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18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 17 — Interrupted Holiday

page 246

Interrupted Holiday

The rest camp was wonderfully situated, right on the beach and only three miles out of Beirut. After the oppressive Bekaa valley the sea air was delightfully cool. The battalion arrived about 1 p.m., and very soon some men were on their way into town and most of the rest were in the water. The warm, clear Mediterranean, so buoyant that you could swim with very little exertion, was irresistible, and Beirut just as attractive as reported. This was a real rest camp, no red tape and as few rules as possible.

The work on the tents occupied the next two mornings, beginning early before the sun got too hot. The boys worked furiously, knowing that the quicker they finished the more time they would have to enjoy themselves—they were not likely to come to this kind of place often, and time was precious.

It was more precious than they knew. On 14 June the blow fell. Those who left camp that day left it tranquil and sleepy under the midday sun; a few hours later it was shaken rudely out of its calm and transformed into a beehive of rumour and turmoil. They had ‘had’ their holiday. Back to El Aine next morning, everything to be packed for a long trip. Where to? Nobody knew. Some said New Zealand, some even said England, but most had a horrid fear that it would be neither of these, but the old familiar Egypt again. News of the move was carried into town by the grapevine, and as one officer says, ‘You can imagine what Beirut was like that night.’ But next morning there were only eight absentees—many of the boys may have been in bedraggled condition, but all were ready for the next job, whatever it was.

The ride back over the mountains was a subdued one. The cutting short of its holiday had for the moment taken much of the sparkle out of the battalion, and the heat at El Aine, according to one man, was ‘like a blow in the face’. There was work waiting for them. For two days they had their noses well down to it, packing all their widely assorted gear and page 247 stowing it on their trucks, removing New Zealand badges and shoulder titles, painting out the fern leaves on the trucks—for this was a move of the greatest secrecy. News began to filter through of disasters in Libya, of a triumphant Rommel advancing on Tobruk. The prospect of New Zealand or England receded from the forefront of possibility, where only wishful thinking had kept it in any case.

The soldier's short memory is an advantage at times, and when the battalion's convoy left El Aine early on 17 June the boys had got over their depression. It was a perfect morning, the lazy prospect of several days' truck ride was not unattractive, and what was going to face them afterwards could be forgotten until the time came. Nostalgia for Syria was to come later in the blazing heat of the desert battlefield, when the men were to realise that, in the words of one of them, they had ‘grossly overlooked its two crowning qualities of peacefullness and quietness’.

Blame for the interrupted holiday must lie squarely on Rommel. At the end of May he had opened an offensive in Libya which, after a fortnight's slogging match, broke the Eighth Army's line and forced it back towards the Egyptian frontier, closely chased by the Germans. On 14 June violent, mixed-up battles were still raging west of Tobruk, but the issue looked serious enough for an SOS to be sent to the New Zealand Division, nearly 1000 miles away, to come back at top speed to reinforce the defence. This was a rush order, and the Division responded quickly and efficiently. Two days' preparation was all that 4 Brigade (the leading brigade) could have, and by the end of that time it was ready to go, with everything it possessed, with food and water and petrol and oil organised for the trip, with all its trucks in running order, with convoy timetables all arranged. Level-headed, experienced staff work was responsible for the arrangements, and capable, safe, fast driving over long hours was necessary to see them through.

The Bekaa valley had been hot, but as the convoy moved south the heat got fiercer yet. The first day (14 hours' driving) took it right away from the snowy tops of Syria to Tulkarm in central Palestine. The second day saw the last of green cultivation, and that night the men pitched their bivvy tents on the sand at Asluj, near the Palestine-Egypt frontier. The third day, beginning at 4 a.m., was all sand and glare until, early in the page 248 afternoon, the Ismailia oasis rose into view beyond the Suez Canal. About midday on the fourth day the convoy passed through Cairo, greeted with glad familiar shouts by the Wogs, who evidently had not heard that the move was secret. That night the battalion slept in the squalor of Amiriya; next day it moved on again, past its old sweating grounds at Baggush and Garawla, and about teatime pulled in, along with the rest of 4 Brigade, at ‘Smugglers' Cove’, a nook on the coast two miles east of Mersa Matruh. A couple of hours later it carried on westwards through Matruh, and dug in for the night four miles along the coast past the town.

Next morning, for the first time since 14 June, the boys had leisure to stop, take stock of their situation, and count up the date. It was 22 June, only one day after they should have left Beirut. Instead, here they were, sweltering in the summer heat of Egypt, dazzled by the sun's glare on the everlasting sand, waiting for Jerry to come and attack them. They did not know how far away he was, but knew it could not be far, for on the previous day they had been amazed and scandalised by the endless streams of disorganised traffic coming against them on the road, all moving east away from the battle. It had been more than disorganised; at times it had been a rabble such as the old 18 Battalion originals had seen before, once only, on that horrible journey south from Larisa in Greece. To see it now, hundreds of miles east of where they had left a victorious Eighth Army six months before, was an ominous beginning to their new campaign.

The battalion was now occupying the coast end of the old Matruh ‘box’, stuck out on an arid stretch of white sandhills, with miles of nothing at all in front of it, a shallow salt lagoon behind, 19 Battalion on its left, and on its right, beyond a wreckage-strewn beach, the sea. Into that sea, in the intervals of digging, sandbagging and wiring, went 18 Battalion, in carefully controlled and guarded parties, to wash off the dirt of travel. It was good to be clean, but it did not last, because afterwards the men had to get back to their shovels again, and by evening they were as sweat-soaked as ever. The ‘prepared’ positions they were occupying had fallen on bad days, the trenches were silted up and full of rubbish—even making the place habitable was a bad enough job, and in addition they had to extend the positions, stand to night and morning, and take page 249 full battle precautions, with pickets and patrols out in front at night. Parties of engineers came along to lay mines between the sandhills.

The next two days were blazing hot, but the work had to go on at top speed. The sand was easy enough to dig, but sandbagging and shoring up the trenches was hard, slow, painstaking work. It was urgent, too. Jerry, according to the reports, would be on the doorstep before many more days passed. The flow of trucks and men from the west increased on 23 June until there was a perpetual traffic jam along the coast road, visible from the battalion's sandhills. On the 24th the distant grumble of the guns could be heard, and on the western horizon rose a column of black smoke.

The British seemed to be masters in the sky, that was one consolation. German planes sneaked through from time to time, including one lone bomber on the night of 23–24 June which dropped its load not far from 4 Brigade Headquarters, but British planes were frequently overhead, including formations of nine purposeful Boston bombers heading west and then returning. All these planes were obviously not stopping the enemy, but they were probably delaying him somewhat and winning valuable time for the defenders of Matruh.

Not that the Division was destined to defend Matruh for very long. On 24 June new orders arrived. A new arrival in Egypt, 10 Indian Division, was to replace it under 10 Corps in the Matruh positions, and the mobile, experienced New Zealand Division was to move south, come under 13 Corps, and watch the south end of the makeshift line that was being hastily formed south of Matruh. It seemed likely that this would involve some complicated desert fighting on the pattern of November 1941, but it suited the Kiwi temperament better then being stuck in trenches with no freedom of movement.

The warning order for this move, when it reached 18 Battalion late on 24 June, was hailed with relief, for nobody in the unit thought much of the place it was in at present. There was an intriguing aspect of the order, too—the Division was to be organised into three groups with infantry, artillery, Vickers guns and all the other bits and pieces needed to make them self-supporting in action. This was the first time the New Zealanders had met the ‘battle group’ system then in vogue in the Eighth Army. The name ‘battle group’ sounded rather page 250 dashing, but nobody seemed to have much idea exactly how the groups would operate.

It did, however, bring about an immediate change in 18 Battalion's status. The unit was taken out of 4 Brigade to become the infantry element of a new ‘Divisional Reserve Group’, which was also to contain 6 Field Regiment, a battery each of six-pounder anti-tank guns and Bofors, and a Vickers company. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray left the battalion for the last time to take command of this Reserve Group, and Major Lynch took his place, though the changeover was not complicated, as 18 Battalion Headquarters did duty as Reserve Group Headquarters too. One company from each battalion, said the warning order, was to go back to an LOB camp at Amiriya. In 18 Battalion the long straw fell to A Company, which packed up and headed for Amiriya with very mixed feelings.

With mixed feelings, too, 18 Battalion watched the rest of 4 Brigade move off during the afternoon of 25 June and disappear along the road to the east. The battalion had always before gone into action as part of 4 Brigade, and to be on its own, the only infantry in a little independent force, was strange and somewhat unsettling. It was ready to leave soon after 4 Brigade, having handed its trenches over to some tough little Gurkhas, but then it had to sit round for four hours waiting for its ASC transport, which had been held up by traffic jams. At 11.30 p.m., when the battalion finally got away, the congestion was still bad, and the way back through Matruh to Garawla was a slow, monotonous crawl. From Garawla things were better, because here the New Zealand convoys disengaged from the retreating tide of traffic and turned south along a desert track running beside the Siwa telephone line. This track was not in the same class as the nice tarsealed coast road, but it was free from that infuriating, mixed-up procession of trucks.

Nobody got much sleep that night; you might drop off from time to time, but would wake up with a jolt when your truck lurched down into a dip or bounced over some unevenness in the track. By 6 a.m., when the convoy stopped, everyone was dusty, tired and cross. Luckily the day was cooler, with a little breeze to take the edge off the heat. Digging slit trenches did not take long, and after breakfast the men were able to settle down to a fairly peaceful day watching a continual stream of British planes flying westwards. There were more planes out page 251 that day than the battalion had seen before, and it was a heartening sight.

During the night the convoy had passed through the broken country at the head of the coastal wadis, and the Division was now parked on flat desert near the foot of the first big escarpment, which could be seen in a long low line to the south. The battalion, though few of its members realised it, had joined up here with the artillery and other support weapons of the Reserve Group, and was right in the middle of the Division, between 4 and 5 Brigade Groups, covering Divisional Headquarters against any sudden onslaught from the west.

However, this was only a temporary halting place, and soon the Division would be moving eight miles farther south. There it was to wait for Jerry and fight him when he arrived, to delay his advance and keep him off the second big escarpment, which would give its possessor command over the southern end of the British line. At the spot where the Division was going this escarpment divided into two, a low, fairly passable rise and a 60-foot bluff behind it. The dividing point was a prominent height jutting out north from the escarpment, by name Minqar Qaim. The Kiwis could not resist parodying this name and making bad jokes about it; nobody could foresee that within two days it would take its place among the immortal names in the New Zealand Division's story.

North of Minqar Qaim the desert is dead flat, stony and particularly desolate. Across this waste on the afternoon of 26 June the long procession of the Division advanced to battle, first the brigade groups, then the Reserve Group, and finally Divisional Headquarters. The Reserve Group, moving after tea, had just reached the first step of the Minqar Qaim escarpment when dusk came on, and with it the worst fright the boys had had for months.

A perfect formation of Bostons had just disappeared overhead on its way west, and everyone was still speculating how Jerry was liking that, when suddenly another swarm of planes hove in sight from the west. After a day when British planes had been constantly overhead, very few men even bothered to look at these until they flew round in a big circle and began a bombing run from the east. At first 18 Battalion seemed to be right in the path of the attack. The battalion's rifles and Brens spoke up, and for a few moments the atmosphere was breathless, page 252 everyone thinking the planes had singled him out as a personal target. Then the bombs fell farther north-east, right on top of where 4 Brigade had already taken up its battle position. In 18 Battalion the tension relaxed. The Reserve Group went on its way again, up the first escarpment and on to a half-mile-wide plateau between this and the upper bluff.

This was a situation where the Kiwis' long and detailed desert training paid off. The whole group dispersed in the dark, took up its battle positions smoothly and efficiently, and dug in, under the protection of a line of 25-pounders of 6 Field Regiment. The battalion hacked an all-round position out of the desert rock, B and D Companies on the edge of the first escarpment facing north (the direction from which Jerry was expected), C Company perched up on the upper bluff facing south, Battalion Headquarters in a wadi cut into this bluff. The transport, after dropping its passengers and their gear, moved off to a ‘harbour’ at the foot of the upper bluff, just south of the battalion's area, where it was supposed to be well out of harm's way. To the west, round Minqar Qaim itself, was 5 Brigade Group, to the east 4 Brigade Group. Divisional Headquarters, when it arrived later in the night, set up shop right in the middle of 18 Battalion,1 between its northern and southern fronts, surrounded by the Reserve Group's anti-tank and Bofors guns. And the whole Division was ready to receive the enemy, whose armour was racing east and was now reported to be only five or six miles away. Tomorrow was certainly going to be interesting, if not very comfortable.

1 Appointments in 18 Bn on 26 June:

CO: Maj R.J. Lynch
2 i/c: vacant
Adjt: Capt J.E. Batty
MO: Capt S. B. Thompson
Padre: Rev. F. O. Dawson
IO: Lt O. H. Burn
OC HQ Coy: Capt P. B. Allen
QM: Lt A. M. B. Lenton
Sigs: Lt H. D. Gilfillan
A-Tk: Lt R. McK. Evans
Lt J. W. McCowan
Lt N. J. McLeod
Mortars: Lt A. J. McBeath
Carriers: Capt P. R. Pike
2 Lt H. F. McLean
TO: Lt E. W. Woodhouse
OC A Coy: Capt H. M. Green (LOB)
2 i/c A Coy: Lt K. L. Brown (LOB)
7 Pl: Lt D. L. Morgan (LOB)
8 Pl: Lt E. H. J. Fairley (LOB)
9 Pl: Lt S. B. Edmonds (LOB)
OC B Coy: Capt A. S. Playle
2 i/c B Coy: Capt D. F. Phillips
10 Pl: Lt R. A. McGurk
11 Pl: 2 Lt K. H. McDonald
12 Pl: Lt W. H. Burridge
OC C Coy: Maj E. H. Boulton
2 i/c C Coy: Lt H. C. Hewlett
13 Pl: Lt J. Tyerman
14 Pl: 2 Lt A. E. Taylor
15 Pl: 2 Lt R. G. Bush
OC D Coy: Maj C. L. Brett
2 i/c D Coy: Capt A. C. Beachen
16 Pl: Lt W. H. Behague
17 Pl: 2 Lt R. A. Ward
18 Pl: 2 Lt H. L. Hay
RSM: WO I H. R. Lapwood