and personnel not on detail, lined up in convoy at 6 a.m. ready to move back to Daba. The road was still thick with transport being cleared out from Matruh, and the convoy was soon split up. The first vehicles reached Daba at 9.55 a.m. By noon all had settled down in the new area five miles farther east, and about one mile from the coast, where Workshops were already in occupation. Three of the Company's tip-trucks, carrying the Divisional Provost Company from Syria, had not yet reported page 200 in; so three 3-ton HQ lorries were unloaded and despatched to intercept the missing vehicles, which were to be off-loaded and directed back to Amiriya.
On Thursday, 25 June, the men still in camp at Daba were glad of the opportunity to sleep in—until 7 a.m.—after their strenuous time since leaving Syria. During the day parties were sent to the beach for a swim, with armed lookouts posted and a special watch for enemy aircraft; and this refreshing dip was also most welcome. But the day was no easy one for Petrol Company's OC. At 12.45 p.m. Major Forbes received orders to report to Headquarters Command NZASC, urgently. He left for Matruh almost right away. There, at a conference with Colonel Crump and other officers, he was ‘told pretty shortly that the Division was moving out to the Desert, to waylay the German Army—or at any rate, to delay it. My transport, for a complete re-equipment of the Company, plus replacements for ambulances, water carts and ASC vehicles for other units, was already starting to roll in. Some were driven by Base personnel, and all were loaded with ammunition. I expected about 180 new vehicles, all told.
‘Crump handed over a long screed and said: “There's the distribution list. I'm off”. Then away he went with the Division, and that was the last I saw of him for about a week. In the meantime Supply Coy had arrived. Both Pryde and I were left with a wireless set—which we didn't know too much about. The idea was that the Colonel would call us up from wherever he was and let us know what to do whenever the companies were in a position to do it.
‘Nothing could be done by Pet Coy until the new vehicles arrived. But it was obvious we'd need men to drive the trucks, and petrol to refuel them. Also, large quantities of POL would certainly be required by the Division for whatever it was doing out there in the blue. The position in Matruh was deteriorating fast—but by rummaging around we managed to get some petrol from a dump, which was then being prepared for demolition. The next thing was the men. But they were back at Daba, nearly 90 miles away. So, late though it was, I shot back and routed out the Company—at about 2 a.m. We pulled out all available drivers and piled them onto some page 201 10-ton Lancias which we'd picked up in our travels, then hooled back up to Smugglers Cove, where we arrived about daybreak.
‘I then found to my horror that Pryde had got a message to move Div Supply out into the Desert.4 He had his Company almost complete, with his trucks drawing supplies from 14 BSD in Matruh. My vehicles were still just trickling in from base, and most of them were chocked up with ammunition. But it was obvious to me that the essential thing for the Division now was both the ammunition and the petrol; and about then I got a message to say that Div required Pet Coy to send it 40 3-tonners fully loaded with POL—about 25,600 gallons—by next day!’
Back at Company Headquarters, problems of a different kind were being tackled by Captain Torbet. As Officer-in- Charge Divisional Petrol Company Workshops, he was responsible for the distribution of all the new ASC vehicles— now arriving in dribs and drabs, and mostly cluttered up with ammo. His issue schedules, complete with WD numbers running to the usual six or eight figures, are summarised as follows:
|Unit||Three tonners||Water lorries||15-cwt AA vehicles||Bantams||Ambulances|
|4 Fd Amb||14||2||–|
|5 Fd Amb||4||2||–||I|
|6 Fd Amb||13||2||–|
|HQ Pro Coy||6|
With Second-Lieutenant Kennerley and Corporal Clifford,5 Torbet had been sent back to the Canal Zone to see to the handing over of the 30-cwt tip-trucks at 10 VRD. This had to be completed by the night of Wednesday, 24 June, since the page 202 vehicles were needed on the following day for an urgent and special job by Headquarters Middle East Force. That meant much shuffling of loads and drivers at Alexandria and Amiriya under supervision of the Company's NCOs, while platoon officers went back with the emptied vehicles to 10 VRD. Torbet's team returned to Company Headquarters, Daba, at 9 a.m. on 26 June, and were immediately confronted with a distribtion tangle of no small magnitude.
At that stage Divisional Supply Company, besides carrying rations, was also carting water for the now mobile Division, assisted by a platoon of 6 RMT Company. But some vehicles from that platoon were on loan to 4 NZ Field Ambulance; thus it was imperative that fourteen three-tonners be issued immediately to 4 Field Ambulance so that the RMT platoon could get on with the now highly important job of carting water. To expedite matters, the voucher system, with its WD numbers and other complicating details was scrapped and the vehicles issued on an ad hoc basis. Petrol Company, also, stood in urgent need of new vehicles, since it was required to send the Division forty loaded trucks on the following day. In the meantime, a small Petrol Company detachment under Captain Latimer was put under command of Divisional Supply Company to meet the Division's immediate requirements of POL.
There was also the problem of quitting the ammunition, which threatened to gum up the work of vehicle distribution. Divisional Ammunition Company took delivery of all they needed to complete their second-line requirements, and the remainder was sent on to Divisional Artillery's Rear HQ at Matruh. Besides that, Torbet had to contend with a clutter of water carts, motor-cycles, ambulances, PUs, and so forth, now piling up on Petrol Company's doorstep. In the midst of all this was the OC's concern to get his forty Petrol Company trucks (he actually managed to get 42) cleared, manned and loaded with POL for the Division.
‘To do that’, Forbes recalls, ‘it was a case of all hands and the cook working like niggers. Sam Burkitt was to take this convoy, comprising No. 1 Platoon plus two sections of No. 2, to build up Rod Latimer's detachments. By 1500 hrs on June 26 the convoy was ready, and had set up its HQ east of page 203 Div Amn Coy on the Smugglers’ Cove Road. The drivers had orders to change oil, refuel, and stand by to load POL. But where to get that POL was the question! No instructions were available from HQ Comd NZASC, which was away with HQ NZ Div; so I called on S and T, 10 Corps—only to be told that the New Zealand Division was now under 13 Corps, whose location was not known!
‘By now I was being very considerably badgered by the British Command in Matruh, who insisted that I get out. Demolitions had already commenced, and shells were falling in the town. I was told that a lot of the ammunition which had been brought up was to be dumped on the beach and destroyed. At last I found a sizeable dump of petrol, in charge of a Tommy officer, complete with pistol, who was about to blow it up. Some hot words passed between us—but in the end I got the petrol. Burkitt's trucks were filled, and all the other vehicles, as fast as they could be cleared of ammunition. I then returned to Amn Coy where I found vehicle issues proceeding well.
‘Things were now getting so hot in Matruh, with the rapid approach of the enemy, that I decided to move all that was left of Pet Coy, plus the unissued vehicles, back to Company HQ at Daba. Some stray men were found as drivers for a number of the trucks, and these were despatched, with the balance to follow later. The motor-cycles, being without riders, were shoved into ambulances. I got out with the “tail-enders” towards dusk, and hot-footed it down the road to Daba. There were alarms and excursions on the way: the road, as far as Fuka, was bombed and straffed, and we were shelled quite heavily from the escarpment. All trucks came in loaded with petrol, plus, I believe, a quantity of “unofficial stores”— canned beer, cigarettes, tobacco—from the Mersa Matruh NAAFI, which was then being demolished, along with supplies of every description. We reached Daba at 2315 hrs, and I immediately sent Bill Washbourn back to Matruh with 20 men to uplift the balance of the trucks and return them to the Company area.’
Washbourn's party had a hectic time, and were lucky, in fact, to return at all. Their loads included a truckful of camel tanks—large water containers—which proved invaluable during subsequent treks around the arid desert.page 204
In the prevailing scheme of wholesale demolitions the El Daba NAAFI also ‘went up’, though not before it had been well done over by enterprising members of Petrol Company. And when, at the height of things, Lieutenant Burkitt innocently entered, all unaware of what was going on, one driver sold him a bottle of whisky, in a brisk, across-the- counter transaction quite satisfactory to all concerned.6
While all this was happening the ‘front-line’ war had been moving fast and far. But of such swift movements and their momentous consequences, Petrol Company, from its OC downward, knew nothing.
Before the Division went to Syria our GOC was convinced that Eighth Army would ‘get into a mess in the Western Desert’ because of its policy of splitting up divisions into brigade groups. Corps battles, the GOC held, not brigade-group battles, should be fought against the Germans. And now that the struggle for Egypt had begun, Freyberg considered that one really hearty blow was all that was needed to put the enemy off his balance and Eighth Army on top again. ‘But’, writes J. L. Scoullar in the New Zealand official war history of this campaign, ‘the idea was not put to the test. Last-minute changes in the British plans reduced, if they did not eliminate, the chances of giving a knockout blow. Indecisive, spiritless command on the day of battle made its delivery impossible.’7
The enemy had crossed the Egyptian frontier on 24 June. Eighth Army, falling back towards Mersa Matruh, hoped to make a stand there, on a line extending south to Sidi Hamza, with the New Zealanders, as we have seen, occupying the Matruh fortress area. But no sooner had our 4 and 5 Brigade Groups taken up their positions than the plan was changed. To the great relief of our GOC, who disagreed with this use of a highly trained and mobile Division, then the equal in numbers and fire power of any two other infantry divisions in the Western Desert, orders came on the 24th to prepare to move again, out into the desert.page 205
Under this new directive, 4 and 5 NZ Brigade Groups were replaced in Matruh by 10 Indian Division, which, with 50 Division and other elements now formed 10 Corps. Our troops passed to the command of 13 Corps, under General Gott. Their task was to protect the southern flank of the Matruh-Hamza line, operating in a mobile role from positions on the escarpment at Minqar Qaim. The two brigade groups accordingly moved south on 25 and 26 June. Sixth Brigade Group had been ordered back to Amiriya to act as a reserve; one company from each of the seven battalions in the other two brigades was also LOB.
This move south put a heavy strain on NZASC. Even with the number of troops thus reduced, it was hard to find enough transport to get the Division mobile. Both the 4 and 6 Reserve MT Companies had been engaged taking LOB personnel and unwanted equipment to the rear. On their return they were immediately pressed into service again, along with all trucks that could be spared from the ‘surplus’ units. Even then, fifty vehicles had to be borrowed from 10 Indian Division and others were supplied by Eighth Army. Divisional Supply Company collected and filled 10,000 water containers and worked flat out to build up a three-day food reserve to be carried by the Division, while at the same time making the normal daily issues. From the commencement of the move the daily water ration was to be three-quarters of a gallon per man for all purposes, including cooking, vehicle radiators and anti-tank guns—unless potable wells or cisterns could be found. The brigades also carried enough POL for 200 miles, and first-line supplies of ammunition.
On the first night of the move, 25-26 June, General Auchinleck himself assumed direct command of Eighth Army. He decided that Matruh, from its situation and the forces available, could not be held as a fortress; so he issued orders for a mobile battle to be fought on the Matruh-Hamza line, with orders for Eighth Army to fall back on the Alamein line if necessary to avoid being overwhelmed by the enemy. Under this plan the large dumps of POL and other military stores in Matruh would have to be carried back or demolished, hence the confusion our ASC elements encountered there.page 206
On 26 June the enemy struck at the centre of the Matruh-Hamza line, between 10 Corps to the north and 13 Corps, including the New Zealanders, to the south. Next day our positions at Minqar Qaim were by-passed by large forces, which could be clearly observed moving eastward out of range to our north. The enemy then developed an encircling movement and attacked from the north, the east, and the south. These attacks were held—much to the enemy's surprise, since he was still unaware of the identity of the Minqar Qaim defenders and expected this force, like the rearguards he had recently encountered, to quickly fold up.
Nevertheless, with our positions surrounded, our supply- lines cut, and the artillery running short of ammunition, there was only one alternative to complete annihilation. A break-out must be attempted. General Gott, commanding 13 Corps, had already told Freyberg ‘to sidestep if necessary and not to regard the ground which he was at present holding as vital’.8 So, in a daring night operation which featured a surprise bayonet attack by 19, 20 and 28 (Maori) Battalions, the Division broke clear. In this action—brilliantly successful despite a number of misadventures—our troops caught the redoubtable Africa Corps napping and inflicted severe casualties. Our own losses, too, were quite considerable; but the Division escaped intact as a fighting force, and more than ready to battle on. By the afternoon of 28 June it had reassembled in the Kaponga Box, a fortress in the Alamein line, where it calmly waited for Rommel to catch up.
Divisional Petrol Company took no active part in the dramatic Minqar Qaim episode, though some from Divisional Supply Company, Divisional Ammunition, and other ASC units were involved, a number of them becoming casualties, others winning decorations for gallantry. Elements of our own Company to come nearest to the fighting were Latimer's and Burkitt's detachments which had been left behind in Mersa Matruh with the Divisional Supply Company under Major Pryde's command when Forbes and the others went back to El Daba. By seven o'clock that night (26 June) Matruh was practically deserted. All English troops had left the town and page 207 ‘there was an uneasy atmosphere everywhere, to which a nearby Bofors crew contributed with the information that they were in an anti-tank role, protecting the road running past the camp’.9
Back in his Company HQ at Smugglers' Cove, Major Pryde of Divisional Supply Company was in a quandary. He had instructions to await orders from Command NZASC concerning the disposal of his Matruh detachments; but his Divisional Signals operators were unable to raise either Main or Rear Division. Should he withdraw, without orders, and thus risk the stigma of desertion of duty? Or should he remain and be captured? At 2.30 a.m. on 27 June he pulled his No. 5 Platoon out of the town and at 4 a.m. called a conference of officers. One reported seeing flares near Garawla, south-east of Matruh; and throughout the night heavy gunfire was heard, which appeared to be drawing constantly nearer. Shells were lobbing into the fortress itself.
At 10 a.m. news was received that Petrol Company detachment's AA truck had been involved in a collision with an Indian vehicle, resulting in the death of Lance-Sergeant C. E. Hardaker, and injuries to Drivers H. A. Billing,10 S. Fraser,11 and B. U. Stanger. Sergeant Hardaker was buried in the British military cemetery near Matruh, attended by a small party from Divisional Supply Company, and with Padre Holland12 officiating.
During the morning Pryde sent Corporal Burgess13 south to the Minqar Qaim area, looking for Colonel Crump. Contact was made about midday, and the Colonel instructed that Pryde be ready to move immediately, but that he was to await a signal. In the meantime word reached Matruh that the road to the east had been cut, at Qasaba. Captain Latimer was sent to check on this report. He found the road still open, but with the enemy only seven miles from it. A Hussars page 208 regiment appeared to be offering the only opposition. Pryde immediately decided to move. Soon afterwards a radio- telephone message was received instructing him to do so, and to carry replenishments for the Division to a rendezvous with Major Bracegirdle, the senior supply officer, at Sidi Haneish.
Like Forbes, Pryde had had the foresight to uplift everything he could from the Matruh dumps before they were demolished. So, when his convoy moved off, under perfect discipline, at 2 p.m., it carried two days' rations for the Division besides 30,000 gallons of petrol and a good supply of ammunition and water. Most of these were left on wheels with Bracegirdle at Sidi Haneish, while the rest of the Supply Company and its attachments, including some Petrol Company vehicles under Captain Latimer, moved to a point 20 miles south of Fuka, arriving at 10.30 p.m.
At 6.30 p.m. that same day the trucks carrying water, ammunition, and rations set out under Captain Morris14 of Divisional Supply Company to find Rear Division, which had taken up a position 17 miles due east from Minqar Qaim. The Petrol Company trucks, now numbering 26, under command of Second-Lieutenant Burkitt, had already departed for the same destination some two hours earlier. Burkitt recalls: ‘Major Bracegirdle directed me on a bearing of 215 degrees for a distance of some 12 miles. After traversing about 16 miles I found Rear Div. Then, with the Supply, Water and Amn detachments, which had joined us, we moved at 2130 hrs on a bearing five miles south and four miles werst to establish a replenishment area—with personnel standing by for an immediate move if that should become necessary. There was much bombing in the neighbourhood, and much activity on our western flank that evening. Towards dawn an artillery officer reported that our zone was not a particularly healthy one.’
This, of course, is a classic understatement. The ‘activity’ on Burkitt's western flank that night was nothing less than the breakout from Minqar Qaim. And Burkitt's zone now lay square in the path of the Division's retreat, and the hot pursuit which Jerry was sure to lay on that morning. What the page 209 artillery officer actually reported was that the Division had been ambushed and cut up, and was now scattered all over the desert!
Stragglers, presumably from the scattered 5 Brigade column, began to drift through at 5 a.m. with alarming stories of being the sole survivors of the New Zealand Division. It was impossible to obtain accurate information from them, and Morris went off in search of Rear Division for further orders. All he could find at its location of the previous night were a few tanks of 1 Armoured Division.15
While Morris was away, Rear Division sent a signal ordering the whole convoy to move to a point 20 miles due east. The Petrol Company detachment took off at 8 a.m., laagered at the appointed place, and had breakfast. Burkitt then went to contact Rear Division, which was in the same area. But he found all transport in the locality moving out rapidly. ‘I noted a number of tanks coming over an escarpment some four miles north-west’, he says, ‘but could not be certain whether they were ours. On returning to my vehicles I found that they had already begun to move with everyone else. I eventually located them with the exception of one or two which became mixed up with the Amn Coy, and at approximately 1600 hrs we arrived at a location south of Fuka where I contacted Rear Div HQ. Later in the evening we moved again, with Div Amn Coy, to a more dispersed area.’
Next morning (29 June) at 8.30 the detachment moved another ten miles north and established a petrol point, doing very brisk business with our battalions and the artillery. Burkitt's load of 17,000 gallons was exhausted by 2 p.m. and demands were still being made. He was unable to obtain any information as to where to secure fresh supplies, nor did he know the whereabouts of Company HQ. ‘So’, states Burkitt, ‘I despatched a message to Capt Latimer for the POL held by him—at which juncture an L of C officer arrived and asked if I could direct him to where he had to take his load of 68,000 gallons of petrol!’
Burkitt drew about 15,000 gallons from this consignment to meet urgent requirements. Later Captain Latimer arrived, page 210 bringing enough POL for all Divisional needs. Next day the empty Petrol Company vehicles pulled out, and Latimer led them back to the area occupied by Company HQ.
This group, with Workshops, had spent 27 June at El Daba— a hot day, made more unbearable by hordes of flies. Whoever occupied the area previously had not been too fussy about its cleanliness. All ranks had a bathe in the Mediterranean, and apart from some aerial activity the day was quiet. News of Claude Hardaker's death came through, causing general regret, for he was a popular and efficient NCO.
Captain Washbourn's party had made a safe return from their midnight dash to Matruh, bringing back the new vehicles intact, despite much activity by enemy aircraft which bombed over a wide area and machine-gunned the road. Workshops spent most of the next day checking over the vehicles, which were then issued to drivers. On 28 June Petrol Company's war diary notes:
Flies damnable. Major Forbes and CSM Cooper proceeded to contact Div HQ, and left word to pack as far as possible to allow for moving at short notice. Returned at midday and gave orders to move at 1515 hrs. 2/Lt Kennerley proceeded ahead to Amiriya with 10 × 3 ton and 1 Water lorry for 6 NZ Fd Amb.
Left Daba for Alamein 1515 hrs after stay at Daba marred only by lack of news, flies and enemy aerial activity. The road was packed with transport moving back. No incidents en route, and arrived at new area, 16 miles south of Alamein turn-off at 2005 hrs. Made camp for night. Some enemy air activity, mostly during early part of night, when bombs were dropped adjacent to camp and an ammunition lorry set on fire, the blaze bringing other planes which discharged their loads, much to our discomfort. Information reached us later that during this raid the Sup Coy canteen truck had been hit with resultant casualties.
That night a group of Petrol Company other ranks from Captain Latimer's detachment had a narrow escape. They, too, had congregated round Supply Company's canteen truck, listening to a BBC news broadcast. They were just walking back to their own lines when the raid commenced. The detachment's vehicles were immediately ordered out into the desert for wider dispersal, but this move was hampered by the presence of a minefield. While moving his own truck, Lance-Corporal Baldwin heard a voice from the darkness, blas- page 211 phemously proclaiming the owner's inability to get his so-and- so vehicle started.
Baldwin ordered his ‘2 i/c’ (Driver Sisson16) to take his own vehicle away while he, Baldwin, sprinted over to help the driver-in-distress. But their combined efforts, between bomb-blasts, failed to get the motor ticking. Just then Dick Curtis,17 also making a late run for safety, came zooming by, was stopped, and asked to take the jibbing truck on tow.
‘This was done’, says Baldwin, ‘and we carried on for a mile or so, until Sgt “Darkie” Aitken18 suddenly hopped out of the darkness in front, and told us we were heading straight for the minefield. He advised us to bed down beside him for the night, and boosted our morale with a cupful of rum. Next day we discovered that the recalcitrant truck had been “fuelled” with a jerrican of water—a not uncommon error in those days, when petrol and water came in similar containers.’
Lionel Stubbs also had a remarkable experience. As a Mechanist Corporal he had in his bivvy the carburettor from Driver Bloomfield's truck. When the dispersal order came he made a beeline for Bloomfield's vehicle to replace the missing part. But Bloomfield, he found, had already driven the truck away—minus its carburettor! The only explanation which could be found was that when the starter-motor operated, it shot some petrol from the open petrol pipe directly into the open engine manifold.
The war diary continues:
June 29: 0700 hrs Reville. Heavy ground mist. Four planes parked at side of our area took off at 0830 hrs. Major Forbes proceeded to HQ Comd NZASC, who had moved in nearby previous evening. On return instructed that Coy would move to new area at 1300 hrs, a distance of about 5 miles. Move carried out according to schedule, and made new camp in Wadi close to Fortress A. Excellent camp site, with ample room for dispersion, good surface, and good digging (the latter a consideration much appreciated, for even the bravest does not abhor his ‘funk-hole’ now).
June 30: Warm, clear morning. Lt Browne returned from PT course at Sarafand. Part of No 1 Pl, under 2/Lt Burkitt, returned to page 212 Coy from detachment. No 2 Pl left for Hammam to load POL. Order received 1445 hrs to move at 1530 hrs, following Sup Coy. Moved out on schedule, in a SE direction. Waited on edge of Amn Coy area for Sup Coy to move, but it was 1610 hrs before their final trucks left area. By this time several convoys were on the track and our move was delayed to allow these to get clear, as our joining in would only impede the progress on the already congested track. A dust storm also arose which made matters even worse. Moved at 1650, part up a wadi. Going very soft, and several vehicles already stuck on steep slope out of wadi. Once up the slope, the going became better, and in places rocky, though at one point soft going was again met, and several 2-wheel drive vehicles became stuck. After covering about 18 miles Sup Coy who were leading, stopped, and on inquiries being made it was found they were off their correct course. Following a short conference, it was decided to camp for night, as it was dusk, and move to correct position on 1 July. Capt Torbet and Cpl Aitken proceeded to Amiriya. Evacuated 30 cwt Fordson and 3 ton Bedford 2 × 4.
Next day the correct locations were found and occupied. This last move had been made to conform with a transfer of 4 and 5 Brigades from the Kaponga (or Qattara) Box to Deir el Munassib, a depression about nine miles to the south-east, from which area mobile columns could operate in defence of the fortress approaches. The headquarters of the three ASC companies, Ammunition, Supply and Petrol, together with Rear Division, set up a bivouac area some 12 miles farther east. Sixth Brigade remained in the Kaponga Box, which it had occupied throughout the previous few days.
4 Only part of Supply Company moved out.
6 Bill Washbourn recalls that some months later he noticed two German prisoners on one of his trucks, wearing British KD shorts and shirts. When he asked them where they had got this rig-out, they replied, ‘From the same place, probably, that you got yours—the Officers' Shop at El Daba’.
9 P. W. Bates, Supply Company, p. 208.
15 Bates, op. cit., pp. 215–16.