CHAPTER 2 — Wavell's Campaign
EGYPT in February 1940 was a long way from any theatre of operations. But Hitler's Axis partner, Mussolini, had troops in Cyrenaica and a dependable barrier was needed to protect the Suez Canal. Although there was no immediate enemy, there was serious purpose behind the New Zealanders' training and equipping.
The first consignment of trucks and motor cycles—on loan from the RASC—was issued to Supply Column the day after its arrival at Maadi, and the men settled down to accustom themselves to their tented camp on the fringe of the desert. In those early days the few huts were cookhouses, messrooms and canteens.
Training, which commenced in earnest on 19 February, included to the general dismay of the long-suffering men a continuation of parade-ground drill, with the added complication of keeping a rifle clean in a country where fine dust would parcel it up as it stood overnight in the tent.
One of the earliest tasks was the ‘peaceful penetration’ of an RASC depot. Early training in New Zealand had given members of supply details only a book knowledge of their work and they had contemplated with some trepidation the prospect of establishing a base supply depot for 4 Brigade. Their relief was profound when they found they were to take over an established depot. For two months RASC clerks, issuers and storemen worked beside the New Zealanders until, with some modification of system, things were working smoothly.
To all intents and purposes the depot worked almost on a civilian basis, but of course the issue of goods did not entail cash transactions. The accounting system was involved and its mastery took far longer than the manual task of handling and issuing large quantities of foodstuffs. Tinned foods formed the bulk of early issues, but fresh food, which saved shipping space and was better for the troops' health, page 11 was used in larger quantities as contracts came into operation. Local contracts for fresh vegetables, fruit and eggs were drawn up and approved when the depot commenced operations under Second-Lieutenant Quirk.1 On the accounting side these contracts operated admirably, and all accounts submitted to the financial adviser and auditor were returned without a single observation or qualification.page break
In achieving fulfilment of contracts, however, the New Zealanders quickly learned that in Egyptian business all is fair that is not detected. Stones in the bottom of sacks and crates, and good quality goods stacked on top of those of inferior quality were among the tricks practised, and it took limitless patience to impress on the vendors that Tuesday was not a substitute for Monday, that lettuces would not do in place of cabbages, and that a specified weight was not something a little less.
One stratagem was far from original but highly successful for a while. A donkey train invariably delivered fresh, crisp spinach and was rewarded with unstinted praise. Soon, however, substantial and repeated discrepancies were noted between the amount received and that issued to units. An investigation disclosed that on approaching the depot the vendor halted his donkeys while he drenched his spinach in a nearby well, which incidentally had been condemned as impure. The absorbed water weighed to the vendor's advantage, but dried out by the time the spinach was issued.
This side of the Column's operations, covered by the general term ‘supply’, was of course the chief reason for the unit's existence, but far from covered its entire responsibility, for as a more or less self-contained unit its work fell into two distinct sections: supply and transport. During these early days the work was mainly static, but in the mobile warfare that lay ahead success depended as much on getting the food where it was wanted as on the unit's ability to apportion it out.
So while supply details were settling into depot duties, drivers were mastering the ways of desert transportation and NCOs the intricacies of desert navigation with prismatic page 12 and sun compasses. On hard, stony ground it was all straight going, but in the soft sand the two-wheel-drive Morris and Bedford trucks bedded down comfortably and moved on with great reluctance. A high standard of driving was quickly attained, however.
New trucks were arriving, and at intervals during March, April and May men were sent to Port Said and Alexandria to drive them back to a vehicle reception depot at Abbassia, where they were equipped with tools, wheel chains, sand mats and trays. Spare tires, which were to be so desperately needed in the desert, were supplied when available. At this time there was one to every ten trucks.
One drive from Alexandria to Abbassia was memorable. The convoy battled through a violent sandstorm and arrived at the reception depot with most of the paint sand-blasted off one side of the vehicles.
Thus training and equipping went on. Courses in motor transport and supply duties were held at Moascar, on the Canal, and at Abbassia mechanics were given trade tests. During April drivers took part in a three-day exercise held by 4 Brigade at El Saff.
Gradually a complete establishment of vehicles, including those for the anticipated Second Echelon, was accumulated. As vehicles were received—mainly Bedford 15-cwts and three-ton models, with a sprinkling of Fordson 15-cwts, Humber staff cars, Austin 8s and motor cycles—they were checked and serviced by Workshops Section.
Concurrent with this attainment of preparedness, world events were moving to a climax. During May the German forces were sweeping the Allies back across France. Then, on 10 June, when France was beaten and Britain apparently on the brink of defeat, Italy entered the war.
The peaceful aspect of the New Zealanders' life in Egypt disappeared. On the day Italy declared war Supply Column dispersed its vehicles over a previously arranged area, and next day it dug slit trenches. On the 12th two 30-cwt trucks were despatched with loads of high explosive for 2 Squadron, Royal Engineers, thought to be at Garawla, south-east of Mersa Matruh. The squadron had moved, however, and the trucks went on to Buq Buq, returning to Maadi on the 15th page 13 after covering 950 miles in an almost continuous run. This was the start. During June, July and August 4 Brigade was engaged in digging second-line defences at Garawla, and Supply Column shuttled battalions to and from the Western Desert. On 20 July vehicles were sent to a secret destination under cover of darkness: to establish a dump south of El Alamein—an obscure little place of no apparent significance.
The Column's first fully active part in the preparation to defend Egypt was to send a detachment of ninety-six other ranks to Mersa Matruh to relieve A Section, 4 RMT Company, which had been there for over two months. The detachment left Maadi on 14 August and on arrival immediately began convoy duties to Sidi Barrani.
It was a very quiet war, still. The front was silent, and the Italian Air Force never worried the Supply Column detachment. Savoias passed overhead to bomb Mersa Matruh, however, and once—on 23 August—a convoy on its way to Sidi Barrani saw fighters attacking a British tank.
The detachment's work was normal second and third-line transport duties that took it west to Sidi Barrani and east to Baggush. Supplies were carried for English, Indian, Palestinian, Cypriot and Egyptian troops, and occasionally reinforcements were taken up to the line and leave parties brought back to Matruh.
The detachment's only casualty during this time came not from enemy action but from a collision. On 23 August the detachment commander, Captain Taylor,2 Second-Lieutenant Hastie,3 and the adjutant of 4 RMT Company (Lieutenant Butterfield4), were returning from an Egyptian Army mess where they had been guests, when there was an almost head-on collision with an Egyptian load-carrier. Taylor received serious injuries necessitating his discharge from the Army as unfit.
There was a sequel to this accident. Early the following morning the wrecked car was found by Supply Column men returning from Sidi Barrani, and in time-honoured army page 14 fashion it was ‘ratted’ of battery, tools and upholstered seats. Unfortunately the seats were recognised the same day by Lieutenant Butterfield—whose only comment was, ‘Making it a bit thick, aren't you?’—and as the staff car driver was being court-martialled all articles had to be returned.
Back at Maadi, meanwhile, preparations were under way for a move to Daba, and on 4 September the Mersa Matruh detachment returned to the unit. Two days later an ASC reorganisation was effected. For operations in the Western Desert Supply Column was reduced to eight officers and 170 other ranks. The remaining three officers and 109 other ranks were amalgamated with one officer and twenty-seven other ranks of Petrol Company to form a composite ASC unit for base duties. The next day what was left of the Column moved out for Daba.
Supply Column at last was beginning to catch up with the war; obligingly the war came to meet it half-way. Four days after the Column reached the Western Desert Marshal Graziani's forces invaded Egypt.
The Italian forces, numerically far stronger than General Wavell's small army, came across the border on 13 September, three months after the Italian declaration of war, and as the British forces drew back penetrated into Egypt. At Sidi Barrani Graziani halted and began to dig in, and the situation in the Western Desert again became static. The enemy's intention was assumed to be a drive on the Suez Canal, but except for a tensely watched reconnaissance in force that moved forward 15 miles, no major move was made by the invader.
For the next three months, while General Wavell planned his counter-stroke, light British forces made sorties deep into Italian-held territory and harassed enemy positions.
The main body of Supply Column, consisting of eight officers and 170 other ranks, left Maadi on 7 September in a convoy of sixty-four trucks and thirty-four motor cycles. The yellow trucks rolled west along the desert road, reaching Daba the next day, and in typical desert style the unit went to earth near the coast. Abu Haggag became supply railhead page 15 on 20 September when the Column, with headquarters still at Daba, set up a DID (detail issue depot) there and from it supplied 4 Brigade, in a second-line defensive position at Baggush, and nearby British units.
The Column's first assignment of importance after its arrival in the desert was to transport 6000 gallons of petrol and 360 gallons of oil to Siwa, where 1 King's Royal Rifles was stationed. This was a modest enough task by later standards, but as one of the Column's earliest long cross-country runs under the security conditions of a war zone, it was of some significance in the moulding of the unit's competence. It contained a lesson no future transport officers should ignore. Supply Column learned it at the cost of its first casualty from enemy action.
Secrecy in these days was carried to the extreme of leaving the convoy drivers in ignorance of their destination—a sound enough general principle in theory. But in practice this is what happened.
There were fifteen vehicles in the convoy when it moved off on the morning of 22 September under the OC, Major E. J. Stock. The intention was to bypass Matruh, but at the gap in the fortress perimeter the convoy became entangled with an RASC convoy also heading westwards. When the confusion was cleared, Stock found he had only three trucks. The rest had gone on to Matruh and, though they weren't to know it, to their baptism of fire.
Stock despatched the three trucks through the eastern defences and, leaving Sergeant-Major Pullen to direct any further vehicles that might come through, went in pursuit of the rest of his convoy. He had just found and assembled the wayward trucks when fifty Italian aircraft droned overhead, very high. At a nearby railway crossing a train chuffed by while motor trucks waited for it to pass. It was the type of cluster airmen dream of, and the bombs came whistling down. From the safety of their high altitude, the Italian bombardiers were erratic in their aim, but there was an uncomfortable few minutes while the bombs erupted into billows of smoke and dust. When it was all over one Supply Column truck was out of commission and Stock wounded. page 16 A nearby RASC 15-cwt was blown up and its three occupants killed.
Major Stock was taken to hospital, and the command of the convoy passed to Second-Lieutenant Dill,5 of 19 Battalion, who was in charge of an escort detachment detailed to protect the convoy from any hostile bedouin. Dill took the trucks to the Siwa Track, where they were joined before dark by the other three. The complete convoy moved south and laagered for the night under the escarpment fringing the Siwa Track, and continued southwards in the morning. The convoy reached the oasis of Siwa after passing through a deep ravine, and saw in the last glow of sunlight a vista of two still lakes rimmed by thousands of date palms and olive, pomegranate and fig trees.
Captain Davis6 and Sergeant-Major Pullen, who had left Baggush at eleven o'clock that morning, arrived in time to see the load delivered. The next afternoon, after a pleasant swim in Cleopatra's Pool, the convoy set out on the return journey. Daba was reached the following day (25 September).
Captain I. E. Stock assumed temporary command of the unit on 12 November.
For the next two months the Column was mainly engaged in third-line transport work, involving clearance of supplies, petrol and ammunition in addition to daily replenishment of its depot at Abu Haggag. There was little variation; on one occasion bombs were taken forward for the Desert Air Force. The road to Mersa Matruh was often congested, and frequently trucks had to use rough desert tracks.
The imminent British attack was a close secret, but in the movements of the Column early in December the shape of things to come could be seen. On 4 December the Column shifted headquarters to Qasaba to take up transport duties in forward areas, and next day it transported ammunition from Qasaba siding to dumps in the desert. On the 6th the unit began general transport work from various railway depots to field service depots (FSDs) west of Matruh.page 17
Three days later the British attack burst over the idle Italians. Sidi Barrani was in British hands on the 10th, and the pursuit was on—to Buq Buq, Halfaya, Sollum and Fort Capuzzo. In a week Egypt was clear of the enemy. Italians scooped into the bag totalled 40,000; British casualties were fewer than 1000, and these were mainly wounded.
The major part of the New Zealand forces ‘sat out’ this operation, but the three NZASC units—Supply Column and Petrol and Ammunition Companies—were drawn in to act as general carriers. Transport was one of the keys to this victory. This was the British Army's first experience of a blitzkrieg—in the right direction—and the swift thrusts put a considerable strain on lines of communication.
Through dust and rain and over atrocious roads and desert tracks, these three New Zealand units, generally known as ‘The Colonial Carrying Company’, kept their sorely tested trucks moving with supplies and earned for themselves a reputation for reliability, willingness and efficiency. How well the job was done is vouched for by the fact that never at any time was there a shortage of essential supplies in Wavell's forces, and though the sole credit for this is far from being theirs, the New Zealanders received special praise from General O'Connor, GOC Western Desert Force.
By 18 December advanced mechanised units were firing on Bardia, but the capture of this strongly fortified position required careful planning and preparation, and no assault was attempted that month.
Behind the army came the supplies, and each step forward brought new problems for the Colonial Carrying Company. On 15 December, six days after the first assault, the field depots were already on the move and had to be found in their new locations. Three Supply Column trucks under Sergeant-Major Pullen had to find 5 FSD on this day without aid of map or compass, and with very little help from men met en route.
Though it might not have occurred to anyone at the time, a new era was opening for Supply Column. The desert, dusty, rough and above all vast, lay before it, a strange desert now, but soon to become familiar.page 18
It was also a new era for drivers—a comfortless era. A Supply Column convoy bouncing across the desert in search of the new location of 6 Ammunition Depot, for which it had two-pounder shells and .303 ammunition, broke front main springs in two 30-cwt trucks and had three blow-outs in rear tires. The convoy commander came home to report: ‘The desert travelling was very rough, and the road Sidi Barrani-Mersa Matruh is in very poor order.’
Except when compelled, trucks rarely went far from the one road, partly because of thermos bombs,7 thoughtfully left by the Italians, and partly because the rough going made time-saving short-cuts costly in wear and tear. But the road itself was no smooth highway. In places the bitumen was completely gone, and it was rutted and dusty. Broken springs and burst tires became daily incidentals of convoy work, and to keep trucks moving was as often a test of improvisation as of driving skill. Spring steel was like gold and tires were almost as rare, and to abandon a broken-down truck was to surrender it forever; by next day it would be found stripped to the chassis.
Even worse than the break-downs was the dust. There was always dust on the road, curling up from the bouncing wheels and closing around the driving cab in fine, choking clouds as the day-long stream of vehicles, following in the same tracks, roared and whined through a yellow pall of their own making. When the khamsin blew—usually for several days on end—the dust became an impenetrable blanket over the whole desert, reddening the eyes, clogging the throat and laying over everything a smooth, yellow coat.
This was the sort of country in which Christmas 1940—the first away from home—was spent. But it wasn't a dull Christmas. The Column gathered at Qasaba, and with the aid of turkey, green peas, cabbage, baked potatoes, plum duff and a bottle of beer plus ten cigarettes and ten piastres a man, whipped up a fine festive spirit. Driver Deaker8 was even forgiven for drinking the brandy intended for the plum pudding.page 19
While his advanced forces stood outside Bardia, General Wavell brought up the reserves that the first easy successes had left intact, and over the closing days of December Supply Column convoys, supplemented by trucks from Petrol and Ammunition Companies, moved 2/7 Australian Battalion forward to a position beyond Halfaya. Although unmolested by the enemy—the Italian Air Force had withdrawn to bases further back and was giving even forward troops little to worry about—these trips were not without their incidents, and rough going, unfamiliar terrain, darkness, and on one occasion the haste of a guide were complicating factors that brought convoys to their destinations short by half a dozen or so vehicles. To relieve the strain on the Bedfords, Italian diesels were pressed into service.
General Wavell began 1941 with a bombardment of Bardia on New Year's Day as a prelude to an attack on the 3rd. Bardia fell on the 5th, and the pursuit was on again. At Tobruk there was another pause while ammunition and supplies were brought forward.
The capture of Sollum had enabled supplies during this build-up period to be shipped through that port, and Supply Column was left in a backwater. It carried mixed loads: rations, petrol, bombs, clothing and ordnance stores. Backloads were invariably Italian prisoners, who, though an encumbrance to the fighting units, were at least useful to drivers. It was a common sight to see Italians changing wheels, fitting new springs, and generally being made to work their passage. Few convoy reports fail to mention delays through poor road surface, broken springs or tire trouble. Though it was winter, dust was still a hindrance, too. Four three-tonners that went to Baggush aerodrome on 16 January to transfer 202 Group RAF to Sollum met a pall of dust that suspended work and held back the convoy until the next day.
And there were other things beside the elements and the road. A picture of what could happen in the desert on a seemingly simple assignment is provided by the travels of a Supply Column three-tonner that went forward to an ordnance depot at Sollum with two howitzer barrels and a scammel tire. The truck cleared the ordnance depot at page 20 Matruh at 11.45 a.m. on 17 January. A blow-out, a broken spring and a dust-storm extended the journey to Sollum into the next day. At Sollum depot there was no way of unloading the howitzer barrels. Delayed still by the sandstorm, it took Driver McDonald9 a day's touring to find someone who could relieve him of the tire and a second day to get rid of the howitzer barrels. But he was still a long way from home. Tobruk was falling, and the army was on the move again, and McDonald had trouble finding someone who had the time to pause and supply him with petrol. With a load of salvage, he returned to Matruh after a five-day round trip.
Attacked on 21 January, Tobruk was captured the following day, and the British forces moved on towards Gazala, thence to Derna. Still away back at Baggush, Western Desert Force Headquarters decided it was time to move, and it was Supply Column, with supplementary trucks from a Petrol Company detachment, that transported it. Force Headquarters moved forward into Libya on 24 January, with Gambut as its intended new location. But this was apparently too timid a move to match the high optimism of the army. When the convoy arrived it was found that Headquarters was to move to Bomba, beyond Gazala and only 40 miles from Derna. Gazala had fallen into British hands only the previous day (the 24th), and British forces were still outside Derna, where the Italians put up a strong defence. Bomba was reached on the 26th, two days before the opening of the attack on Derna.
On the spot when an urgent appeal for petrol was received from the RAAF next day, the New Zealand trucks were sent back to Gazala to pick up supplies and take them forward. That night was spent at Tobruk in drenching rain. Sodden blankets and a broken-down truck didn't provide the best of starts, and the convoy, now laden with prisoners, was late in moving off for the return trip to Egypt. After dropping their cargo at Matruh, the trucks reached camp on 29 January.page 21
Derna fell after three days' fighting, and as the Australians pushed towards Benghazi, General Wavell swung an armoured ‘left hook’ around to Beda Fomm, 60 miles south of Benghazi, and on 5 February intercepted a very surprised enemy. After a lively thirty-six hours the desert looked like a fowlhouse after a terrier has been loose inside. El Agheila, the limit of the advance, was reached next day, and the campaign, Britain's first decisive victory of the war, was over. Wavell's 31,000 men had pushed back something like 180,000 Italians and had taken 133,289 prisoners.
The end of the campaign did not end Supply Column's work. Cold, rain and an occasional flooded road now added to the general discomforts. Battle dress was still unheard of in this part of the world, and Supply Column men were in summer dress. ‘We were damned cold,’ remarks Major Stock with some feeling. The obvious remedy was the acquisition of warmer Italian clothing that had fallen into British hands, and at times the New Zealander's only identification was his grin and his unmistakable vernacular.
The unit was now operating as far as Derna. Although road improvements were being made—a convoy report dated 10 February records with a note of incredulity, ‘Sidi Barrani road is now in lot better condition. Unbroken tar sealing extends to Kilo 61.’—the lift from Qasaba to Derna was considered quite a feat. In some places the road had been heavily mined and when blown was reduced to a rough track for scores of miles. Two convoys went as far as Derna.
The second was the unit's last in this phase of operations. While it was still in Libya, the rest of the unit packed up at Qasaba and on 20 February set off for Maadi. When its vehicles rolled into the camp next day, their occupants, after five months in the Western Desert, presented a startling spectacle to fastidious eyes, for from beneath the bronzed faces peering from the cabs of these battered, dirty trucks were blue-grey Italian uniforms.
At Maadi all this time the composite company of Supply Column and Petrol Company had been attending to base transport needs, and although its life was less arduous than that of its fellows in the desert, it was kept busy. On one assignment, the transfer of an ordnance depot from Abbassia page 22 to Maadi, drivers worked daily from 5 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. Mail and parcels were loads from Tewfik, and on one of these journeys Supply Column suffered its first fatal casualty; a three-tonner ran into a stationary Egyptian petrol wagon in the pitch black, and Driver Elliott10 was killed.
Lessons? Yes, there were plenty of lessons from this first taste of war. They were mainly elementary lessons of what service conditions could be like and of how to overcome the handicaps of inadequate equipment in a place where good equipment might be considered a prime necessity. Workshops Section, for instance, could do little but fitting work. Its workshop was a three-ton truck and its tools were what had been requisitioned from the kits sent out with the Column's trucks.
What Supply Column did not get, of course, was experience in working as part of a division. But this was not far away.
7 An Italian device that looked like a khaki-coloured thermos flask; it was exploded by vibration.