18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 24 — ‘Tanks of our Own’
‘Tanks of our Own’
Away back in 1940, in the dimly-remembered days before the Kiwis had ever been in action, the idea of an armoured force in the Division had first been suggested, all unknown to the men who were to fight in its front line. Had they known of it they probably would not have thought much of the idea. They were the best infantry in the world, weren't they? And they were going to show Jerry a thing or two when they met. In those days the Division had yet to have its lessons in the destructive power of tanks against unprotected infantry.
Two years later, with Ruweisat and El Mreir still burning the memory and Belhamed not so many months old, the story was very different. Not only had the legend of Kiwi invincibility been broken down, but all these disasters could have been avoided by better understanding between infantry and tanks. However, as long as New Zealand infantry and British tanks had to work together, it seemed unlikely that such an understanding would ever come about. Hence the demand ‘Why can't we have tanks of our own?’, which as the desert war went on had grown in strength until it was an angry outcry.
Lieutenant-General Freyberg was not the man to be influenced by any popular agitation, but long ago he had come to the conclusion that his division must have tanks of its own if it was to fight successfully in the desert. The New Zealand Government had agreed. The first steps had been taken in 1941 with the formation of a tank brigade to train in New Zealand and eventually, so the proposal ran, to go overseas.
This brigade, but for the Japanese aggression in the Pacific, would probably have come to Egypt in a body, and 18 Battalion would have been foot-sloggers till the end of the war. But early in 1942, with the brigade almost ready to sail, the New Zealand Government decided that the country should not be milked of all its trained troops. The position, said the Government, would be reviewed in July.page 330
From 2 NZ Division's point of view July was a highly suitable time to reopen the question. The Government was just as indignant as the men on the spot over the wasteful losses at Ruweisat and El Mreir, and now agreed, with a little prodding by General Freyberg, to release some or all of the tank brigade for the Middle East. This question ‘some or all’ was not settled till early September, so until then the future of 18 Battalion and the other 4 Brigade units hung in the balance; but the final decision was that only one tank battalion would leave New Zealand, and that it would be split up to reinforce 4 Brigade, which was to be taken out to train as an armoured brigade.
Not till 18 Battalion reached Maadi did it know what was coming, but within a day of its arrival the whole brigade was buzzing with the story. In the battalion the first reaction was favourable, with reservations. Only one or two diehards preferred to transfer to another infantry unit, but the general thought seemed to be ‘wait and see’.
It was only a day or two before they learnt more details. The first official news came straight from General Freyberg, who on 17 September addressed officers and senior NCOs of 4 Brigade and gave them some details of their new organisation. But even before that some of the preliminary work was under way, and the brigade was preparing to go back to school. For months the hardest-worked word in camp was ‘courses’.
Almost as soon as 18 Battalion reached Maadi it organised some elementary courses of its own, vehicle maintenance, signal procedure, driving lessons for all non-drivers. A little later came the first ‘basic’ tank courses—driving and maintenance (D & M for short), gunnery, wireless. Some were held at the Middle East Armoured School, others at the New Zealand School of Instruction at Maadi. Some of the first men on gunnery courses were lucky enough to go to the American Maintenance School at Almaza, away out in the desert beyond Cairo, where they wallowed in the luxury of American Army huts and American rations and sheets and pillowcases, and came back as full of talk about the ‘Yanks’ as about what they had learnt from them. Before long well over half the men were away on courses, and the unit could muster only a very thin turnout on parade. Men came back from their courses with a strange new jargon, and all around you might page 331 hear talk of such matters as the Point Three-oh Browning and the gyro stabiliser and epicyclic gears and Christie suspension, which a little earlier would have been pure gibberish.
Those left in camp carried on infantry training in the meantime, but they could hardly be expected to raise much enthusiasm for that now, particularly as all infantry equipment was handed over to 24 Battalion or back to the Ordnance stores. In fact 18 Battalion was now as destitute as it had been in its first days at Hopuhopu; the men had their personal gear and rifles, there were a few trucks and jeeps in a central pool, and that was about all. The drill and weapon training was really only a way to fill in time until the unit got some new equipment and qualified instructors came back from their courses. Big parties of men were called on from time to time to take convoys of trucks up the blue to the Division, and their commanders were glad to let them go and not have them hanging round camp.
Outside working hours there was plenty of opportunity for play. There was evening leave to Cairo, and for most of the men seven or fourteen days' leave. With paybooks well in credit, nearly everyone was in a position to make the most of this, and scores of men went off on Mr Goldhaber's famous tours to Palestine or Luxor, while others went to Cairo or Alexandria and spent their leave quietly or rowdily, according to taste. It was the right time of the year to buy Christmas presents for New Zealand, though it was shocking the way that Cairo prices had gone up. Maadi Camp, too, was a good place to relax in. Training was in the mornings only; after lunch you could play tennis or cricket, or swim at the Maadi baths. For the evenings 18 Battalion had two canteens going within a few days, and before long Padre Gourdie had a recreation tent open which later became the unit's main social centre.
The prospect of a long spell in Maadi was one of the big attractions about this armoured business. After months of bully stew with sand in it, the food was wonderful. So was the comparative freedom from flies. So, above all, was the relief from battlefield tension, the pleasure of not having to stand to before dawn, the knowledge that you need not go round all the time with half an ear cocked for a shell or a Stuka. In due course, so everyone understood, the new 4 Armoured Brigade page 332 would be in the lead when the Division chased Rommel out of Egypt, but there was no need to let that prospect spoil their present enjoyment.
The culminating point of this enjoyment was 18 Battalion's third birthday on 3 October (‘and a Saturday at that’, observes the war diary), which was celebrated with a vast and highly successful party. Like all birthday parties, this one was faintly tinged with regret for the passing years—a lot of good men gone—not many of the First Echelon still around. Oh well, not much point in dwelling too much on the past; here's to the present and the future, and to us sailing into Jerry in our tanks. So down the hatch, and have another.
Two days later, before all the revellers had quite recovered, 18 NZ Infantry Battalion officially died, and 18 NZ Armoured Regiment was born.
The infant 18 Regiment was at first an armoured regiment only by courtesy. It had no tanks and only the vaguest idea how to work one. But it was learning. There were more and more courses, some of them as far away as Palestine, others at Tel el Kebir over towards the Suez Canal, others just round the corner in Maadi Camp. At first it seemed rather a random business, as if 4 Armoured Brigade was picking up its education wherever it could find it. However, in mid-November, with qualified officers and NCOs now streaming back from their courses, the brigade was able to set up its own school and launch a ‘tank commanders’ course' which did a lot to clarify everyone's ideas on the subject.
This was the most comprehensive course of all—a fortnight on gunnery, a fortnight on D & M, a fortnight on wireless. According to Brigadier Inglis, the idea behind it was to give the old hands a working knowledge of all the essentials before the tank reinforcements arrived from New Zealand. There was so much to learn—British Crusader and American Grant tanks, how they were strung together and what made them go, six different types of gun (not counting the smaller machine guns), the intricacies of the No. 19 wireless set with which every tank would be equipped. Nobody could hope to be an expert in all of them, but everybody had to be an all-rounder, and this was what the brigade course catered for. It did not plumb the page 333 depths of its subjects, which was the job of the ‘specialist’ courses, but it was all solid work, and well worth while.
Some of the first 18 Regiment men to come back from specialist courses went to the brigade school as instructors. Others stayed to pass on their new knowledge within the regiment, with at first very little to work on. Early in October the regiment got one solitary two-pounder gun, and a fortnight later three old Grants and three Crusaders, which were promptly taken to bits to provide as much local training as possible. The regiment made the most of these dismantled tanks. After being pulled to pieces, maltreated and all but turned inside out for several weeks, the guns were put to work on the firing range, some of them with home-made wooden mountings. For training in fire orders and control the turrets were set up on two model landscapes, a ‘pellet range’ and a ‘puff range’, both carefully made to scale, copied from the British armoured school at Abbassia. These ranges did not pretend to reproduce action conditions, but they were a step in that direction, and the regiment was very proud of them. On the ‘pellet range’ shots from a pellet gun proved how correct the tank commanders' fire orders were, and on the ‘puff range’ an assistant hidden under the target, on a floor marked off in hundred-yard ranges, moved round and put up small puffs of chemical smoke where the students' shots would have landed, so that they could see and correct their errors.
Up to the end of 1942 the war diary has some comments from time to time which point up the slow but steady progress towards eventual perfection:
- 30 October: ‘The time lag should be just about over now and we will be running full time courses in the Regt very shortly.’
- 9 November: ‘The Commanding Officer announced the adoption of proper Armoured Regimental formation … “A” and “C” companies become “A” Squadron; “B” Company becomes “B” Squadron; “D” Company becomes “C” Squadron; and HQ Company becomes HQ Squadron.’
- 17 November: ‘Training … continued, everyone feeling that they are getting down to business.’
- 23 November: ‘Our own specialised training is very successful. Everyone is very keen and arguments concerning page 334 the respective merits of different types of guns, tanks and the different training methods seem to occupy a large proportion of all conversations.’
- 11 December: ‘Squadrons have more or less organised to the extent of planning their Tank drivers, Gunners, truck drivers, etc. and find it easier now to select nominations for the different training courses.’
- 16 December: ‘This end of Maadi is like a battle ground these days. Regiments have their … ranges, and have … the new Tank M.G's the Besa and Browning. 30 to practise with.’
- 21 December: ‘With the sub-calibre range and puff range and signal revision, driving and maintenance instruction on unit trucks, the training appears as complete as possible until further equipment and training materials are forth coming.’
It was indeed as complete as possible, and 18 Regiment had come a long way in three months. Its infantry technique, once its pride and joy, was half forgotten, though parade-ground drill, Tommy gun, Bren and rifle shooting were to be permanently kept up to scratch and not allowed to get rusty. Week by week interest and skill in its new job were increasing, and by the end of the year everyone was looking forward to trying out his hand on real tanks. To add point to this impatience, Rommel and his soldiers were now in retreat many hundred miles west of Alamein, and if they did not hurry, said the men of the 18th, they would miss the final victory in Africa.
This does not mean that they were not enjoying the comfort of Maadi. They were making the most of the food, the leave and the free time, the sports. Cricket and tennis had now given place to football. Everyone was fat and fit. With pay credits sagging badly, there was more resistance to Cairo's charms, and the canteens and camp huts were much fuller, especially the Padre's tent, which really came into its own late in October when the regiment moved to a fresh place away out at the end of a new bitumen road, a long way from the hub of Maadi.
Now, too, the temperature was much more reasonable. In October afternoon training began. Battledress appeared early in November, then extra blankets, for winter nights in Egypt can be very cold, and by Christmas there was often a keen wind even by day.page 335
Between Christmas and the New Year, nearly three months after its official changeover, 18 Regiment was at last outfitted with black berets. This was a great step forward. Not only were they more comfortable, warmer and better in all respects than the ridiculous ‘caps F.S.’, but they were an outward and visible sign of the unit's armoured status. They arrived just in time, for the old hands, though they might not have anything looking much like a tank round the place, could look and feel more like ‘tankies’ when the expected reinforcements arrived from New Zealand.
This influx of 130 trained tank men was a big event in the 18th. Before their arrival extra tents had been put up, and the regiment had sent ten trucks off to cart their heavy gear from Suez; then, late on the evening of 5 January, the reinforcements themselves came in by truck from the railway siding down by Maadi village. All this pampering caused a few curls of the lip among the originals, who audibly remembered the early days when they had lumped all their gear uphill to Maadi, and when they got there had practically to make the camp themselves. The men of this new generation weren't what their forebears had been!
But the new arrivals fitted in well, and the most bigoted original had to admit that they were pretty good types. Their training, the old hands were relieved to find, had been done on Valentine tanks, so that with Grants and Crusaders they started out fairly even. Nearly all the new NCOs dropped their stripes, removing a potential source of trouble. On the whole it was quite pleasant to have some fresh faces round, and a bit of good talent to add to the unit's sports teams. The biggest disadvantage was that the reinforcements all swarmed into Cairo on leave, packed out the trains and the clubs and the bars, and aggravated the beer shortage that had been making itself felt for the past few months.
Training was now past the elementary stage, but the regiment could not yet call itself a trained tank unit by any means. A lot of men were still going to courses, and it was obviously going to be several months before 4 Armoured Brigade was fit to take the field. The talk of leading 2 NZ Division's victorious dash across North Africa had completely died away—victory in Africa was apparently close, especially when Tripoli fell and the chase went on westwards into Tunisia. There was some page 336 envy of the Division, quite naturally so, for 4 Brigade had borne more than its share of the first hard, unrewarding campaigns, and now that we were at last on the winning side the brigade was a thousand miles away from the fun. Well, its turn would no doubt come; but it was a bit galling at such a time to have to worry about pinpricking base camp vexations such as kit inspections and thieving Wogs.
Out in its isolated home on the edge of Maadi, 18 Regiment suffered a lot from theft in the first few months of 1943. For a time the most vigilant pickets failed to stop night visits from the squalid villages on the edge of Cairo, not very far away, by Egyptian thieves who vanished with petrol tins or truck parts or rifles—one famous night all the rifles were silently removed from two tents while the occupants slept blissfully on. The unit made quite good friends with an Egyptian police lieutenant and his attendant black tracker who always came to investigate the thefts, sometimes with good results, sometimes without. In the end the unit, by patient scrounging of wire and pickets from here and there, succeeded in building a fence, booby-trapped with flares, right round its camp. The police lieutenant had little patience with such elaborate precautions— in his view, a thief shot dead would be the best way to stop the trouble. However, the fence seemed to act all right.
Besides this persistent annoyance the regiment suffered one or two sudden misfortunes of the kind that are always apt to happen. There was first the great gale, remembered by old Maadi-ites as the worst storm ever, which swept the camp in the early hours of 23 February. Howling wind and rain flattened a dozen tents in 18 Regiment, including Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants' tent and RQMS Jack Richards' two store marquees, and flooded out most of the rest. The old hands who had been half drowned at Baggush were not so surprised as the new reinforcements, who had never expected anything of the kind in Egypt. But by the same evening the camp was back to its normal tranquillity and the men were at work repairing the storm's ravages. Two months later came the great fire which destroyed C Squadron's store tent and everything in it one night, just after the squadron had come back to camp from a manoeuvre, and about the same time the regiment had several men injured in an accident with some ammunition.page 337
But these misfortunes were few and far apart, and separated by weeks of interesting and profitable work. Early in February the war diary had remarked:
Given the equipment… and our best instructors back from the Depot, Regiment could now take care of almost all training.
It did not yet have the equipment, and the 4 Brigade school was still eating into the ranks of the trained instructors, but the regiment was doing a lot of its own training and building up its teamwork. By April, when light shirts and shorts began to reappear and footballs were being superseded by cricket balls and basketballs once more, the reinforcements had been solidly welded into the unit, the tank crews in the fighting squadrons had been pretty well sorted out and were shaking down together, and the stage had been reached when they were ready to go out of camp in tanks and get practical experience in handling them—if they had had the tanks.
The luckiest squadron at this time was C Squadron, which was to have the light, fast Crusader tanks. Its first four real fighting tanks arrived late in January, and until April there was almost nothing but Crusaders about, so that the squadron was able to build up a long training lead, to take its tanks and play about with them, and from February onwards to go out with them to 4 Brigade's brand-new tank range, a vast tangle of hills and wadis some 15 miles out from camp up Wadi Digla, where you could play hide-and-seek and shoot off your guns to your heart's content with no danger to anyone. In the meantime A and B Squadrons could do little but carry on with ordinary training, the same thing over and over again now, waiting for their tanks to come up in the lift.
These two squadrons were to be the heavy squadrons, with Grant tanks to provide the unit's main fire power. But as things turned out the 18th never got any Grants of its own, for in February the heavy squadrons changed to Shermans, and some of their tank commanders went off on Sherman courses. This was decidedly a change for the better; the Sherman was the latest, most powerful American tank, a great advance on the high-built, vulnerable Grant. It was a 33-ton monster bristling with guns: in the turret a 75-millimetre gun, and parallel to it, always pointing at the same target, a .30 Browning known page 338 officially as a ‘co-axially mounted machine gun’ but to the tankies as a ‘co-ax’; another Browning on top for anti-aircraft protection; and yet a third (called a ‘lap gun’) mounted further down in the front of the hull. At the same time the tank was well protected, with armour two inches thick all over except underneath, so that the five men inside—commander, gunner, wireless operator, driver and co-driver—were pretty well invulnerable to anything except armour-piercing shells.
But Shermans were maddeningly slow coming in. Even when the first of them arrived there were only two, one each for A and B Squadrons, and no indication when any more would appear. The tank crews of these two squadrons had to be content with an occasional hour or two in the tanks when their turn came round, and at other times revised their signal work or went out for target practice with two-pounders and Besa machine guns at the tank range. It was all very frustrating.
Apart from its tanks, 18 Regiment was slowly re-equipping. In March the Reconnaissance Troop of Headquarters Squadron (counterpart of the old carrier platoon) got its first two scout cars. There were more trucks, enough to give each squadron a few of its own. Early in March 38 LAD, under Captain Grant,1 arrived on ‘permanent attachment’ to 18 Regiment, which means that to all intents and purposes it became part of the regiment—a very important part. An LAD (Light Aid Detachment) is a small mobile workshop to overhaul and make minor repairs to tanks and trucks and guns, and an armoured regiment, more than any other sort of unit, needs something of the kind on tap all the time. Before long 38 LAD's ‘tank hangar’ was a prominent landmark in Maadi, and Captain Grant, WO II Tom Lawson2 and their henchmen had become something like family doctors to the regiment—for tanks, like children, need careful looking after and sympathetic nursing to keep them in good healthy condition. For small on-the-spot repairs each squadron had its own mechanics, known in tank jargon as ‘flying fitters’, though in base camp they had to do very little ‘flying’.
April was a notable month, for in it the regiment really began page 339 to feel its depth as armour, and to spend most of its training time at the tank range or still farther up Wadi Digla, holding small-scale manoeuvres, firing on the move, doing long-range indirect shooting. Successful salvage round the desert battlefields by parties of enterprising scroungers had built up a good stock of ammunition, and there was no need to be niggardly with it. From now on the main training theme was—grab every chance to get out of camp with the tanks; learn more about the other fellow's job; shoot and shoot and shoot till control and handling of the guns become automatic; drive your tanks up and down all sorts of ground by day and night and keep them in fighting trim. This last, now that they were using real live ammunition, included the important periodical testing and adjusting of the gun sights, done by stretching crossed wires over the muzzle of the 75-millimetre gun, peering through the firing-pin hole in the breech and laying the gun on some distant object, then adjusting the sighting telescope on to the same target.
C Squadron now had almost all its Crusaders, and A and B between them had a full troop of three Shermans, so that by passing the tanks round each troop could have an occasional small exercise of its own. Half of C Squadron at a time, plus the lucky troop from one of the heavy squadrons, went out for three days in April, and came back sandy, dishevelled and very pleased with themselves. Teamwork was getting better all the time, and the painstaking early training was paying off now; perfection might be a long way off still, but the first round was over and the rawest edges smoothed down.
Then May drew to its end, and for a few weeks training was disrupted by other events that came crowding in from outside.
There was, first, the invasion of Maadi by 2 NZ Division, coming back from Tunisia loaded with honour and loot and bubbling with high spirits. The whole camp lent a hand to prepare for it; for several days armoured training had to stop while 18 Regiment put up tents and drew stores for the anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiments. All over Maadi tent forests sprouted overnight, and then, with the Division pouring back, Maadi and Cairo became twin Bedlams. There were noisy reunions with friends from other units, including the boys who had had to leave the 18th nine months before. And some of page 340 these reunions were at the same time farewells, for another event was building up which even eclipsed the excitement of the Division's return.
In January 1943 a man in 18 Regiment wrote this to his family in New Zealand:
There seems to be a lot of talk in N.Z. about sending the surviving members of the ist Echelon home. Forget it. It's an utter impossibility.
This echoed the opinion of every Kiwi who had seen the Division sagging at the knees after Ruweisat and El Mreir. Yet by May this crazy fantasy was a reality. With Jerry knocked out of Africa and more reinforcements on the way from New Zealand, Brigadier Inglis was able to announce to 4 Brigade on 23 May that a furlough scheme was coming up, full details soon.
Then a few days later, when details were out, eligible men listed and the names drawn from the hat, it became clear that the disintegration of the old original 18 Battalion was about to be completed. Out of about 150 originals still in the unit, 119 were booked for New Zealand.
But there was nothing gloomy about this parting. From 29 May, when the draw was announced, to 14 June, when the lucky ones left for Suez, there were parties and celebrations going on nearly all the time, and when it was all over a sigh of relief seemed to run through Maadi Camp at the prospect of getting back to normal. It had been almost a holiday fortnight, but a gruelling and expensive one.
The furlough men had moved out to a special camp on 3 June, and for a week after that 18 Regiment seemed very empty. But only for a week, for on 11 June the loss was more than made up by a new batch of nearly 150 reinforcements fresh from home. This addition was not much to the taste of the old Desert Digs who had been with the 18th in its infantry days, as now they found themselves outnumbered by the newcomers, their grey hairs not always treated with the reverence they deserved. But the 9th Reinforcements were promising lads, most of them, and the regiment could now push on with training without the handicap of half-empty squadrons.
During this lean period in the training there were two big ceremonial parades in Cairo, the first on Empire Day, when page 341 150 picked men from 18 Regiment marched in the ranks, and the second on United Nations Day, 14 June, when 4 Brigade made its first public appearance in its tanks, heading the parade through streets full of admiring Wogs. Perhaps the imminence of this parade had opened the hearts of the Ordnance people, for during the previous fortnight new Shermans had been streaming in as never before, and A and B Squadrons now had six each. The unit's ‘technical’ people, under Captain James,3 who were responsible for collecting new tanks and seeing that they were in proper order, had one of their busiest times.
On 15 June, with the dust of the furlough men's departure still settling down over Maadi, the regiment with some reluctance came back to earth and concentrated once more on its neglected training. The new reinforcements, with a few rebellious mutterings, went off to the 4 Brigade school to relearn the elementary stuff they swore they had done a dozen times already. The fighting squadrons hammered away at the puff range, thrashed out imaginary battles on a sand model, or went out to the tank range by troops and then by squadrons, for three days or a week, continually seeking perfection in driving, shooting and tactics. C Squadron, still the envy of the rest, went off for a week on its own, with tank transporters, fitters and B Echelon all complete, 80 miles out towards Suez, and came back full of knowledge about the intricacies of maintenance and replenishment, about the right way to dispose of supply trucks and other ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles, about a tank's nasty habit of sticking in soft ground.
On 26 July, for the first time, the whole regiment headed out into the wilderness past the tank range for a full week's regimental manoeuvre, the culmination of all those months of schooling since the first men, scarcely knowing one end of a tank from the other, had gone off on the first courses. The unit did not yet have the finer skills of armoured warfare at its fingertips—some of them could be learnt only in the presence of the enemy—but it was out of its apprenticeship now, had thoroughly absorbed the basic principles of its new trade, and was ready to work out how best to use them in practice. Its tank work was still bound to limp a bit, as its 14 Crusaders and page 342 19 Shermans still fell far short of what it ought to have. But an armoured regiment's job is not only shooting and manoeuvring; there are, just as in the infantry, all sorts of less spectacular jobs, reconnaissance and communications, intelligence and supply and repair work, all with their specialists who had for months been quietly pegging ahead with their own training. Now the regimental manoeuvre would bring all the pieces of the jigsaw together and make them fit.
And they fitted very well. Everything possible was crammed into the five days of the manoeuvre—an advance into action with scout cars snooping ahead; the tanks moving into a set ‘laager’ formation by day and night; B Echelon coming up from behind with food, water, ammunition, fuel for the tanks; attacks by the tanks alone or behind a company of 22 (Motor) Battalion in carriers; attack and defence at night; a whole day's maintenance on tanks, trucks and scout cars. There were, of course, plenty of points on which the drill could be improved— the purpose of a manoeuvre is to find them out so that they can be put right. The senior officers and those responsible for tying up all the bits and pieces of the regiment had an exhausting but rewarding week's work. The boys in the squadrons found it all very enjoyable; though they knew little about the overall idea, they had plenty of time between moves to sit and take life easy, which had not always been the case in the squadron manoeuvres. The summer sun beat down into the wadis and made it uncomfortably hot inside the tanks, but even that was much more bearable than at Alamein a year before. The highlight of the week was the attack with the motorised infantry, which was a spectacular affair, the lines of tanks and carriers charging ahead at 18 miles an hour, A Squadron ‘plastering the area with 75 mm. H.E. and small arms fire’, as the war diary enthusiastically puts it.
The next week, while all the tanks got a good check-over, the squadrons went back for a few days to the puff range and sand model, and brushed up their infantry work, which was more than ever inclined to slip. Then the regiment was off again for another week to the freer air of the tank range, shooting squadron by squadron and running round on small-scale exercises, tanks versus anti-tank guns, with 22 Battalion co-operating as the ‘enemy’. One day C Squadron borrowed A Squadron's page 343 Shermans for practice, for C Squadron was to change over gradually from Crusaders to Shermans, and was quite likely to find itself as far behind the others as it had previously been ahead. This week, unhappily, was marred by the death of Lieutenant McCowan,4 one of the regiment's first trained instructors, who was killed when a scout car capsized down a bank.
Week after week the manoeuvres became more and more complicated. Tanks against other tanks, tanks against anti-tank guns (represented sometimes by barrels cunningly placed among the dunes); running fights up and down the wadis; moves from place to place with scout cars guiding the squadrons; night moves through a minefield, with infantrymen clearing and marking safe paths. It was good to get some practice in co-operation with the infantry, said those who remembered past misunderstandings and tragedies. But they felt that the practice did not go far enough, and that both tanks and infantry could do with a lot more of it before they could team up happily in action.
While these advanced manoeuvres were going on 18 Regiment was still acquiring its tanks and transport bit by bit. New Shermans, a few at a time (C Squadron did not get rid of its Crusaders till the first week in September). More trucks, nice new four-wheel-drive jobs, to replace the last of the clumsy old cattle trucks and bring the unit up nearer to its full quota. More scout cars for the Recce Troop and the Intercommunication Troop (reincarnation of the old signal platoon). A few more reinforcements kept coming in, mostly old members trickling back from hospital. By the end of August the regiment was nearly up to full strength. Some more of its originals left with a second furlough draft on 3 September, with much less song and dance than the first one, leaving only about a dozen in key jobs who could not be replaced just yet.
At the end of August there was a general feeling that another journey was in the air, and that Maadi would not see them much longer. For nearly a year 4 Brigade had been out of things, and while this Base life had a lot to recommend it, it had gone on for long enough. An efficient tank force, such as page 344 the brigade now was, could not expect to be left idle. It would undoubtedly go with the Division into action next time. Where? Well, that was the prize question, but most people picked Europe. Jerry was on the losing side now, the war had been carried over to Italy, all sorts of speculations were going on about new fronts elsewhere. It would be fitting, some people felt, if 2 NZ Division was to lead a triumphant campaign up through Greece. No, said others, we're going to England to be in on the invasion of France. Yet others were sure that General Montgomery, now in Italy, would get the Kiwis back to their beloved Eighth Army. But wherever the rejuvenated New Zealand Division was to go, it certainly would not be left behind much longer.
September arrived, events began to move faster, and the departure quickly changed from rumour to reality. The regiment's last exercise at the tank range was rather spoilt by an order that tanks which had done more than 700 miles were to stay out of action until the Division left Maadi. The first Shermans had stood up to a lot of rough treatment from various semi-trained crews, and now were quite elderly Shermans that had to be treated gently if they were to go well in action.
Next the men learnt their immediate destination, Burg el Arab, where the Division would do large-scale manoeuvres. Eighteenth Regiment's official training programme for the week beginning on 6 September included ‘checking new tanks, maintenance of old tanks, and general preparations for move’. From 8 September everything was fuss and bustle, inoculations and kit inspections, camouflage paint slapped on to all the vehicles, gear stowed on the tanks, personal belongings sorted, a year's junk thrown out. ‘After 12 months in this area,’ remarked the war diary, ‘the salvage truck is kept busy disposing of surplus or unwanted stores.’ On 9 September Regimental Headquarters issued its orders for the move—A Squadron's tanks to go on transporters and the rest by train, complete with full crews and food for five days, all the rest of the unit by road. On the 11th an advance party left for Burg el Arab to prepare for the unit's arrival, while the rest of the boys whooped things along on their last free evenings in Cairo; on the 13th everyone packed spare gear in his base kit and handed it in to store; next day the first tanks went on their way, and at 7 a.m. on page 345 16 September, twelve months and three days after the tired Old Digs of 18 Infantry Battalion had reached the haven of Maadi, the new, fresh, unblooded 18 Armoured Regiment left there for the last time.
If 18 Regiment had expected a nice camp at Burg el Arab, handy to the Mediterranean and with all comforts, it was disappointed, for its new home was in a dirty, dusty locality four miles from the coast. To have a swim you had first to get smothered in dust in the back of a three-tonner, or to march the whole way in an organised party and arrive soaked with sweat. Maadi and its amenities seemed a long way behind, especially to the newer reinforcements who had not known the dirt and squalor of Baggush or Matruh or Alamein. Alexandria was an hour's run away, and for the first ten days there was plenty of leave there, trucks going in and out daily. Ever since the days of the old change-of-air camp Alexandria had been in high favour with the Kiwis, cooler than Cairo and more spaciously set out, with lovely swimming beaches within easy reach. There were also conducted parties to the Alamein battleground, now empty and desolate but as forbidding as ever, with the sand beginning to fill up the trenches and drift high round the wrecked tanks and trucks which still littered the desert.
The first week at Burg el Arab was pretty easy, all the tanks being checked over once again, new ones being run in. The very day of the move from Maadi the last six Shermans arrived to bring the regiment up to its total of 52. A few days later the unit got a dozen new three-tonners; these were still short, but the leeway was being gradually made up. Full training began again on 24 September with a small regimental manoeuvre, an advance by squadrons with 25-pounder fire falling just ahead. At the time the whole division was forbidden to use wireless, which brought home forcibly how dependent the armoured units now were on wireless, and how badly their style was cramped when they had to keep touch by hand signals.
Next came an important landmark in the Division's life, the first full divisional manoeuvre with its own tanks and infantry acting together. To the boys in 18 Regiment its importance was not apparent. It was the old story—the bigger the manoeuvre, page 346 the less there was to do, but the more awkward hours you had to keep. This time the regiment's tanks and scout cars left camp at midnight, forced their way for 12 miles through an almost solid bank of dust, stopped and dispersed in the dark, then sat idle for twenty-four hours, festooned in camouflage nets, the crews playing cards in their sparse shade to while the time away. A sudden burst of energy at dawn next day, the tanks edging carefully forward through a narrow taped track in an imaginary minefield, a swift but short advance to nowhere in particular, then nothing more till evening. The tankies had so far seen hardly anything of the infantry they were supposed to co-operate with, only a few dim figures in the dusk. The minefield gap, they understood, had been cleared by infantry for the tanks' benefit, but there had been no infantrymen in evidence there either.
Next day seemed better, the three squadrons moving forward to the attack with shells passing overhead and falling in front, inaudible above the roar of the tank engines and the clanking of the tracks. This is good, said the boys, this is the sort of tank work we like. Only their commanders knew that plans had come unstuck, that flank support had not materialised as arranged, and that, had there been any real enemy there, 18 Regiment would have been shot to bits.
Back at Burg el Arab on 2 October the tank crews had to get busy and spend several hours on the vile job of cleaning thick coats of dust off their tanks. However, this should not be necessary again for a while, for everyone now knew that they would very soon be sailing for Europe—General Freyberg had said so quite plainly to all their officers and senior NCOs on the last day of the manoeuvres. Just where they were going he had not said, but Europe, definitely, and soon.
Although their destination had still to be officially announced, everyone knew that it was Italy. They had been given cold-weather gear, battle dress and thick underclothes, sleeveless leather jerkins that were by no means elegant but were to prove real friends in the wet, raw European winter. Precautions were already being taken against malaria, long trousers at night and sleeves rolled down, sickly-smelling mosquito cream on face and hands, little yellow pills that had to be swallowed down quickly with a draught of tea or else left a vile taste in your mouth.
Yes, their days in the glare and aridity of Egypt were nearly over, and nobody was sorry. Even Maadi had palled in the end. Everyone was eager for something new, and Italy, people said, was very beautiful. There was a war on there, which made it even more attractive, for 2 NZ Division was well rested, full of new keen men, and itching to try out its new strength, to get its own tanks and infantry out at last on Jerry's trail.
1 Capt N. J. Grant; Hawera; born Normanby, 14 Jan 1905; motor mechanic.
2 WO I T. E. Lawson, m.i.d.; Onehunga; born NZ 17 Dec 1913; motor and general engineer.
3 Capt C. N. James, m.i.d.; born NZ 3 Jun 1904; clerk; deceased.
4 Lt J. W. McCowan; born NZ 23 May 1918; clerk; accidentally killed 11 Aug 1943.