18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 6 — Over the Water
Over the Water
Helwan Camp didn't look very civilised when the battalion arrived; but all were glad to get there, especially the transport, which had driven part of the way through a stinging dust-storm which scoured paint off the vehicles and made driving a torture. The camp was on comparatively level ground, and was not such a far-flung, sprawling affair as Maadi—it had good bitumen roads, and its canteen huts and so on didn't look too bad. There was the luxury of daily hot showers, too.
The battalion turned to on arrival, put up its tents and dug itself in, but this sort of thing was just a chore by now, all in the day's work. The prospect of leave to Cairo once again was pleasant. Leave began almost at once, every evening if you could stand the strain, and weekend leave for a few. Those who could afford it went from the camp to Helwan by taxi; those who couldn't took the bus. Diesel trains ran from Helwan to Cairo. It was a five-mile run into Helwan, past a big prison camp containing what looked like Mussolini's entire army.
The highlight of the first week in Helwan was the issue of a brand-new type of uniform, the famous battle dress. Before the unit left Baggush this had been promised, but the men were a bit wary of army promises, and preferred to wait and see rather than get too enthusiastic in advance. However, this promise was fulfilled only a week after the move to Helwan. Everybody liked the battle dress at once. The loose-fitting jacket, warm and comfortable, with its snug waist belt, inside which two bottles could be safely hidden; the capacious pockets; the trousers, high at the back to keep your kidneys warm, and wide enough in the leg to put on without taking your boots off; above all, the absence of brass buttons and fittings to shine; all these brought the battle dress into immediate favour, which it never lost.
Once more the battalion pitched headlong into training. The men didn't mind. After months of free-and-easy rules of page 68 dress, they muttered a little when they had to doll up for a battalion or church parade. But the training they entered into with plenty of spirit. They were pretty well trained by now, and very fit; this was the final polish, so to speak. There was action ahead, nobody doubted that. So there was a zest in their approach to the work.
The first week everybody had a couple of days on the Maadi firing range. Enough new Bren guns were issued to bring the unit, for the first time, up to strength. Every rifle and machine gun was tested and zeroed. After that a lot of their time was spent out in the desert, on route marches and manoeuvres, in full battle order—rifle, ammunition, respirator and tin hat, rations and water, and only the lightest possible load of personal gear. The emphasis in these manoeuvres was now on the specialists rather than on the ordinary infantrymen. The main points stressed were liaison, communication and coordination, the way to run a battle without getting everything tangled up.
Late in January the battalion practised an advance for the first time under live shell, mortar and Vickers gun fire, carefully regulated to give an ample safety margin. This was a full-dress show, as much like a real battle as it could be with no actual enemy there. The pioneers erected a regimental aid post and headquarters, carriers brought ammunition up and moved the mortars from place to place, provosts directed traffic, snipers sniped, signallers laid telephone lines out to the companies, the anti-aircraft men set up their guns round Battalion Headquarters and the transport.
More manoeuvres in February stressed other technical points of the management of a battle. How to move in the desert, the trucks in a big square covering miles of country, with front, rear and flanks protected by carriers and anti-tank guns; how to dispose the battalion on the battlefield, whether walking, sitting still or riding in trucks; how to set up a position with anti-tank and Vickers guns in support; how to cross a river.
This last was the most interesting of all, something out of the ordinary—though, as things turned out, it was the only one 18 Battalion never had a chance to put into practice in action. The unit didn't go to the Suez Canal after all, but page 69 only to the Nile five or six miles away from camp, where it used kapok bridging and folding assault boats to cross a small canal and then the river itself. Even the carriers and some more of the vehicles were taken across on wooden rafts, each supported by two assault boats. The crossing took most of the day, as each assault boat could carry only five men at once besides its crew, but they got there in the end. Then a week later they came back and repeated the exercise at night; this time there was some unrehearsed fun caused by boats sticking on sandbanks in mid-stream.
This was the first ditch 18 Battalion had crossed; the time was fast approaching when they were to cross one much bigger.Towards the end of February it became obvious that things were moving. Excitement and its attendant Rumour once more began to flourish. Departure now could only be for a battlefront. This was confirmed by the arrival of the advance party of the Second Echelon from England. Sixty men from 21 Battalion arrived in mid-February and were billeted in 18 Battalion's lines—the old envy of the Second Echelon hadn't quite disappeared, but it died fast when the 21 Battalion men came in, and men of 18 Battalion recognised old friends or made new ones.
Yes, it could only be for a battlefront. The whole division was coming together at last, and hadn't Major - General Freyberg promised that when that happened they would be in, boots and all? They were trained up to fighting pitch. Their numbers were filled up, too—seven new officers joined the battalion at Helwan, including the first ‘originals’ to get their commissions in the Middle East, and right at the last minute, as gear was being packed to leave Helwan, 200 of the newly-arrived 4th Reinforcements came in to replace the men who had dropped out through sickness or transfers.
The big question was, which battlefront? Europe (probably Greece) was the favourite bet all through, especially when balaclavas were issued to everybody. But this belief faltered a day or two later when the battle dress was handed in and tropical gear issued—topees, mosquito nets and repellent ointment, and shorts which could be let down below your knees for protection against mosquitoes. The men seeing these voluminous shorts for the first time goggled in amazement. page 70 These were the famous ‘Bombay bloomers’, whose reputation for inelegance was never to die in the NZEF. Anyhow, the net result was that when 18 Battalion finally left Helwan it didn't know where it was going, but could only guess.
The move out, as usual, came rather suddenly. Just after breakfast on 27 February a warning order arrived, and within half an hour the battalion was on the job packing up kitbags and striking camp. That night it slept under the stars. Early on the 28th the transport headed away north out of camp, and two hours later the rest of the battalion piled into trucks and went to the railway siding near the Italian prison camp, where a train with its palatial third-class carriages was waiting. Away it went, through Cairo and north across the Delta country. North, and still north. The Abyssinia and East Africa rumours died a natural death as the train got nearer to Alexandria, and once more the words ‘Europe’ and ‘Greece’ were on all lips. The battalion's spirits were higher than they had ever been. They were leaving behind the increasing spring heat and the rapidly multiplying flies of Egypt, and were going where at last they could ‘get stuck into’ the enemy. It had been a long and trying wait, but it was coming to an end now.
But there was another horror to overcome first, and that was Amiriya transit camp.
Amiriya is a spot which all Kiwis remember with loathing, and none more so than those who went to Greece in 1941. It is a desolate place on the south shore of Lake Maryut; its only virtue is that, being close to the main road, it is a convenient place for troops to camp and wait their turn to embark at Alexandria, 15 miles away. In the palm trees by the railway siding there is a Egyptian village peopled by expert thieves. Outside the palms there is only hard, baked desert stretching out to infinity, with (in those days) a British transit camp planted grimly in the middle.
The transport reached this health resort on the afternoon of 28 February in torrential rain, which was still falling when the rest of the unit came in early in the evening. The camp was a shambles. Whoever had used the tents last had left them dirty (not unusual in transit camps), the dust had been churned into soupy mud, and some of the tents had rivers flowing page 71 through them. The luckiest men were the carrier drivers, who didn't get off the train but went straight on to Alexandria with their carriers to be loaded on a cargo ship. The rest packed as best they could into the Amiriya tents, which wouldn't have been enough to go round comfortably even under good conditions. As it was, the men were jammed in like sardines. The camp was chock-a-block with British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers.
For three days it rained, while 18 Battalion sat in its tents and cursed. The men couldn't do much, and couldn't go anywhere, because their orders were to be ready to move out at short notice. They got a fresh issue of battle dress, which was very welcome, as the weather was cool and all their other clothes wet. Their main occupation for the three days was to sit and watch the never-ending streams of British and New Zealand trucks filing past along the main road to Alexandria. Their own transport left on 4 March. Its instructions were to keep petrol for only 30 miles after reaching the docks, so hundreds of gallons were run out on to the sand, which everyone considered a sinful waste.
On 4 March the weather cleared and the ground began to dry out, which relieved the general gloom a little. But everyone was sick of hanging round such a dismal hole with nothing to do.
The only bright spot in the week 18 Battalion spent at Amiriya was the affair of the picture theatre. The ubiquitous Mr Shafto had built one there, a flimsy structure put together largely of old kerosene tins and sacking. It was easy enough to tear holes in the walls, and consequently most of the New Zealanders in camp got in free for several nights. Eventually the management, waking up to what was going on, decided to close for repairs; but the loss of their entertainment (which wasn't much good, but the only one available) so displeased the soldiers that they burnt the theatre down.
Two days later, on 6 March, 18 Battalion received its sailing orders for next day.
The 7th March began early for C and D Companies, who were dragged out of bed at 4.45 a.m., and at six o'clock left for Amiriya siding, two miles along the road, weighed down under their gear. The train trip to Alexandria was quite short; page 72 C and D Companies arrived there before the rest of the battalion left Amiriya at 9 a.m. By midday the whole unit had embarked, C and D Companies on HMS Orion and the rest on HMS Ajax. Just after twelve o'clock the ships moved away from the wharf, past lines of French warships at anchor in the harbour; these were the ships that had got away from Toulon under the noses of the Germans, and as such aroused intense interest. The men lined the cruisers' rails as they passed, and the ships exchanged salutes.
Relations between the Kiwis and the sailors were excellent from the first minute. The Orion and Ajax were so crowded that it was hard to find a vacant spot on deck to sit down, but the Navy made its guests welcome, fed them well, and went out of its way to do them favours when the occasion offered. A trip aboard a cruiser was a novelty to all in 18 Battalion, and everyone enjoyed it. It was a very different convoy from the battalion's previous one—instead of big liners moving majestically along in rows, there were only three low, grey, businesslike cruisers forging ahead, with spray flung high back from their bows. North-west they headed, at high speed, carrying the New Zealanders towards Greece and their baptism of fire.
Daybreak on 8 March found the convoy running up the Aegean Sea, studded with dozens of little rocky islands. At midday, just twenty-four hours after leaving Alexandria, the cruisers entered Piraeus harbour, and after lunch the Kiwis took leave of their friends the sailors and filed down the gangway.
It had for some time been obvious that the German drive down through the Balkans would inevitably hit Greece before long. The Greeks, even without their war against the Italians in Albania, would have no chance of successfully resisting the mighty German war machine, so Britain had offered them aid, promising to send a force as soon as the Germans entered Bulgaria. This happened on 1 March. The New Zealand Division was at once sent over as the forerunner of an Imperial force; 18 Battalion, the Division's own advanced guard, was among the first British units to reach the country.page 73
And what a welcome it got! As it left Piraeus and drove through Athens in borrowed trucks, it was greeted with an enthusiasm rivalling that of Auckland fifteen months before. All Athens was on the streets waving, cheering and throwing flowers. That is, all the women, children and old men; for this country was at war, and scarcely an able-bodied man was to be seen. The battalion passed right through the city and out some five miles towards the foothills in the other direction, where a pleasant surprise awaited it—there, in a lovely little wooded valley, among pine trees, was a camp, not quite completed, but habitable, with most of the tents already up.
This miracle had been wrought by Cypriot pioneers, assisted by the men of the transport platoon, who had arrived the day before. Their trip over had not been as free from incident as the main body's; it had lasted three days, and included a bombing raid by Italian planes. Their trucks were not yet unloaded—they arrived in small groups spread over the next three days—but there the drivers were, welcoming the battalion to its temporary home.
Hymettus camp was a lovely spot. After the barren wastes of Egypt, the men revelled in the sight and smell of trees and grass. The Greeks, who came in swarms to visit the camp, were friendly, hospitable folk, the greatest possible contrast to the grimy, cadging, thieving mobs of Cairo. In the neighbouring village and in Athens many things were free to the Kiwis, who for the first time found some difficulty in spending their money (500 drachmae, equal to just under a pound, was the weekly pay). Everybody had two or three opportunities of going to Athens. They tried out the wine; they gaped at the ancient monuments, and marvelled at the view from the Acropolis; they really gave Athens a good look over. They knew they wouldn't be staying in these delightful surroundings for more than a few days before moving on to a sterner spot where, at last, they could expect to come face to face with the enemy; but despite that, or more likely because of that, spirits were high. Eighteenth Battalion had waited impatiently to come to grips with the enemy, and now the time was very close.
Theoretically, the presence of New Zealand troops in Greece was most strictly secret. No badges, no New Zealand emblems, were worn; even mail was stopped. But all these precautions page 74 didn't do an atom of good. How could they? All the world can recognise a New Zealander, and here in Athens—comic opera situation—the German Embassy was still in business, its staff mingling with the Kiwis in the crowded streets, sitting at the next tables in the restaurants, noting every detail. They had even been on the Piræus wharf with their little notebooks. So it is no wonder that 18 Battalion looked on the security restrictions with an eye of scorn.
From 11 March 18 Battalion was on six hours' notice to pack up and leave, and everyone knew it wouldn't be long, because the transport loaded up that evening, and left Hymettus at 5.30 next morning. The rest of the battalion had their last look at Athens on the 12th, then, early on the morning of the 13th, they packed up and left by truck in small groups for the Rouf railway station in Athens. At 1 p.m. the train pulled out, followed by cheers and waves from the crowd gathered to watch the departure. The battalion's destination was Katerini, 170 miles north as the crow flies, but twice that by road or rail through the rugged Greek mountains.
The road trip was full of interest, though it was tough driving. From Athens the road wound upwards through a land of craggy mountains, gorges and fertile valleys, over zigzag passes and down again on to narrow plains that ended in more mountains. Many rivers crossed or paralleled the road, a few wide and easy-flowing, but most of them rushing, steep torrents with narrow stone bridges over them. In places the roadway was too narrow for comfort, and the rough surface caused a lot of punctures and blowouts—and this was a main road. The drivers were yet in happy ignorance of what the Greek secondary roads were like.
Every now and again the convoy passed bands of women at work repairing the roads. This was something the New Zealanders were to see many times in this war-harassed country—women and old men forced to do heavy work because they were the only ones left at home to do it. They worked slowly and laboriously, but, no matter how tired they were, there was always a wave and a smile for the Kiwis. It made the men feel almost ashamed to be driving past in the luxury of lorries.
The night of 12 March found the convoy on the wide page 75 Larisa plain. It bivouacked in the town of Larisa, and moved on next morning, up into the mountains again, over the dizzy winding heights of Mount Olympus, and steeply down to Katerini, arriving at 3 p.m.
The main body of the battalion, though it missed much of the magnificent scenery by travelling all night, had plenty of fun—while daylight lasted the men could look at the rugged beauty of Greece with more appreciative eyes through not having to keep them glued to the road, and at the frequent halts they fraternised with the villagers, and could buy extras like eggs and fresh brown bread to vary their rations of bully and biscuits. Their night was a miserable one—everyone nearly froze, especially the guards on the carriers, which were on open trucks. At daybreak snow was falling gently round them, something quite new to most. From the train they could see a group of massive snowy peaks, which (although they didn't know it) was Mount Olympus. Then down through a gorge to the coast, north along cliff tops overlooking the Aegean, and on to Katerini just before midday.
Katerini is a town of some 10,000 people, but, like so many other Southern European towns, it seems to be built huddled and piled up on top of itself, and occupies so small an area that it is hard to see how so many people could fit in. Its narrow streets are a traffic hazard that 18 Battalion was to find repeated in innumerable other towns and villages in Greece, Crete, and later in Italy. It is only about five miles from the coast, in country that, though steeply undulating, is flat compared to most of Greece. South of it rise the foothills of Olympus, and to the north a lower spur of the same mountain chain, separating the town from the mouth of the Aliakmon River 18 miles away. The land round the town, thought 18 Battalion, was mostly poor—bare ridges, clumps of firs and evergreens in the gullies, occasional grey stone outcrops; a few groves of twisted olive trees, which somehow always seem to give their surroundings an even more barren look.
But this unprepossessing countryside was more than offset by the people the battalion found there. It was about a mile from the train to the unit's billets, and as the men marched through the streets with full packs up they got a great reception. They were among the first British troops to come as page 76 far north as this, and to the Greeks they were the deliverers who were going to preserve their homes from the enemy hordes. They were also a curiosity. During their short stay in Katerini they were followed everywhere by crowds of people so frankly inquisitive as to be embarrassing. But this was matched by a hospitality and friendliness just as great as that of Athens, though slightly less demonstrative.
Battalion Headquarters was set up in the town's municipal building, and the companies were billeted in empty houses and barns, in the local school, or with Greek families. The carrier crews alone were left out in the cold, under canvas in a park. It was cold, too, and no mistake—an icy wind from Olympus penetrated to the marrow, especially now that a year in Egypt had thinned the blood.
Despite the cold and the looming threat of invasion, there was a happy atmosphere in Katerini, and relations between the Kiwis and the Greeks were very cordial. The language difficulty was great, it is true, but not insurmountable—you can put a lot across in a few ungrammatical phrases, helped along by the international language of the hands. When off duty the men mingled freely with the civilians, sampled mavrodaphne, retsina and krassi in their wineshops, visited their homes and were royally entertained.
However, the stay in Katerini wasn't just a holiday. Some of the truck drivers spent their working hours carting shingle for the engineers for road repair. The rest of the battalion had a few short, vigorous route marches, and spent one day on the beach five miles away, where they did some shooting with rifles and anti-tank rifles, and all the Bren guns were given a final range test. An attempt was also made during these few days to instil into everyone's mind the idea of taking cover from hostile planes by using trees, buildings, or whatever natural cover might be available. This had been impossible in Africa, of course, but was quite feasible here, and very practical, with the Germans likely to bring to the attack the weight of an overwhelmingly superior air force. The time was not far away, indeed, when the safety of every man in the battalion was to depend on concealment from the air.
Another noteworthy event in Katerini was a church parade on Sunday, 16 March, in the town's Congregational church. page 77 The battalion filled the ground floor, but the gallery was crowded with civilians, attracted more by curiosity than piety, who joined heartily in the hymns in their own tongue, and listened with grave attention to the service, of which they couldn't understand a word. Soldiers, even regular churchgoers, can see nothing good in compulsory church parades as a rule, but this one was something out of the ordinary. It seemed to epitomise the bond of sympathy that had sprung up spontaneously between Kiwi and Greek, a bond that was not to be repeated anywhere else.
From the time 18 Battalion reached Katerini it was common knowledge that its stay there would be short, and that it was going up into the low hills north of the town to dig positions and man a line which was to stop the Germans cold when they arrived. The men knew no more details than that, and they didn't know the other side of the picture. They didn't know that the forces the British had been able to spare from Africa were quite insufficient to stand up against a powerful German assault. They didn't know the terrible difficulties faced by the Allied command in Greece, the grave doubts about the Greek Army's fighting capacity, the problems involved in siting a line to cover all possible approaches from the north, the danger that a line based on Katerini and the Aliakmon River might be outflanked from the west and cut off. They were full of confidence in themselves, in their training, their weapons, and their ability to see the Jerries off. ‘Let ‘em all come’ was 18 Battalion's attitude at this time.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray and his company commanders left Katerini on 15 March and spent three days having a good look over the defensive sector allotted to the battalion, and deciding the details of its occupation. On the morning of the 18th the men reluctantly said goodbye to their good friends in Katerini. They would be back, they promised. But army promises are iffy things, and nearly all the men who saw Katerini again did so under vastly different conditions, as unwilling guests of the German government. Of this, however, there was no premonition that morning, as they shouldered their packs and set out light-heartedly into the hills.