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19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 11 — Back to Egypt

page 172

Back to Egypt

And many a broken heart is here and many a
broken head;

But tomorrow,
By the living God, we’ll try the game again.

—John Masefield

The voyage across the Mediterranean was fraught with danger, but the exhausted troops slept soundly, confident now that, come what may, the Navy would not be found wanting. The hours of darkness passed and the day dawned clear and fine. The morning sun glazed the calm blue sea. The Nizam and Napier were making good time, every turn of their screws bringing them and the 1510 weary troops they carried closer to safety. The horizon stretched in an unbroken circle, a picture of tranquillity, but the peace and placidity of that summer’s morning were soon shattered. The bosun’s pipe suddenly sent every sailor to action stations and the alarm gongs woke the sleeping soldiers.

Swarming out of the morning sun were several small black specks. Nine German bombers based in the Dodecanese had left with the daylight to search for Allied shipping. Now began a new and nasty experience for troops who knew only too well the terrors of dive-bombing. Herded together like sheep on the decks of the destroyers, with no scope for offensive action and no possibility of taking cover, they were forced to wait and watch while the attack developed. The staccato barking of the ships’ anti-aircraft guns was sweet music and when the bombs began to send great columns of water cascading into the air about the two ships, fright was forgotten and a heartfelt cheer went up as one of the aircraft was seen to take a headlong dive and crash into the sea. The ack-ack guns roared continuous defiance but, undeterred, the Junkers came back to drop a second string of page 173 bombs. This time HMS Napier was damaged by a near miss but the Germans lost another plane. It was an anxious time. Nizam stood by her crippled companion and both ships prepared to fight off the next attack. Suddenly, out of the blue, came a Fleet Air Arm patrol of two Fulmar fighters; the bombers fled but not before another of their number had been left behind. The tension was lifted.

It was not the only victory that day, for an announcement on the Napier’s notice board stated that some thirty enemy bombers had been scattered by the Fleet Air Arm prior to the attack that morning on the two ships.

At 5 p.m. the troops disembarked in Egypt. That once-detested country now became a welcome haven. Entraining at the quayside in Alexandria en route to Amiriya no complaints were uttered; even the Egyptian State Railways were spared the usual curses.

The unpopular desert transit camp now seemed a delightful site; after the never-ending strain of the past weeks, here was peace at last. Welcome faces to greet the survivors included Captain Dave Thomson, WO II Bert Steele, Sergeants ‘Buck’ Buchanan, ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald,1 ‘Snow’ Kershaw2 and ‘Killer’ Brown.3 In Greece, sent on a reconnaissance to the embarkation point, these men had been cut off from 4 Brigade and had finally left from Monemvasia, going direct to Egypt with 6 Brigade.

A night and a day were spent at Amiriya. Unlimited hospitality characterised the short stay. The YMCA, local welfare organisations, and neighbouring units vied with each other in providing for the wants of those who were arriving from Crete. Their friendliness was good, and eating and drinking, washing and sleeping, smoking and lazing were all delightful; yet restlessness and unsettlement could not be so easily conquered. Despite exhaustion, many found themselves unable to sit still. Bitter thoughts and cold anger flowed with every mention of the past campaigns. The train journey on the night of 1–2 June gave much time for page 174 reviewing the last fortnight’s events, and the remnants of the 19th arrived back at Helwan unbroken in spirit but with a cold and savage hatred in their hearts. But all shared one ray of comfort: the knowledge that the enemy losses in specialised highly trained paratroops had been enormous. The prisoners taken during the early stages of the battle had openly boasted that the island would be theirs in a few hours. Despite complete command in the air and great superiority in equipment, it had taken two weeks to dislodge the defenders. If Crete had been—as was popularly believed—the full-scale rehearsal for Hitler’s vaunted attack on England, then the German plans would now require considerable recasting.

It was a small battalion which bedded down in the 19th lines at Helwan Camp on 2 June. Not all the survivors of Crete could be collected together in the unit area. Many wounded and exhausted men were moved direct to 2 NZ General Hospital at Helwan. During the next few days others joined them as patients in the overcrowded Grand Hotel, the Casino, and its surrounding tents and buildings. The medical staff toiled day and night to cope with the sudden rush of cases. The weather was scorching hot and conditions were far from ideal for treatment, rest and convalescence, but by hard work and improvisation the NZMC staff, sisters, and nurses under Colonel Spencer4 provided a hospital service which met every emergency.

The 3rd June was spent settling into the new camp which Captain Thomson and his small party had prepared. Clothing and personal equipment, pay and Patriotic Board parcels were issued. Fifteen per cent of the meagre strength were permitted to go on leave immediately, but Cairo beckoned only feebly that day. Showers, ‘Stella’ from the Naafi, and sleep were the chief attractions; all could be had on the spot. Yet the sudden release from toil and tension caused reaction. At night restlessness still made the sound sleep so sorely needed impossible, while during daylight an page 175 unsettled state of mind caused the smallest task to seem tedious. The searing sun added to the tortures of the battle-weary as temperatures rose to record heights.

A large mail accumulated in the past month was distributed and this news of home, though most welcome, seemed only to add to the mental disquiet. Few were able to concentrate on answering correspondence or bring themselves to think of anything but the events of the past two campaigns. Groups gathered in huts and messes to talk of those who were no longer with them. The fate of many men was uncertain, and each remaining man on the roll felt his own responsibility to help piece together the shreds of evidence which might put any man now on the missing list into a more definite category. Reports and returns were being collected, and companies, still retaining their identity, did their best to give the information required of them; but it was a dismal business.

It was a grim irony, too, that a unit which in twenty months’ service had known no better shelter than a tent should now find itself in a hutted camp. Being roofed over and shut up in a full dormitory created an atmosphere akin to claustrophobia, and some found it necessary for many nights to forsake the comfort inside and sleep beneath the stars.

At this time the only transport in the unit was a privately-owned car, the property of three junior officers, inseparable companions whose frequent excursions to Cairo had become almost a unit legend. To the delight of the troops, the vehicle was now put to a more practical use. It carried rations, it carried sick, and did the hundred and one jobs which distance and lack of official transport made impossible by other means. It was an invaluable acquisition to a unit temporarily bereft of the power to move.

Muster parades and administrative fatigues filled the rest of the week. Night leave was generous, and to those who could find accommodation seven days’ leave was allowed. This could be spent in Cairo, the Delta, Upper Egypt or Palestine. Pay balances accumulated during three months’ service in the field allowed the troops to range far and wide. page 176 As each batch marched out the scanty battalion roll dwindled still further and a unit training programme became impossible. Before solid training could begin again the battalion needed men, equipment, and new directives. The lessons learned in Greece and Crete had yet to find a place in military manuals of instruction.

By 7 June strength summaries had been completed and were posted. The final check showed that the 19th were 10 officers and 428 other ranks below strength. The gradual absorption of reinforcements now began and continued throughout the month. Most of the new men were from the third section of the 4th Reinforcements who had been in Maadi about three months. Some few were from the 5ths who had arrived less than a month ago. The day before the majority of these men marched in, a formal battalion parade was held in honour of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt Hon Peter Fraser, who afterwards met the men informally at a garden party at the Maadi Club. The occasion was a pleasant one and the personal contact made, and the interest shown by the head of the Government, was appreciated by all ranks. The civilian residents of Maadi contributed largely to the success of the day by their generous hospitality, showing a warmth of friendliness which must have made unusual demands on such a cosmopolitan community. Irrespective of race or creed, all did their share in entertaining the New Zealand troops who had returned from Greece and Crete.

On 9 June Lieutenant-Colonel Varnham, discharged from hospital, marched in to resume command of his battalion. The 19th had always regarded him as its real commander and his coming inspired confidence and spelled renewed activity. With him came 10 officers and 350 other ranks, and from that date constructive work began. The less seriously wounded and the sick, now well, began to find their way back to the unit also, but the 19th was still some 100 men below establishment. To all intents it was a new unit, yet the leaven of the old members, rearranged to meet changing conditions, was a telling factor in its reorganisation.

page 177

The veterans were now asked to forgo parochial loyalties in the larger issue of unit efficiency. Wellington West Coast Company was reconstituted and training as a battalion began again. Captain Errol Williams, returning to the battalion after a tour of duty as OC NZ Wing at Middle East OCTU, was chosen to command the new company. To it were posted a proportion of old hands from all the other companies in the unit plus the few WWC men who had got back from Greece.

This was the first of many such occasions when the unit would be called upon to regroup. The words of the commanding officer spoken during a lecture in the far-off days of Trentham were remembered. On that occasion there was a protest over transfers taking place between companies, and he said that this would happen many times during the course of the war and was something the unit would have to face. Now it became essential, for WWC, if it was to be as efficient a sub-unit as the other companies in the battalion, had to have a liberal sprinkling of leaders who had proved their worth in battle. The transfers were now made without protest, and each of the remaining companies lost good men with regret but with a certain knowledge that necessity would justify their going.

There were many problems to be sorted out, but the ranks were once more swelled to impressive proportions. Each morning there was a period of smartening-up drill, and each afternoon a percentage of the strength was permitted to spend leave in Cairo while the remainder were kept fully employed in camp construction and administration.

By 24 June the battalion was up to full strength, though equipment was still very scarce. Transport was limited to two 15-cwt trucks employed on administrative duties. Still, much valuable work was done. In addition to parade-ground ceremonial, route marches and lectures on the lessons of the recent campaigns became the mainstays of the programme.

The war situation was black; everywhere the Germans seemed to be victorious and the greater part of Europe was page 178 now in their hands. The Japanese threat in the Pacific was causing concern. In the Middle East Rommel had won back many of the gains of Wavell’s advance the previous year. The threat to Egypt was now very real, and both Axis partners had bases relatively secure from attack on which to build up their forces prior to carrying out their threat to seize the Suez Canal. It was evident that sooner or later the desert would once more be a battle arena. In Tobruk 9 Australian Division, beleaguered since April, were holding out until the army in the Middle East was again strong enough to come to their relief.

But Greece and, more particularly, Crete had changed many accepted standards of warfare. We had been at the receiving end of a very bitter lesson, and every effort was now being made to ensure that all angles of these operations would be exhaustively examined and that we should profit in the future from our past mistakes and by learning from the enemy’s tactics. Brigadier Inglis was flown direct to London to report on that battle, while other senior officers went to Malta and Cyprus to advise the commanders of those garrisons how best to prepare for, and fight off, the airborne landings which were believed imminent. The Empire forces, on the alert in every theatre, waited and prepared to ward off the next blow.

On 22 June, however, Hitler made a move which was unpredictable. By attacking Russia, he opened an entirely new front and completely changed the strategy of the Axis armies. There were many who delved into history to quote Napoleon’s case, but as the German advance kept rolling swiftly on there were few left to prophesy the eventual disaster into which this new campaign would lead him. The German army, it seemed, was invincible, yet those who had fought in Greece and Crete knew that man for man the Germans must lose to our own forces. But in a war of machines we lagged on foot; in a war of the air we were not yet fledged.

It was hardly surprising that there should be some rancour over past events and that the sorest point of all should be the soldier’s reaction to lack of air cover. The RAF were page 179 unjustly labelled by many men who, uninformed and embittered, were prone to vent their feelings at times and in places where they did the most damage. This state of affairs could not be countenanced and official explanations, plus new trends in training which provided for ground-air co-operation on a scale not previously encountered, restored the situation. It became apparent that future operations would see our forces adequately catered for in the air.

Throughout July training toughened progressively. The Wadi Garawi was the arena where movement, attack, and withdrawal were daily lessons for perspiration-soaked soldiers. This dusty, sun-scorched subsidence in the desert will remain as one of the nightmares of Egypt to those who, in the torrid summer of 1941, staggered back and forth across its soft, yielding surface until the whole unit had attained the co-ordination required of a well-oiled machine. But Wadi Garawi was also a crucible in which fresh friendships were fused. At night in the Naafi over liberal supplies of beer, these friendships were tempered until the battalion once more became a band united both by comradeship and discipline. They were hard days, but days which would prove their worth when the 19th, as part of Auchinleck’s army, would again be pitted against the Axis forces in the Western Desert.

By the end of the month all ranks were thoroughly fit. The unit athletic team, under Captain Thomson, added a strenuous end-of-day programme to their already arduous normal tasks. The battalion was once more working as a cohesive whole; the reinforcements were already finding more satisfaction in duty with a line battalion than they had known in the base training establishments in which they had done their recruit work. The old team spirit was again manifest. The section, the platoon, the company, and the battalion all had their part in the programme, which inspired the best effort from each individual soldier.

The regimental mascot ‘Major’ attained commissioned rank during this time, Routine Order No. 47 of 19 July stating: ‘Pte Major, No 1 dog NZEF, in view of his long and meritorious service with the Bn, and his obtaining a page 180 distinguished pass at OCTU had been promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieut.’ In addition to the identification discs on his collar he now wore a metal pip. It would have been hard to find a junior officer who carried his rank with more decorum and faultless dignity. On and off parade, ‘Major’s’ manners were beyond reproach, his enthusiasm unbounded and his turnout unblemished.

Battle manœuvres began at the beginning of August. Preliminary training finished, the battalion now worked as a complete unit, and in all these operations co-operation with the air and with tanks took on an increasing importance. It was evident that future operations would see the Middle East Forces take the field on fairer terms than our men had so far known.

Early in August the commander of 4 NZ Brigade Group, Brigadier Puttick, returned to New Zealand to take up the appointment of Chief of the General Staff. His personal courage and unbounded energy during the campaign in Greece as commander of 4 Brigade, and in Crete as commander of the New Zealand Division, were well known and the old hands regretted his going. The Brigadier was a professional soldier of plain words and unpretentious habits, a veteran of two wars, in both of which he had earned high distinction; his departure on 6 August meant a loss to the Division. The appointment for which he had been chosen, however, was evidence of his ability as a soldier and of the regard in which he was held as a leader. It also gave an indication of the seriousness of the position in the Pacific.

Brigadier Puttick was succeeded by Brigadier Inglis. Already well known as CO 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, Brigadier Inglis had commanded the brigade in Crete. A recent tour of duty with the training depot in Maadi had added to his already established reputation as something of a martinet. For his ceremonial review of the brigade on 12 August, the battalion turned out neat, precise and trained to the minute; the men acquitted themselves well and were complimented. The reinforcements, with vivid memories of the exhaustive and exhausting inspections of the past, page 181 stood grimly apprehensive as the steely eye passed down the ranks, but felt proud that their unit could escape censure and even earn praise from so redoubtable a disciplinarian.

Rifle and LMG range practices now became part of the daily round and classification shooting revealed a serious lack of practice on the part of the men newly posted to the battalion. Scores on the rifle range had never given any great cause for satisfaction, but the 19th had always applied itself assiduously to improving its shooting. When the battalion had finally gone into battle, the Huns had complained of the deadly accuracy of their rifle fire, asking if these New Zealand troops were recruited from deerstalkers. They would have rejoiced to see some of the targets turned in during these practices. Special coaching, however, gradually brought the worst shots up to the required standard and final results showed a considerable improvement.

On 12 August the divisional athletic meeting was held at the sporting club grounds on Gezira Island. The battalion was fully represented and had several successes. The day’s break in the pleasant grounds was enjoyed by the desert-weary troops. Service in the Middle East was supportable solely by reason of agreeable episodes such as this. The sudden change from the dusty, sun-scorched camp to the stately homes and gardens of the British colony of Cairo and the Gezira club, where one walked on green grass and sheltered under cool trees, made a refreshing contrast.

The holiday over, the unit once more sweated in Wadi Garawi, but rumour had been busy over the last few weeks and it was becoming increasingly evident that a move was in the air. Equipment was pouring in and battle exercises now involved the whole brigade. Confirmation that the Division would be leaving almost immediately was given by the GOC at a full-dress parade held on the Helwan Camp football ground. Fourth Brigade was due to take over from the 5th at the combined operations centre at Kabrit. On 17 August units would move to the canal zone for exercises with the Navy and the RAF. With light hearts Wadi Garawi was traversed for the last time. Stumbling across its stubborn surface, loaded down by full battle kit, the 19th page 182 fulfilled the final item on the training syllabus—an approach march followed by a night attack and dawn consolidation. Next day the unit was on its way to Kabrit.

The advance party under Lieutenant F. M. Stewart, the unit transport officer, pulled out early on the 17th. By the afternoon the rest of the battalion were squatting expectantly on their packs waiting the order to march to the railway siding. Despite their heavy loads the men covered those five dusty miles with a step which was almost jaunty, then in the sunset squatted once more on packs among the clinkers beside the railway track. The rising moon replaced the setting sun and at last, clanking and clattering, the troop train drew in. In the pale moonlight the unit scrambled into dirty steel boxcars, hauled its equipment and belongings behind it, and prepared for sixteen hours of discomfort—forty men per car, plus full equipment, no lights and much dirt. For the first few hours there was little chance to sleep, but gradually the confusion was sorted out and groups settled down.

Morning and the brilliant canal sunshine brought full recognition of the insalubrious surroundings; what the blackout had hidden daylight revealed. Oil, dust, cement and worse, all the odorous residue of the various merchandise the trucks had carried on their previous trips, now clung with grubby tenacity to the persons and kits of their present passengers. At Fayid, in the full heat of noon on 18 August, the battalion, looking like a trainload of sweeps, descended from their boxcars, once more cursed the detested Egyptian State Railways, and embussed in army lorries to conclude the last stage in their 150-mile journey.

The combined operations centre at Kabrit was situated on a peninsula between the Great and Little Bitter Lakes, through which the Suez Canal passes. From a training and quartering point of view the camp was a going concern, and the 19th took over the tented lines vacated by the Maori Battalion. As though resenting the newcomers, the desert reacted violently and the unit moved in during a dense dust-storm, which was repeated each afternoon for the rest of the week. Despite the dust the locality had its good
Black and white photograph of injured soldiers

HQ Company headquarters. The casualties are Cpl A. J. Spence and 2 Lt C. W. Taylor. The runner is Pte W. J. Brown

Black and white photograph of soldiers walking

19 Battalion moving down towards the beach at Sfakia

Black and white photograph of a coastline

The coastline near Sfakia

Black and white photograph of soldiers

Return to Alexandria—Taranaki Company group:(standing) N. E. Andrews, L. G. Schultz, V. C. Gordon, unidentified, A. R. Olsson, T. S. Hermon; (sitting) unidentified, M. J. Goodin, G. A. Arthur, J. C. Palmer, R. J. Smith, J. R. Kearns, A. C. Sears

Black and white photograph of officers in a jeep

Rendezvous at Kilo 40 during the move of 12 November 1941—Lt-Col S. F. Hartnell and Capt J. I. Thodey are standing behind the jeep

Black and white photograph of vehicle movement

A German 88-mm gun making off—the escarpment above Gambut, 23 November

Black and white photograph of officers

The link-up at Ed Duda—three Tank Corps officers unnamed, Brigadier A. C. Willison, Lt-Col S. F. Hartnell, a Tank Corps officer unnamed, and Captain E. D. Blundell

Black and white photograph of soldiers resting

A brew at a post in the desert—D. H. Byrne, W. McL. Duthie, A. Maunder, H. F. Jemison, J. A. Simmers

page 183 points, for the air had a freshness which Helwan had never known and there was excellent swimming in the Bitter Lakes. Canteen arrangements were good and, as the camp amenities were not over abundant, leave was generous. But throughout the pleasantly active weeks spent at Kabrit, few cared to repeat their first visit to Tewfik or Suez, whose possibilities could each be exhausted in a single night. When work was over, a swim was all most men wanted, then a visit to the canteen with its full supplies of beer and the opportunity of fraternising with the Royal Navy.

The first period, 19 to 26 August, was spent in preliminary training which proved immensely popular with all ranks. A gauge to its success is the fact that the proportion of non-swimmers in the unit dropped from 35 per cent to 5 per cent. In their spare time all ranks were constantly in the water practising rowing. The craft available could not cater for the demand, and some members of the unit who had never handled a boat before began to show promise as oarsmen. There were some good coaches, for among the original members who left New Zealand with the battalion in 1940 were several representative oarsmen. While in Maadi and Helwan these men had taken every opportunity to keep in practice in the skiffs of the Nile Boating Club. But, unhappily, some good men whose skill and enthusiasm would have been invaluable at Kabrit had been lost in the last campaign. Corporal George Cooke, former New Zealand Olympic oarsman, had been killed in action in Crete, and several others too had made their last journey in Charon’s barge. The unit missed them.

The friendly and tolerant tutelage of the Navy was the greatest factor in the proficiency the unit achieved during its training for combined operations. Relations were most cordial from the start and by 27 August, when the 19th embarked on HMS Glenroy, every man felt confident in his ability to take part in the full-scale exercises which were to follow. The Glenroy was no stranger to New Zealand troops; many members of her crew had helped to evacuate them from Greece and Crete, and 5 Brigade had already completed its course of training aboard her. Her naval page 184 routine and nautical nomenclature were modified for the benefit of the landlubbers she carried; but her commander, Captain Sir James Paget, Bt, RN, must have logged some curious incidents during her career at Kabrit.

A happy social occasion during the battalion’s stay at the combined operations centre was a day’s cricket. The Glenroy fielded several teams to play the battalion and a splendid day’s sport resulted. That evening all messes, officers, sergeants and other ranks, entertained their opposite numbers to dinner, which was followed by an exceedingly successful party.

To the troops, the trapeze act they performed climbing up and down her netted sides with full battle kit, then crowding into her snub-nosed landing craft, was something entirely new and interesting. Her efficient and completely self-contained organisation, plus the Navy’s traditional imperturbability in moments when all seemed confusion, soon won the admiration of all ranks. The first exercise went with a swing. The battalion was landed at night on a beach in the Bitter Lakes, staged a dawn attack, then re-embarked in a manner which impressed each man with the possibilities of such an operation.

Combined exercises culminated in a full-scale operation for the whole of the brigade. This took place on 5 September and was attended by the GOC. A location having similar features to the coast of Cyrenaica was selected on the east side of the Canal, where the open sea lay to the west of the coastline. The mythical enemy was an Italian corps, and against them 4 NZ Brigade Group, with support from the Royal Navy and the RAF, was to make a raid from the sea. A heavy air attack on Suez, one of the many staged during the battalion’s stay there, held up proceedings for an hour or so, but the operation was completed successfully and was the final big scheme in which the unit participated at Kabrit.

Air raids on Suez, Ismailia and Geneifa, and the Canal itself were a nightly occurrence. The searchlights and anti-aircraft barrage put up by the defences were on a scale beyond anything our troops had so far seen. Anti-aircraft page 185 drill was perfected through constant practice. ‘Aircraft yellow’ gave preliminary warning; ‘Aircraft red’ spelled take cover. On one occasion an ‘aircraft black’ heralded a possible paratroop landing, and the battalion stood to and brought a mobile fighting column into readiness to combat a landing should one have taken place.

Brigade aquatic and athletic sports provided a vigorous and pleasant end to the stay on the Canal. Already hardened by its desert training at Helwan, the unit was now in fine fettle, and the warning order which was received early in September for its return to the Western Desert was greeted with great enthusiasm. On 8 September the advance party comprising the transport from all units in the brigade left Kabrit, and on the 15th the battalion once more shouldered its packs and boarded the train for Baggush.

1 S-Sgt K. J. G. Fitzgerald; Nelson; born NZ, 9 May 1911; civil servant.

2 Pte G. M. Kershaw; born Dannevirke, 28 Apr 1917; grocer.

3 Lt G. D. Brown; Mangaweka; born Levin, 14 Jan 1921; farmer; wounded 17 Mar 1944.

4 Col F. M. Spencer, OBE, m.i.d.; born Rotorua, 3 Oct 1893; medical practitioner; NZMC, 1 NZEF, 1914–19; CO 2 Gen Hosp 1940–43; died of sickness (North Africa) 12 Jun 1943.