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The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 - 1919

Chapter II. — The Voyage to Egypt

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Chapter II.
The Voyage to Egypt

H.M.A.S. "Sydney" Destroys the "Emden" — Colombo, Suez, Port Said, Alexandria.

At daylight on the 16th October, the whole fleet weighed anchor and the transports, ten in all, escorted by the "Minotaur," "Ibuki," "Philomel" and "Psyche" passed down the harbour and out into the straits. Although the hour of departure was kept secret, a great many people assembled that grey morning on points of vantage to catch a final glimpse of the transports.

The first few days at sea were of much more interest to the ship's master and officers, who had to learn to keep station in the convoy, than they were to the troops. Sea sickness affected a very large percentage, and rations were very plentiful for those who had any desire for them. When routine commenced, a good many hours each day were occupied in cleaning ship and general fatigues, and the rest of the time was devoted to such elementary training as deck space permitted.

After a good passage of five days, Hobart was reached and its pretty harbour, bathed in the brightest sunshine, was indeed a pleasant sight. No individual leave to go ashore was given; but a parade of all units in full marching kit was ordered immediately the ships berthed. The route of our march lay through the centre of Hobart and out across the hill to the outskirts of the town. It was an intensely hot day; but it was a relief to be ashore. The inhabitants received us with open arms. At the halts on the march, doors of houses were opened and the inhabitants, young and old alike, brought out jugs of refreshing drinks, and cakes and fruit, and handed them round to the perspiring troops. They picked flowers, making bouquets for the men. All ranks page 7returned to the ships greatly cheered by their run ashore, and with feelings of gratitude for Hobart and its inhabitants. The fleet sailed from Hobart on the 23rd October, but not before a great many cases of apples had been shipped for issue to the troops. Most units possessed a Regimental Fund, which proved extremely useful on occasions such as this.

Albany was reached on the 28th October, the Australian Bight making matters rather unpleasant for those who had not got their sea legs. Here a great many large ships were found to be at anchor in the harbour awaiting our arrival, and we were not long in discovering that they contained the Australian Expeditionary Force, which was to accompany us to England (as we then expected). Four days were spent at Albany, the ships remaining in the stream. Route marches by ships were arranged ashore; but no leave was granted to the troops. To New Zealanders who had not seen Australia before, this glimpse of Albany and its surroundings was very interesting.

On Sunday morning, 11th November, the large fleet of troopships, thirty-six in number, accompanied by the escorting warships, "Minotaur," "Ibuki," "Sydney" and "Melbourne," the last two having replaced the "Pysche" and "Philomel," steamed out of the Sound in line ahead. It was a magnificent sight. Here on that bright, sunny morning, were the great ocean liners, black with troops, quietly taking their appointed places in a long line of ships making for the open sea.

Once clear of land, the ships formed up into proper convoy formation, the Australian ships in four lines, with the New Zealand ships in two lines immediately behind. Compared with the Australian ships, the New Zealand convoy appeared much more austere and warlike in its sombre grey. The liners of the Australian convoy, many of them fashionable passenger ships, still wore their peace-time appearance. This was particularly in evidence the first night out from Albany, when every ship in the Australian convoy appeared after dark in a perfect blaze of light. Not a glimmer appeared from the New Zealand ships, where even the lighting of a page 8cigarette on deck was prohibited under the severest penalty. It took our Australian brothers several days to discipline their convoy to the standard of efficiency in station keeping, especially at night, attained by the navigators of the New Zealand convoy, but it was not long before initial troubles were overcome. Keeping station at night in pitch darkness, and with other ships in close proximity, was a sore trial to merchant skippers taught all their lives to give neighbours at sea a wide berth. Many a sultry message about lack of naval discipline passed from the escort to the convoy, and the need of it was soon to be brought home to us. The screening of lights after dark necessitated the deadlights being put in all portholes which were then screwed down closely. As we neared the tropics, and the nights as well as days became hot and stuffy, the experience of travelling during darkness with closed portholes can best be left to the imagination, keeping in mind that every ship had as many horses on board as could comfortably be carried.

On the eleventh day out from Albany a stir was created among those who were on deck at dawn, by seeing H.M.A.S. "Sydney" suddenly withdrawing from the convoy and steaming in a westerly direction. It was quickly passed round the fleet that the S.O.S. call had been picked up from Cocos Island, then about sixty miles away to the west. A further message from the same island stated that a strange warship was entering the harbour, and refused to answer signals. We had all read with interest the daring feats in the Pacific of the German light cruiser "Emden," and there had been a certain amount of apprehension that she might possibly cross our path. While we waited for news from the "Sydney," we all fervently hoped that the strange ship might prove to be this by now notorious raider, and that the "Sydney" would quickly make an end of her. Soon after the "Sydney" had left us, the Japanese battleship "Ibuki" took the "Sydney's" place in the escort, and with the possibility of a fight imminent, she ran her huge battle ensign to the peak. At the same time her funnels belched clouds of black smoke, as she got up a full head of steam.

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Brig.-Genl. H. E. Hart, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., V.D.Face p. 8.

Brig.-Genl. H. E. Hart, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., V.D.
Face p. 8.

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Lieut.-Col. C. F. D. Cook.

Lieut.-Col. C. F. D. Cook.

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Lieut-Col. W. H. Fletcher, D.C.M.

Lieut-Col. W. H. Fletcher, D.C.M.

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Lieut.-Col. H. Holderness, V. D.

Lieut.-Col. H. Holderness, V. D.

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Once, indeed, during the course of the morning a wireless message reached the "Ibuki" that the quarry was making off in a north westerly direction, and she immediately swung and steamed in that direction for a short time, clouds of spray flying over her bows as she tore through the swell. However the "Ibuki" had responsibilities to the convoy, and, though she was the heaviest armed of all the escorting ships, she was not permitted to participate in the fight. About eleven o'clock definite news was wirelessed from the "Sydney" that she had caught and beaten the "Emden," which had been beached by her Commander to prevent her sinking, and that there were numerous casualties among the crew of the "Emden." Tremendous cheers and great excitement prevailed when this news was made known, and the rest of the day was devoted to discussing the great event, all drills and duties being cancelled in honour of the "Sydney's' victory.

The destruction of the "Emden" removed from the path of the convoy the greatest danger to which we were subject, as no other German ships were in Pacific waters. Nevertheless, strict cunvoy discipline was still enforced. As we neared the equator, the nights were very oppressive, and there was much competition for the clear space on deck where sleeping was allowed. The crossing of the equator was celebrated in characteristic sailor fashion, and Father Neptune was no respecter of rank in issuing his summons to attend his ceremonies. Very great amusement was caused on all ships, especially when some senior officer was perceived being hustled with scant ceremony by Neptune's minions towards the shaving brush and fish pond! The cheerfulness of the day was marred for the Wellington Regiment when, towards the end of the afternoon, it was reported from the "Arawa" that Captain E. J. H. Webb, of the New Zealand Medical Corps and one of the Regimental doctors, had sustained a very severe injury to his head, and was unconscious as the result of diving off the roof of one of the deck houses into Neptune's pond. Unfortunately Captain Webb had believed the tank to be much deeper than it really was, and must page 10have struck his head on the deck. The convoy was stopped, and a specialist from one of the other ships was rowed across to the "Arawa," where the Medical Officers did everything possible for the injured man. He was landed at Colombo a few days laler, but never regained consciousness, dying in hospital there. The same day as we crossed the line. 13th November, orders were received for the New Zealand ships to proceed ahead of the Australian convoy to facilitate coaling and the taking in of supplies at Colombo. Two days steady steaming brought us one morning, beautiful with tropical sunshine, within sight of Colombo. The sea was a gorgeous opal tint, and as smooth as glass. Soon a swarm of natives in their quaint canoes with out-riggers were coming to meet us. As the ships entered the inner harbour of Colombo, the water appeared to be black with craft of all descriptions, while the main jetty was a seething mass of humanity clad in all colours of the rainbow. It was our first glimpse of the East, and every man was eager to get ashore and make a closer inspection of the city.

Shortly after our arrival, the "Sydney" was signalled and, as she steamed slowly past the New Zealand ships, all stood silently at attention. We would have preferred to have given her Captain and crew the rousing cheers they well deserved: but, as her decks were filled with stretcher cases from the battered "Emden," we refrained.

Here, too, in the inner harhour was the Russian battleship "Askold." She presented a rather unusual sight with her five tall funnels, and was quickly dubbed "the packet of fags."

Leave to go ashore by companies or platoons was given shortly after our arrival and, with the aid of the ship's boats and some of the shore launches every unit was able to avail itself of the welcome respite. Closer acquaintance with Colombo, more particularly the native quarter and the natives, left no desire to spend much time in such unhealthy surroundings. The walk ashore was a relief after the confinement of shipboard; but the atmosphere was very humid, and one soon got tired.

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The convoy put to sea again from Colombo, but not before most of the ships had received a small quota of German prisoners from the "Emden." These prisoners were to be taken to prison camps in England, and were naturally a source of considerable interest. The captured officers were put on parole, and had the freedom of the ship on which they were placed. They took their fate philosophically, were proud of their ship's record, and made the best of things. The men were kept under strict guard; but they were well treated in every respect. A rather amusing incident happened on one of the ships carrying a portion of the Regiment. When placing the prisoners in their cabin a sentry's loaded rifle inexplicably went off; the bullet struck the steel roof of the cabin and ricochetted round the room in a most alarming fashion. Fortunately, no one was hurt; but the unfortunate prisoners had their nerves severely shaken. The sentry was promptly relieved, and given a spell of duller and more arduous duties.

Aden was reached on the 25th November, after a rather dull and uninteresting ran of nine days from Colombo. The weather was fine, but the days and nights were gradually getting hotter, and everyone by now heartily tired of shipboard. No shore leave was granted at Aden; but a good view of its barren rocks could be obtained from the ships and n camel convoy coming into view caused a good deal of comment. Some amusement was caused when the convoy entered the harbour through the M.T. 10. The "Arawa" failed to drop anchor within the prescribed limits, and, in consequence, promptly got a shot across her bows, the shell ricochetting among the rocks across the bay. The anchor was let go with amazing promptitude, the "Arawa" men claiming the distinction of being the first contingent under fire. Some fifteen British transports conveying British territorials to India were in the harbour when the New Zealand transports arrived, and hearty cheers and greetings were exchanged as the ships passed near them. After a stay of 24 hours at Aden, the convoy was again under weigh for the Red Sea and Suez. At Aden word was received that page 12important orders were awaiting the force at Suez, so the Australian Headquarters Ship "orvieto" and the New Zealand Headquarters Ship "Maunganui" now speeded up and proceeded ahead of the convoy. As was only to be expected, the "Orvieto" soon left the "Maunganui" behind. Good weather prevailed throughout the run to Suez, and speeulation was rife as to what orders would await us there. Information had reached us during the voyage that Turkey had entered the War on the side of Germany, and we knew there was every chance in consequence of our having to disembark elsewhere than in England.

The "Maunganui" arrived at Suez at 5 p.m. on 30th November, and definite orders were received for the whole force to disembark at Alexandria and proceed to camp near Cairo. Egypt was in a disturbed state in consequence of the state of war between Britain and Turkey, and, even now, minor skirmishing was taking place along the banks of the Suez Canal, which was protected by British troops throughout its length. In fact, each vessel, before entering the Canal, was supplied with a searchlight and ordered to mount any machine guns it had on the starboard side. The "Maunganui" proceeded up the Canal at 7 p.m., but, about 11 p.m., a very dense fog came up and the ship anchored in Lake Timsah till next morning, when it proceeded on, arriving at Port Said about 4 p.m. without further incident. The trip through the Canal was intensely interesting. The sun was just setting as the "Maunganui" arrived at Suez, and the Egyptian light and colouring, the golden sands of the desert, and the brown of the hills, made a lasting impression on those who now saw Egypt for the first time. With Suez we were destined to make a closer aequaintance in the near future, but our first glimpse was encouraging.

There was no leave at Port Said. The "Arawa" arrived there the day after the "Maunganui." Coaling operations were carried on during the night. From Suez certain of the Divisional Staff proceeded by rail to Cairo in advance of the troops, to take over the camp site and make preliminary page 13arrangements for the reception of the units as they disembarked.

At 5 p.m. on 2nd December, the convoy sailed from Port Said. By this time, everyone was packing up in preparation for disembarkation on the morrow at Alexandria. Daylight on the 3rd December revealed the coast line on our port side, and it was not long before we were proceeding up past the historic Aboukir Bay to the port of Alexandria. In the clear atmosphere, groups of buildings along the coast stood out in sharp relief, and eyes were strained to catch a glimpse of Alexandria.