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19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 4 — The Western Desert

page 28

The Western Desert

… singing in the Wilderness

—Omar Khayyam

The mood of the troops was merry. Each truck, crowded with singing, shouting soldiers, swung into place in the column and the convoy headed away from Maadi. Inactivity had irked, and when Italy entered the war a more active role seemed certain; at last the wheels were turning. The destination, unknown at present, would at least be nearer the battle zone. Spirits were high that morning.

As the convoy passed through the outskirts of crowded Cairo, a chorus of shrill Saeedas and broad black grins greeted the good-natured sallies from the three-tonners. Across the Khedive Ismail bridge, past the Pyramids and on to the Cairo-Alexandria road, a black ribbon of bitumen disappearing into the distance, the trucks sped. A halt on the desert roadside at ten minutes to each hour, with an hour for lunch, broke the journey; then at Bahig, hot, cramped and dusty, the column stopped to bivouac for the night. Next day, 19 June, the battalion arrived at Garawla in the Western Desert.

Halting on the seashore, about 12 miles short of Mersa Matruh, camp was set up. The new surroundings were found to be almost obscured by a heavy pall of sand. A khamsin blowing up from the south-west cast a cloud over the arrival. The area, too, had not long before been vacated by Indian troops and, in addition to the sand, a plague of flies infested the site. A change in the wind brought relief from the first of these troubles, and rigid hygiene and sanitation gradually brought the second within controllable proportions.

Passive air defence measures came into action immediately and tents were dug in and camouflaged with mud and water —no easy target was to be presented to the Duce’s aircraft. page 29 The steady unhindered bombing of Mersa Matruh by the Italian Air Force was then in full swing. The precautions received spontaneous support from all ranks for the peculiar throbbing note of the enemy night bombers passing overhead was regularly heard; though dropped some distance away, their cargoes shook the earth.

On 21 June 19 Battalion received news of its operational role. Dreams of offensive action against the Italians suffered a rude awakening. The task was a defensive one: armed only with picks and shovels, it was ordered to dig a tank obstacle. This mighty moat would stretch from the sea to a terminal away on the far horizon somewhere at the head of Wadi Naghamish. On the 22nd 18 and 19 Battalions moved out as labour battalions and began to scoop a twelve-foot-wide ditch across the face of the desert. The work was hard. The solid limestone pan, overlaid with stones and loose sand, presented a problem calling for methods more modern than bare hands and sweat. Explosives and power tools are not found on infantry equipment tables and the Engineers, who glibly reckoned the unit’s quota of ditch in man-hours, were singularly deficient in items of more practical assistance. All hands dug, and dug, and dug. By pitting company against company and platoon against platoon good progress was made. But from that five-foot-deep channel the desert contested every shovelful. The heat was terrific and the temperature, plus the solid toil, took a toll of men at first; the majority hardened up quickly however. The sea was close and there was little else to do but work, swim, and sleep. Toughening, the men revelled in the work, and enjoyed the relaxation the white sands and blue water of the Mediterranean offered afterwards.

The bathing was wonderful but the coast in parts could be treacherous, and one afternoon several swimmers would have drowned but for the action of Lance-Corporal Stuckey1 page 30 and Private Currie,2 whose lifesaving efforts assisted by some of the less strong swimmers enabled each man in difficulties to be finally brought ashore.

Sentries and patrols were kept on the q.v. with promises of trouble both from the sea and the air. Warning was received of a possible enemy landing, and one night when an unidentified motor vessel was reported moving east along the coast, excitement ran high. But the only battle was the daily wrestle with the dirt as the anti-tank ditch took shape. The job progressed steadily, though the withdrawal of the Wellington West Coast Company to Matruh, for guard duty at the prisoner-of-war camp, cut down the number of navvies and another heavy khamsin on the 27th delayed work for that day.

Twenty bombers, raiding Mersa Matruh on the 28th, gave a fillip to our air defence measures. On the camp site, digging slit trenches now received priority. Visits to Mersa Matruh supplied convincing examples of the necessity for this caution. Nothing, however, came within range of the tripod-mounted Brens and the job of anti-aircraft sentry was a sinecure, a relief from digging.

The battalion’s first liaison with the Royal Air Force began at Garawla when visits were exchanged and meagre means of hospitality shared with the famous 45 Squadron. They too were desert dwellers. A friendship developed between the two units which lasted throughout the 19th’s service in the Middle East and provided some of its happiest highlights.

A travelling oasis in the desolation was the YMCA truck with its stock of good things. John Ledgerwood, with energy, craft, and a business acumen which rivalled that of the wily wog, somehow managed to keep up his stocks. He dispensed not only to the battalion but also to lonely detachments far afield. The gratitude of the Tommies in their isolated posts was touching, and our boys were no less grateful for the yeoman service he gave. ‘Pay me on pay day’ was his answer to longing looks and empty pockets— page 31 the unit arrived at Garawla flat broke—and two hundred pounds’ worth of stock, at an average price of five piastres per article, was disposed of in that way: no book entries, no slate, and no IOUs. When payday came, into the YMCA till went two hundred pounds and twenty piastres. Thereafter in John’s emporium was hung a sign: ‘If no one is here boys, take what you want and leave the money in the box. If you’re “broke” take what you want and pay me Friday.’—a testimonial to the character of the unit.

From the prisoner-of-war camp at Smugglers’ Cove came a steady trickle of enemy souvenirs. Wellington West Coast Company were making the most of their guardianship of a nondescript, poor-looking bunch of Italian and native Libyan prisoners who had been passed into their keeping by 7 Armoured Division. In a neat raid on Fort Capuzzo a force from that famous formation had gathered in the garrison, plus their arms and equipment, and departed before retaliation arrived. The captives were in startling contrast to our troops. Their poorly kept weapons were eloquent examples of the inferiority of Mussolini’s African Army, and their demeanour as prisoners belied the bellicosity attributed to them by Rome radio.

June ended with the relief of the Wellington West Coast Company by 18 Battalion. Its numbers reinforced again, the battalion’s digging quotas reached new heights, until on 3 July Hawke’s Bay Company departed and the prisoner-of-war camp once more changed hands. By the end of the week it was evident that something was afoot, and on the 7th the 19th was suddenly relieved by 20 Battalion. Fresh from Cairo, the 20th took over the area and the task, while the 19th once more clambered into the trucks of 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company and headed back to Cairo. The frustration felt when the battalion was ordered to leave the ditch before it had stopped even one enemy tank was reflected in every face during the preparations for the journey back. Though it was not known then, the unit would return many times to the Western Desert, and the energies spent then, and later, in the construction of set defensive works would not contribute one iota to the final page 32 winning of the battles which rolled back and forth across the wastes. The digging, however, did pay dividends in physical fitness.

Another bitter pill shared with all New Zealand troops in Egypt was the news that the Second Echelon, whose arrival all had long awaited, had landed in England. Rumour had it, too, that the GOC had left Egypt to lead them in battle.3 The midsummer heat combined with the trend of events to produce symptoms of irritation. The move back to Cairo was not popular but once there the battalion let down its hair. Messes staged some terrific parties.

One such beano which will long be remembered by all participants took place when members of 45 Squadron paid the officers’ mess an official visit. The evening started with a dinner heavy with dignity but steadily degenerated as the hours passed. When at last the guests departed, clad in tea-towels in lieu of their irrevocably ruined tropical uniforms, it was only to proceed a few hundred yards down the road. They were apparently under the impression that their vehicle could fly, but it failed to take off and merely overturned. Result: one broken neck, one wrecked car, and four badly shaken operational pilots. There were no hurt feelings, however, and later the RAF retaliated in their own inimitable fashion. Happily their casualty later recovered completely. He had many New Zealand visitors while in hospital and the plaster sarcophagus in which he was encased became an autograph book for the battalion.

Guard duties constituted the main task of the companies during the short stay back at Maadi. The unit was well split up. On 10 July, three days after leaving Garawla, Wellington West Coast Company was posted to the aerodromes at Heliopolis and Helwan for anti-aircraft duties with the RAF. On the following day Wellington Company took over from a company of the Scots Guards at the ammunition dumps at Tura caves. Hawke’s Bay Company moved later to Gezira and during the month all companies were changed around. The tonic effect of this varied pro- Coloured map of Northern Egypt page 33 gramme, new sights, new contacts and not too tedious duties, restored a measure of content. Unit picnics held at the Zoo and at the Barrage were happy occasions.

A reshuffle in appointments gave the battalion a new adjutant, ‘Brick’ Budd, senior subaltern, forsaking his carriers for that important post at Battalion Headquarters, while Cedric Williamson,4 OC Hawke’s Bay Company and the senior company commander, changed places with Charlie Webster5 as OC Headquarters Company.

The troops left in camp kept up a training programme, the specialist platoons especially making good use of the time. More technical equipment had come to hand, and with fully qualified unit instructors fresh from the various schools, some good courses were run. The New Zealand Divisional Signals, still on duty with the Western Desert Force, had borrowed heavily from the battalions’ trained signallers, and to make up the shortage men with suitable qualifications were drafted from companies for intensive training. Even in camp communications were vital. With almost half its strength detached, the signal platoon had a difficult time fulfilling its functions. It was January 1941 before the men lent to Divisional Signals came back, and the pool of trained personnel built up during their absence proved valuable in later operations.

Gas chamber tests, anti-gas drill, and equipment checks were carried out by all ranks and the importance of these precautions was increasingly stressed. Intelligence reports confirmed that the enemy was developing methods of gas warfare and that he had stocks of gas ready for release from the air. The cumbersome respirators plagued their wearers for the duration of the war, but mercifully gas was never used: Mussolini’s experiments with the Abyssinians were not repeated on troops who might retaliate.

Skeleton tactical exercises in co-operation with other arms and units were held close to the camp. They were valuable page 34 training but not always an accurate forecast of what would happen later on in battle. On 20 August the records show that an exercise involving 20 Battalion, Divisional Cavalry, and two 19 Battalion companies proved that ‘Tanks are unable to break through a strong infantry line, and suffered large casualties through bunching in the wadis.’ At the time the only anti-tank weapon the infantry had was the Boys rifle. Towards the end of the month companies concentrated again in Maadi Camp and on the 27th they packed up once more. The morning of the 28th saw the unit on the road again for the Western Desert.

1 Cpl J. E. F. Stuckey; Ashhurst; born Mangaweka, 10 Aug 1916; farm-hand; p.w. Apr 1941. A determined but unlucky escaper, Stuckey spent a good deal of his time as a prisoner of war either at liberty or in solitary confinement. He made four successful breaks but was recaptured each time. For these and two other unsuccessful attempts, he spent 195 days in solitary confinement.

2 Pte B. A. J. Currie; Wanganui; born NZ, 10 Apr 1916; labourer; p.w. Apr 1941.

3 General Freyberg left Egypt for England on 17 June to train the Second Echelon. He returned on 24 September.

4 Lt-Col C. M. Williamson, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Napier, 5 May 1900; civil servant; company commander 19 Bn Sep 1939-Jun 1941; AA and QMG NZ Maadi Camp Nov 1941-Feb 1943; OC Tps Maadi Camp Oct 1942-Feb 1943.

5 Maj C. E. Webster; born London, 19 Mar 1906; bank officer; killed in action 20 May 1941.