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Infantry Brigadier

2. Youth of a Battalion

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2. Youth of a Battalion

TheDunera was a regular troopship of some 11,000 tons. In the old style, the officers had ample accommodation (mine was luxurious) and more than enough deck space, while the men were crowded in the holds. The other ships were passenger liners not yet converted for trooping and later the Twentieth read with disgust of its luxury voyage to Egypt. For we had guessed right: it was to Egypt we were going; as in the previous war we would doubtless train there, even do some fighting in the vicinity, and then go on to France for the great battles. So it had been and so it would be—more prophetically than I knew—I warned my officers that we would share in a disaster. We shared in four before the tide turned.

Except that it was the first, there was nothing remarkable about our voyage. Remembering that in 1914 one of the troopships of our Main Body, as our first echelon of that war was called, had made an impression by dressing ship when entering Albany, I did the same when entering Fremantle. I doubt if it was noticed though we thought it looked well and were pleased to hear that some wharf labourers approved. The Eighteenth marched from Fremantle to Perth, twelve miles on a hot day, and had many sore feet and stragglers, and we felt superior and wiser in being satisfied with the trains.

There was a gay night in Perth, the first of very many with which it welcomed passing soldiery. A stuffed kangaroo arrived on board somehow and there were no men missing when we sailed; in fact a few extra—Australians.

At Colombo, one private got more drunk than most and tried to kick Ken Manchester, for which he was lucky only to get my first sentence of twenty-eight days' detention. Privates Fowler and Jack were the only absentees when page 9 leave expired and Frank Davis thought I was too softhearted in sending a picket specially for them and then accepting a rather flimsy excuse. Probably I was and have done the same sort of thing only too often.

We crossed the Equator without celebration, had a few parties in the saloon, played an over-ambitious but amusing war game, drilled and had church parades and lectures and boxing contests, sweltered in the black-out, constantly practised boat stations, played deck tennis and quoits (officers only), admired the sunsets, stared endlessly at the convoy, blushed for our poor Dunera, the slowest ship and always being spoken to by the Commodore; there is little to distinguish one such voyage from another. In the Red Sea the rest of the convoy went ahead and on 12 February, five weeks from New Zealand, we anchored in Suez Roads.

There were fewer troops in Egypt than was generally realized, and we were welcome. General Wavell, Sir Miles Lampson, Mr. Eden, and our own General came aboard to greet us and, I hope, felt reassured. On 14 February we entrained, passed through Tel-el-Kebir—so that I completed the circuit begun when I left that dismal spot in 1916—were much interested in the sights later to become so commonplace, and detrained at Maadi, then new to us and little more than desert. The band of the Highland Light Infantry met us and played us into camp: as the step was ninety to the minute we marched very badly and must have upset General Freyberg watching. On a gusty, sandy evening, we settled down in our new home.

Messrs. Fowler and Jack were presumably still in Suez where they had gone ashore without leave.

In those days there were no roads or buildings, store-houses, orderly rooms, messes, canteens, shower-houses, barrack huts, Y.M.C.A., or any other amenities in Maadi. All were building or projected. We settled in quite happily in wretched little ridge tents, and, to our astonishment, suffered from the cold!

The very next day we began with a battalion parade aided by our band with all its eight instruments. At that time it could only play ‘Sussex by the Sea’ and ‘Roll out the Barrel’, page 10 but they were good marching tunes, the companies marched on and off parade better each morning, and battalion parade was an occasion that had its importance and value. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth had no band and no regular battalion parades and seemed to us slower to find themselves in consequence, though I will admit the possibility of prejudice. There was then nothing like the camaraderie between units that in later years became invariable. We got on well with the Nineteenth and the machine-gunners, regarded and were regarded by the Eighteenth with some doubt, thought little of the A.S.C., and were barely aware of Ike Parkinson and the Fourth Field Regiment. The officers of the Nineteenth joined Gezira Club as a mess and spent much of their leisure there; Eighteenth and Twentieth went to the Maadi Club, but for months their officers seldom mixed. Fourth Brigade Headquarters was established on the Hill, soon to be derisively and unfairly known as ‘Bludgers' Hill’. Time rubbed off the corners but it seems to me now that none of the original C.O.s did as much towards building up a divisional spirit as we might have done. Events and the personality of the General did that in due course, and we were perhaps busy enough making our own units.

One of my first problems was to deal with Fowler and Jack, who soon arrived from Suez under escort. Twenty-eight days' detention was indicated. I went up to the Citadel and carried out a personal inspection of the detention centre there. I did not like the Commandant, or the look of the staff, or the food, or the sight of soldiers frantically scrubbing latrine buckets and being stood facing the wall to answer questions, and decided to maintain discipline with as few detention sentences as possible. This may not have been right, and later I became less squeamish, but it worked well enough with the original Twentieth, my first experiment being with friends Fowler and Jack. To the unconcealed concern of Frank Davis, I merely asked whether they proposed to be soldiers and follow the rules, or not. They said they did so intend, and I dismissed the charges. Each kept his word. Jack was killed at Bagush by a dug-out caving in—our first death. Fowler was killed on the last page 11 day in Greece. A few days later Privates McLean and Landoas presumed on this leniency, duly got twenty-eight days, and came out so unrecognizably smart that I was tempted to send the whole battalion in by instalments; but very few so benefited.

We had very little equipment and months passed before we heard of a G. 10981 and started to get a trickle of its components. Ammunition for musketry practices was simply not to be had; in fact Ordnance got indignant when we asked for it. There was plenty of training to be done and ample space, and except that we had to prepare a syllabus for Brigade each week we were not much troubled by our superiors. The General came round but outwardly concerned himself only with our cook-houses and guards. Brigadier Puttick rarely intervened and then on the same lines, and at that stage no more was necessary. We worked hard and made progress. Also we became more comfortable. N.A.A.F.I.s, messes, store-rooms, cook-houses, and shower-rooms were soon erected, though in 1940 we never had better than the original little tents, very crowded and insufferably hot as summer came on.

In March we did our first brigade exercise, some twenty miles away at El Saff. The march out, along the river road past Helwan, with all the flamboyants in blossom, tried us very hard and all three battalions had many stragglers. We thought we had fewest, but too many. The general opinion was that it was a lot farther on foot than by the Brigadier's car, which I have often since noticed to be the case. We had four days out, stormed the battlemented sides of Husain Migalli in a night attack from a taped start-line—a procedure only too familiar later—sweltered in the midday heat, learned quite a lot about handling ourselves in the desert, and went thankfully back in transport. John Gray, always independent, marched back with the Eighteenth, contrary to orders. Then, of course, we had a conference to consider the lessons.

We had parades for General Wavell and for Sir Miles

1 G. 1098: the synopsis of the complete equipment of a unit, itemized and enumerated.

page 12 Lampson, doing a little less badly each time. General Wavell came round the units, tactfully confining his inspections to asking a few questions and looking at our guard. There were a few changes in personnel, far more disturbing then than it is easy to imagine now, with units long accustomed to in-numerable such changes.

In April we had the first divisional exercise, according to the ‘General Idea’, a phase of the war between Puttagonia (commanded by Brigadier Puttick) and Milesia (whose leader was Brigadier Miles, the C.R.A.1). It was waged in the El Saff area and doubtless many lessons were learned, and again we all learned more about handling ourselves in the desert. I was in command of the advanced guard as we emerged from the river road on to the desert, and was accused of being sticky. This was probably true enough as the imaginary tanks of the Divisional Cavalry were on the enemy side and I did not even have imaginary anti-tank guns. John Gray showed his independence again. The Brigadier called a conference at Pt. 104. Teddy Dawson, my Intelligence officer, could not identify Pt. 104 among the numerous hillocks about, neither could I. Fortunately we saw the Brigadier's car and thankfully followed him, as did Blackburn commanding the Nineteenth, to the point the Brigadier had decided was Point 104. A mile to the south we could see a staff car on another hillock. Harry Beale was sent off to collect John but came back to report that Colonel Gray was quite sure he was at the right point and the Brigadier must go there. As it was nearly dark and there was no time for that move, the Brigadier had to get on with his orders for a dawn attack without the Eighteenth. It was a fiasco and we were all properly hauled over the coals for it by the General. The proceedings ended with an Anzac Day morning service where the General prayed for an early chance to go for the Hun and clearly pointed out to the Almighty that we had been waiting for a long time. The Germans invaded Norway during this week.

In June, to our delight, Italy came into the war. We were

1 C.R.A.: Commander, Royal Artillery. The officer commanding the artillery of a division.

page 13 doing a night exercise when the singular code message for that event ‘Prepare for burial’ was brought in, and we went very happily back to camp. This was a stage nearer the real thing that we were becoming unreasonably impatient for. Each morning now we ‘stood to’ an hour before dawn, waiting hopefully for Italian parachutists. When the companies had reported that they were ready, the company commanders sat with me in the mess ante-room listening chillily to the downfall of France and hearing Haw-Haw's gloating predictions of the impending fate of the British plutocracy. It was at this time that he was alleged to have said of us that we were country lads doomed to leave our bones in the Libyan Desert. At that hour of the day it was natural to agree.

Companies in turn went into Cairo on anti-parachute duties, pleasantly carried out at Gezira race-course. Then the whole battalion went in to share Kasr-El-Nil Barracks with the Scots Guards. This was not an enjoyable stay. The men didn't mix, the Guards Officers were shy and stand-offish, and the Barracks were bug-ridden. A barrel of beer disappeared from the canteen. I detailed an officer to search for it in my lines but without any more result than I expected, though I have since learned that a glance into C. Company's buckets might have shown something. The N.A.A.F.I. sent us in a bill which I repudiated unless the Scots Guards were charged with half. The management was scandalized at this reflection on a regular battalion, and dropped the matter.

We did our first tour of duty in the desert and dug a useless anti-tank ditch in the Naghamish Wadi: hard work, in great heat and under a plague of flies. Feeling very bold I made a trip to Sollum where Rifle Brigade posts were in occasional contact with the Italians. An enemy plane came over and I felt very timid as I took shelter in the shade of a rock. Matruh was haphazardly bombed in our sight, we heard of a man in the A.S.C. being wounded, and we felt that the war was getting closer. So we were disappointed to go back to Maadi again.

It was only for a few weeks. We got more equipment, page 14 enough Bren guns to go round, real mortars, signalling gear, and transport, and in August we returned to the desert for a spell of coast-watching near Amiriya. After a hot, uneventful month, useful to us only in learning further to endure monotony and discomfort, we went westwards again to dig and train in the Bagush Box. Here we trained and exercised with zest, and dug laboriously. Graziani crossed the frontier and halted at Sidi Barrani. We were getting very much like a trained battalion now. I made all officers and N.C.O.s change appointments for a most useful fortnight, and when we settled down again I looked on my handiwork and thought it was good.

Then, in December, the blow fell. With mortification, almost as deep as despair, we heard that Fourth Indian and Seventh Armoured Divisions had attacked at Sidi Barrani, were sweeping forward from success to success, and we were not with them. It was incredible. We were really upset about this. Inglis said that the next fortnight was the most unhappy of his service and Wavell later thought it necessary to send a special message of explanation.

We went up in parties to look at the battlefields and collect souvenirs. Some of us got under fire at the siege of Bardia, we supplied guards for the hordes of prisoners, lent our transport to the Australians, and told ourselves bitter stories such as the one of Australians mistaking our fern-leaf emblem for an olive branch, and got thoroughly downcast over the whole matter. General Freyberg returned from England and added to our depression by tales of the second echelon's1 doings there, its high efficiency, and notable counter-attack role for the impending invasion. He also assured us that our concern was needless; we would get more than enough fighting.

By Christmas-time we had somewhat recovered, or at least had become bitterly resigned to being treated as Lines of Communication troops, and we had a very good day and terrific parties at night. The mess was now a very happy one, we had been more than a year together with few changes and

1 Second echelon consisted of 5 N.Z. Brigade and attached troops diverted to England, while en route to Egypt, in the summer of 1940.

page 15 fewer disputes, the companies had all become tight little entities, and the platoons groups of firm friends. Jim Burrows had become second-in-command, Cameron Adjutant, and over many senior N.C.O.s I promoted Hugh Wilson to be R.S.M. It was in fact a perfect appointment, which he held for four long years, refusing every offer of a commission, and giving his soul to the battalion. Two years later, Jim Burrows, then commanding, sent me a copy of a charge sheet. In it the R.S.M. charged XY, a sentry, with ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’ in that he had, ‘being a sentry, behaved in a manner not befitting a sentry of the 20th Battalion’.

We saw the New Year in at Bagush and then moved out of the Western Desert to Helwan and strenuously practised river crossings, street fighting, and attacking under a barrage. We felt that 1941 would be a fateful year and that we were fit for it and very happy. I attended the first combined training course at Kabrit, where my unorthodox opinion that landings were better done in daylight had the support only of three young Scots Guardsmen, all under the erroneous impression that I had been at Gallipoli.

I returned from this course to find the battalion at Helwan again and rumours busy that we were going—no one said where; but we were all certain it was to Greece. I was desperately anxious lest a bad tinea contracted at Kabrit should keep me back, but it improved just in time. Our first reinforcements arrived and were absorbed. I reviewed appointments and decided who was to stay in Egypt, and made an honest effort to leave a good team, sorely though they might protest. There came a final mess night, an uproarious, delightful night, with the men's lines all alight and songful also, while the victims of my injustice condoled wretchedly with one another in a corner.

Early one March morning we packed our trucks and entrained for Alexandria. I wrote to a friend in New Zealand: ‘We have not wasted our time. We are ready. My men will do their whole duty.’