19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 5 — Baggush Box
There were vipers, flies and sandstorms.
Burg el arab was the midway bivouac on the return route to the Desert, and though the majority of the battalion bedded down for the night almost as soon as the convoy stopped, some adventurous spirits managed to make for Alexandria and return before daylight. Early next morning the unit was on the road again and by mid-afternoon was once more at Garawla. Digging started next day; but the diggers were not destined to see the completion of their task, for after the first two days much activity at Battalion Headquarters gave a sure sign of a further move. On 4 September the 19th relieved the Central India Horse at Daba.
Daba, the railhead of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade during its operations of the previous war, was in 1940 the traffic-churned centre of a desert dust bowl. It was in the middle of the 19th’s sector (No. 2), which stretched from El Alamein station to Fuka. To the north 20 Battalion took over No. 1 sector while in the south 18 Battalion was responsible for No. 3 sector. So 4 Brigade, spread over many miles, linked and guarded the vital points along the desert road and railway. Headquarters 19 Battalion was sited at Daba, while its companies were disposed perimeter fashion at points in the desert surrounding the railway station. Wellington Company’s headquarters was three miles away to the west, and four miles farther on in the same direction two of its platoons mounted anti-aircraft sentries at a desert aerodrome. Wellington West Coast Company manned six posts around Daba and sent one platoon off to an ammunition and petrol dump two miles north of Galal. Hawke’s Bay Company was responsible for another six perimeter posts, while one of its platoons reinforced the page 36 mobile reserve (Taranaki Company plus the mortar, Bren carrier, anti-aircraft and pioneer platoons) at Daba.
This assignment carried few bright moments and was mercifully short. Sandstorms were constant and severe; the fleas multitudinous and fighting fit. True there was a Naafi on the spot, plenty of EPIP tents, some wooden buildings, and posts had been dug and wired by previous occupants, but the battalion was not happy at Daba. Five days later, when the Divisional Cavalry took over, companies pulled out and moved individually to Baggush amid much rejoicing. One tale, the only bright incident in an uncomfortable sojourn, is perhaps worth recording for it will be remembered long after the discomfort is forgotten.
The men in the post to the south-east were bored. The first day of their occupation had passed without any incident to relieve the monotony. Then a gafter idly approached the post. On his back was slung an ancient muzzle-loading banduq. It had once no doubt been the pride and joy of his great-grandfather but was now rather the worse for wear.
‘Two akkas if you’ll fire your gun,’ said a bored private. The gaffer could not understand at first why he should receive so much wealth, but at last he got the idea. He fired into the air. Scarcely had the reek from the powder cleared away when, ‘Two akkas if you let me fire your gun,’ said another soldier. The bargain was sealed by handing over the coins and with much manipulation the piece was reloaded and passed over.
Blending with the bang there was a shriek. Sixty yards away an unsuspecting Arab had been sitting on a camel. He turned a couple of somersaults and landed on the desert. The camel made off at a smart trot into the middle distance.
We were assured by the soldier that the thing went off before he was ready. An examination of the posterior of a very frightened son of Ham showed that the damage was not serious, the old bits of iron did not penetrate his thick skin and there was no claim for compensation. The camel, caught later, proved on examination to have had a bulletproof hide also.page 37
The battalion set up its headquarters at Baggush on 9 September. Five days later the Italian army crossed the Egyptian border and captured Sollum. With the other units of 4 NZ Brigade Group, under the command of Brigadier Puttick, the planning and preparation of a defence line began immediately. The same night enemy bombers raided Baggush, and though no damage was done the raid did give that realistic touch which had been lacking in previous preparations. The priority of work in the battalion area was: (1) fighting slits; (2) camouflage; (3) living quarters.
Dispersed over a large area of desert, the unit lived and was administered under company arrangements. With a defence line bounded on one side by a high escarpment and on the other by the railway, companies went to work with a will. In constructing the dug-in position, arrangements were made for attached troops. A troop of four Bofors from 3 Regiment RHA and four Mark II 18-pounder guns of D Troop 4 Field Regiment were sited in an anti-tank role. D Company of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, with twelve medium machine guns, was added to thicken up the infantry fire power. In all it was a large group but the line to be held was long. On the left 20 Battalion continued the sector, which ran from the coast to the escarpment across the Western Desert road and railway. Designed to enclose the main route, the whole position was called the Baggush Box. In addition to fire positions, administrative offices and shelters, the unit dug another tank obstacle and battle headquarters for the Brigade Group command. No power tools, no explosives—all hand done.
The temperatures were torrid and the sea too far away for frequent bathing. Water was rationed and shade nonexistent. The one solitary date palm in the area (the property of Taranaki Company) was a struggling survivor from a past oasis which age and Arab destructiveness had returned to the desert. Evidence of ancient water engineering could still be seen. In the dry months which followed, the unit wished many times that the cisterns and channels had still been in working order.page 38
Some hardy spirits, despite work, heat and stony ground, found time for willing Rugby tussles. The fauna of the desert provided the only other interests; chameleons were kept as pets and fed on a readily available diet of flies. Odd snakes were despatched and carefully hidden in the beds or boots of the unsuspecting. Prize scorpions were matched in battle, wagers being placed on the result. In personal quarters some degree of comfort was contrived and gradually all settled down to the desert existence.
Where the going was easy, digging went on apace. However, most of the area was solid rock, and broken tools and blistered hands were the most tangible results of the effort.
Though it showed few signs to the uninitiated, the area in the dim past had been inhabited, and in the course of digging some interesting relics were uncovered: pottery, lamps (two intact), some copper coins stamped with the eagle device of the Ptolemies, limestone water pipes, squared stone building courses, and a fragment of Greek inscription showed up as the work went on. Two quite large underground tombs and several cisterns, all probably dating back to the days of Greco-Roman occupation, were found and became part of the defence system the 19th were preparing a system designed to repel the legions of Graziani, a Roman, leading an army of ignominy over ground made glorious by his ancestors.
After a few weeks of work urgency was abandoned, and more time was given to training. Route marches, field firing, and a novelty called ‘tank hunting’ were introduced. The tactics of this new battle method savoured of salting the bird’s tail. Bazookas, Piat guns, and sticky bombs had not yet been invented. The Spanish Civil War, it was argued, had given ample proof that the tank was but a behemoth, vulnerable to infantry weapons and open to attack by determined men. A specially picked platoon commanded by Second-Lieutenant Yorke Fleming1 was sent away for training by the CRE of the New Zealand Division, page 39 Lieutenant-Colonel George Clifton,2 and on 28 September gave a demonstration of their craft to all officers.
With great energy, the platoon stalked, engaged, and theoretically destroyed the steel-clad enemy. Thereafter the unit spent much time concocting and bottling a mixture upon which the tank hunters’ supposed successes were based. Molotov cocktails, a disgusting brew of dirty oil and other inflammable fluids, were to cause more headaches to harassed company quartermasters and to ruin more rations than they would ever trouble tanks. Later events proved that it took something more substantial to worry a panzer.
There were a few bombing raids throughout the month but the battalion had no casualties, though the area received a rain of thermos bombs, devilish little 14-pound booby traps, which on 13 September caused the first killed in action casualty in 2 NZEF. Dropped from a low-flying aircraft, they were set to explode by the time they landed. The bombs were set off where they lay by bursts of Bren fire from carriers, a less laborious method than that laid down in the official instruction. This ordered that a specially constructed wooden triangle be placed around the bomb, two hundred yards or so of signal wire attached, and the operator was then to get behind shelter and tug. It was hard enough to get wood for fuel without wasting it on triangles for bomb disposal, one triangle being necessary for each ‘thermos’.
A member of Headquarters Company, finding one of these bombs which had been broken in two when it landed, souvenired the business end and proceeded to investigate. His tinkering proved that the detonator was still intact. The MO that afternoon spent an interesting time extracting the minute fragments of brass which had peppered the soldier’s hands and forearms when it went off. He suffered in the cause of science, however, for the now harmless bomb-head was taken to pieces and used as a demonstration model.page 40
Another bombing—fortunately ineffective—occurred when a homing Blenheim unloaded four bombs on the area in which the men of Wellington Company were at work. Headquarters 202 RAF Group were apologetic and offered one keg of beer per bomb as compensation. The worst feature of the whole episode was the feeling caused when they defaulted in payment.
By 25 September work on the defensive position was far enough advanced for a test occupation. Some light tanks were borrowed and these, together with the unit Bren carriers and a couple of platoons from Headquarters Company, acted as enemy. It was a dusty and exhausting business for the attacking force, but the defending troops in their holes had an exciting time theoretically shooting up the advance. Official conclusions, if any, drawn from the exercise have not been reported. It was a fruitful source of argument among the troops, however, and for many weeks afterwards the inconclusive ‘Who shot what?’ inquiry raged in the bivouacs.
Competition was always keen for duties which called for a change of location, and Sunday 22 September proved a red letter day for 14 Platoon Hawke’s Bay Company. The fates favoured them in the tossing of a coin, and as protective platoon for an ASC convoy of twenty 3-ton trucks loaded with petrol, oil and grease, they left the battalion area on a 250-mile trek to Siwa oasis.
The situation on the route along the Qattara Depression was distinctly fluid, Sidi Barrani was in Italian hands, and the desert to the south-west was in their patrolling area. The job could easily prove to be something more than mere routine. With all weapons loaded with ball ammunition, the three sections of the platoon were split up through the convoy, which set off on its journey along the coast road. The convoy ran into trouble much sooner than expected, for at Mersa Matruh an air raid caught part of the column. The ASC officer commanding, Major Stock,3 was wounded and some of the trucks were damaged. As soon as the page 41 Savoias flew off the convoy was reorganised, stores from two vehicles put completely out of action were off-loaded and distributed among the others, then with Lieutenant Dill,4 OC 14 Platoon, in command, the column set off once more. It was expected that a patrol from the King’s Royal Rifles would make contact at the next stop.
The delay at Matruh, however, made the keeping of the rendezvous a race against time. As darkness fell the desert going got worse; ‘boiler plate’, soft sand, and steep depressions made blind driving dangerous and a fast pace impossible. A halt was made to await moonrise, and while the drivers of the trucks slept sentries were posted. Suddenly from away out in the distance came the sound of approaching vehicles. The convoy was roused, engines were started and, with weapons at the ready, all waited breathlessly for the answer to the challenge of the outpost sentries. Then English voices were heard. The tension relaxed as a Rifle Brigade column withdrawing from Halfaya Pass hailed the convoy.
The moon came up and the journey was resumed. Three tanks looming up out of the darkness provided the next thrill. These also proved to be friendly, and there was another brief halt while news was exchanged, then on again into the night.
About 2 a.m., as the leading vehicle was feeling its way forward, a shadowy figure rose from the desert and challenged. The convoy had reached the outposts of the King’s Royal Rifles patrol which was waiting with Bren carriers and portées to accompany the column to Siwa. The convoy laagered for the rest of the night, and after an early breakfast the final leg of the trip across the desert began.
The now quite impressive convoy, enveloped in its own dust cloud, drove on and on across mile after mile of ‘sweet Fanny Adams’. The heat was terrific and the going rough. By mid-afternoon, after a monotonous six or seven hours, the edge of Qattara Depression, its walls steep, tortuous and twisted, loomed up. A patrolling Lysander swooped down page 42 to inspect, waved, circled, then disappeared over the rim of the desert, where some hours afterwards the convoy looked down on the shining waters and waving palms of Siwa oasis.
Below, set in a wilderness, was a place of beauty, a place of plenty. Steeped in the legends and histories of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, the oasis was a fascinating place. The convoy drove down the single tarsealed road into the central settlement, reported in and dumped its load, and the troops, tired but intrigued, set off sightseeing. In a bubbling pool with a stone coping still bearing the device of the Roman legion which built it perhaps two thousand years ago, the men bathed as the troops of the Caesars had no doubt done. They bought dates, now ripe and ready for picking, and ate their fill, filling sandbags with the bright red bunches to take back to bare Baggush.
Next morning, after another hour or so sightseeing and some fraternising with the British troops, the trucks formed up for the long grind back.
By mid-afternoon on the fourth day of their absence, 14 Platoon drove in to the battalion area at Baggush after an uneventful return trip. Dirty, tired, but smugly satisfied, they became the centre of attraction in the unit, a position they held until their dates and tales from Siwa were exhausted.
Their experience was a valuable lesson in the difficulties likely to be encountered during a long motor move across the desert. Some weeks later 15 Platoon, under Lieutenant Aitken,5 set out on a similar adventure, and returned having done their job successfully despite a khamsin. Other platoons were required at intervals during the next three months for similar duties.
On 26 September the GOC, now returned from England, visited the battalion and all ranks were glad to see his commanding figure again. In his address to officers he told the story of the Second Echelon’s role in the Battle for Britain and also announced the arrival of the Third Echelon in page 43 Egypt in a few days’ time. Not until the three contingents were together would the New Zealand Division be a complete operational formation. Until then its future role was uncertain. The signing of the Berlin-Rome-Tokio pact on 27 September indicated that the war would soon spread to fresh frontiers and that the Axis were planning new offensives.
At the end of the month Headquarters NZ Division closed at Baggush and reopened at Maadi, where units of the Third Echelon were settling in. Fourth Brigade Group, however, remained at its task, digging and ‘singing in the wilderness’. The defence line improved daily and the Baggush Box’s subterranean system progressed at a rate commensurate with the ability of the builders of its individual compartments. CQMS Ted Berry6 of Wellington Company, by guile which discredited his cherubic appearance, obtained from a guarded RE dump a stock of gelignite. Thereafter, work in the sector of the line constructed by men from the capital city went literally with a bang.
The evening of 3 October 1940 saw much jollification in the bivouacs at Baggush on the first birthday of the battalion. A special trip to Alexandria had obtained supplies for the event. The quartermaster’s department made a special effort, and the timely arrival of a parcel mail from New Zealand helped to augment the rations. It was a really bright show, and though it lasted well into the night even the blackout could not dim its success, though the lack of light contributed toward one amusing incident. The carrier platoon were celebrating in the darkness beside one of their vehicles when suddenly a cry of anguish rent the desert air—one of the platoon had swigged a bottle of sump oil in mistake for the Stella.
The Italian Air Force, despite the fact that it had the air to itself in these early stages, did little daylight work and avoided low-level operations. There was one notable exception, however, when a solitary fighter, coming in out of the sunset, took a nearby airfield completely by surprise page 44 and did some good work with his guns. Fortunately the drome was almost deserted, but his visit cost the RAF one Vickers Valencia troop-carrying plane burned out, and a lot of hot words at the subsequent court of inquiry, when the responsibility for aircraft identification and alarms was under examination. Later the Italians made a good bombing sortie against a railway siding then under construction, being intercepted by RAF Glosters just after they had bombed. The resultant dogfight was spectacular; but as the pilots of the Savoia bombers flew at about 10,000 feet even the doyen of our anti-aircraft defences, a solitary Bofors, failed to worry them. There was a keen duck shooter in Headquarters Company at this time who spent all moonlit nights in a specially constructed maimai waiting with a Boys anti-tank rifle for a ‘bird’ to bank against the moon. He had no luck. (A special order then in circulation credited a Tommy with having shot down an enemy plane with this unloved and unlovely weapon.)
Some thousands of natives were introduced into the Baggush Box about this time. They were employed in the construction of defensive earthworks, a task which took them many weeks to finish but which could have been done by bulldozer in as many hours. With them came the flyborne troubles which our rigid hygiene and sanitation methods had up to then kept to a minimum. One Egyptian labourer seemed to be capable of fouling about an acre of desert, so that where a gang of natives were working one moved daintily. They were organised into groups, each group under a ‘Rais’ or headman. Several groups came under a ‘Chief Rais’. It was said that by the time these parasites had taken their rake-off, the wretched labourer drew about two piastres for a day’s pay. Their tasks were supervised by our own troops, who were under the threat of severe official displeasure if they used harsh methods to coax the wily natives along. Notwithstanding this the toe of an army boot was judiciously applied on occasion and proved a better incentive to work than kind words transmitted through an interpreter. ‘George’ toiled no harder than he had to and was adept at all types of subterfuge. One particularly page 45 notorious dodger, having been booted in the most suitable place by an exasperated sergeant, proceeded to give a convincing imitation of dying on the spot. The whole gang of course knocked off to gather round and bewail the fate of their black brother, and the sergeant, thoroughly worried, had the ‘body’ carted to the battalion RAP, followed by a procession of mourning comrades. The MO glanced at the inert figure, raised a dirty galabieh to expose the injured anatomy, then produced a large hypodermic syringe with a needle like a crowbar. George came to life suddenly and, springing up, burst through the ring of onlookers as he beat a hasty retreat. The broad grins of his black brothers and the profanity of the sergeant followed his diminishing shape into the distance.
With hospitality confined to chlorinated water, tinned beef, and anti-scorbutic tablets—all rationed—Baggush now saw few distinguished visitors. The Chief of the General Staff in New Zealand, Major-General Sir John Duigan, made an informal inspection and the svelte figure of Mr Anthony Eden was seen briefly in the area. Selected soldiers were turned out to meet the latter visitor; a sandstorm raged, his plane was late, and when at last the reception was over the parties groped their several ways back to their bivouacs, gritty, irritable and unimpressed.
The weather was fast deteriorating and the desert existence beginning to pall. The defences were nearing completion, but supplies of sandbags and other necessities for the final touches were scarce. Digging became desultory. Then on 28 October word came to stop work on the defended area and to concentrate on training. Companies ceased their bedouin existence. Battalion Headquarters issued a training syllabus, discipline tightened up and collective stunts, route marches, and weapon training became daily routine. Under the RSM, WO I Malcolm, NZPS,7 the NCOs attended a short refresher course. All ranks were keen and progress rapid.page 46
Situation reports and Intelligence summaries compiled from air information and from reconnaissance patrols into enemy territory all gave clear indications that Graziani was preparing to continue his advance into Egypt. His outposts at Nibeiwa and the Tummars were being reinforced and there was generally much movement in the dispositions of the large Italian forces in North Africa. Training and manœuvres now took on a new interest, and seemed to point to the brigade’s participation in a dashing column-cutting venture when the enemy had moved far enough into our territory. It was clear to all that the whole of the Western Desert Force was preparing for battle.
Into the battalion area lumbering I tanks came secretly by night. They rolled off the railway wagons and were guided to carefully camouflaged hideouts that the unit had prepared for them. The 7th Royal Tank Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R. M. Jerram, DSO, MC, had among its numbers a good proportion of Dunkirk veterans. Their stories and their record infused the 19th with a spirit which burned for offensive action. It hoped at last to abandon its holes. The portents seemed right; surely this time our battalion too would be in the fight.
Leave to Alexandria was suddenly stopped. War games and manœuvres continued on an ever-increasing scale. Bayonets were sharpened. Security became a fetish and censorship was rigid. Code-names were allotted to units and to those holding the principal appointments in them. Telephone conversations thereafter were marked by hilarity or exasperation, according to the mood of the caller and the urgency of his call. To stand by and hear the Adjutant, irascible and red-faced, say ‘Pansy of Lulu speaking’ was too much for the orderly-room staff, and though the business was serious it took some time to train all ranks in correct telephone security procedure.
Air co-operation was now practised and the RAF treated units to displays of dive-bombing and ground strafing. Blenheims and Hurricanes were seen in increasing numbers and new airfields were plotted on the maps. At the fullscale exercise by 4 Infantry Brigade Group from 7 to 9 page 47 November, Gloster Gauntlets gave information and support for make-believe battles.
Throughout November intensive training continued and much solid work was done. The battalion by this time had achieved a degree of efficiency and co-ordination that was reflected both in administration and manœuvres. All ranks felt that they could now give a good account of themselves.
The 4th Indian Division, commanded by Major-General Beresford-Peirse, DSO, moved in, out and about the area, always moving, always manœuvring. The Indians’ war games continued throughout the month, then early in December they deserted the populated coastal strip and swung far out into the desert. With them went some New Zealanders as umpires and observers.
On 4 December the 19th was reinforced. A posting of sixty-eight other ranks from the Third Echelon made good some of the wastage of eleven months and helped to build up company strengths once more. Two days later the unit assumed responsibility for anti-aircraft defence of all the RAF aerodromes in the Western Desert. Headquarters remained at Baggush but companies were widely scattered. Wellington Company stayed on at the base airfield where it had been doing duty for the past month. Wellington West Coast, with one section of Bren carriers attached, moved to Fuka. Hawke’s Bay Company took over the defence of Headquarters Western Desert Force. Taranaki Company moved to the forward airfield at Qasaba, while Headquarters Company sent one platoon to an isolated satellite field far out in the desert and another to Brigade Headquarters on defence duties. A couple of days after all these moves were complete, the news all were waiting for broke.
Suddenly sweeping inwards, units of 4 Indian Division on 9 December attacked the forward Italian outpost at Nibeiwa. The Italian garrison, surprised from the rear and taken unawares with their defences and guns pointing the wrong way, found themselves shot up the tail in the manner of the proverbial garden thrush. The inexorable advance of our I tanks, against whose armour the enemy’s anti-tank weapons could make no impression at all, completed the page 48 demoralisation of the post. The surrender of the Tummar forts followed, and two days later Sidi Barrani was in British hands.
The discomfiture of the Italians was only equalled by the amazement of our own troops. The attackers themselves had no idea that they were committed until they were almost on their objective. As the prisoners streamed back, marching in long, slow-moving columns, the mopping up of posts to the westwards continued. The Duce’s air force tried bombing our rear bases but after a half-hearted attempt, in which the battalion area at Baggush received nine high-explosive bombs and one incendiary bomb as its share, they gave it up. Hurricane fighters kept them out of the sky.
On 16 December Sollum fell, and the same day the 19th received orders to concentrate once more at Baggush. Now perhaps the unit was for it. Each man in the battalion fretted and fumed, eager to be in at the kill.
Parties from the 19th found their way forward, following the attacking troops, as sightseers. They returned laden with food, souvenirs, and enemy equipment of the type we ourselves were needing. Some were lucky enough to get away immediately after Nibeiwa fell. By following a circuitous desert route, the military police posts on the coast road were dodged, and by carefully driving along the tracks made by our own tanks, the minefields at the approaches were avoided. The story of the first of these parties was told to an enthralled audience when they got back to the battalion:
We arrived on the vanquished Italian post just at nightfall. There was a small party of British troops still there engaged in burying the dead and collecting equipment. They made us welcome despite the fact that we were unauthorised visitors, and even shared with us some of the choicer treasures they themselves had gathered from the lavish stocks that the Italians, or more particularly their officers, had left behind. We fed well that night.
When dawn came we wandered among the devastation, mentally reconstructing the momentous event that had so recently taken place. The eternal sand was already beginning to obliterate the now inert and inactive post which had been so painstakingly constructed and maintained. It drifted into page 49 the stone sangers, piling up against the discarded equipment and pathetic corpses of mules and men as it crept unceasingly onwards. Soon there would be little to see but another mound on the face of the desert with a few half submerged skeletons of guns and vehicles to mark the site. A macabre spot; in the silence of that chill dawn nothing moved but the sand and a wisp of smoke from our breakfast fire.
The Tummars told the same tale, the chaos and confusion left after an utter rout. We picked up souvenirs as we went, marvelling at the luxury under which the ‘Ite’ officers had existed in this desert place; contrasting our own austere bivouacs with the comfort they had contrived. Wire mattresses, sheets, dress uniforms, delicacies of all kinds, were in their galleried dug-outs; some even had scent! We took what wines and choice foods we could carry back with us to the Bn. Sidi Barrani had just fallen and after a quick glance we returned with our trucks laden. It was an unforgettable practical lesson of the errors of the defeated enemy, for the rottenness of his organization lay clearly revealed, but it was not a pretty picture.
While the unit waited for action Christmas came and went. Keeping fit and hard, with route marches almost every day, all expected orders to move forward and lived in constant anticipation. The campaign was sweeping on, and those at Baggush from time to time saw and spoke to men who had been in it and to those of their own people who, with the approval of Brigade Headquarters, as candidates for practical lessons in ‘the military education of officers’ had been sent forward as observers.
One party from the battalion had been incautious enough to get ahead of the Australians in their attack on Bardia and were treated to an excellent exhibition of Italian gunnery, in which the truck in which they were riding played the part of a moving target. Fortunately no hits were scored.
The stories from the front kept every man tense with anticipation. But on 30 December hopes were dashed. With its first-line transport commandeered to help keep up the rapidly extending supply lines, the 19th sat in sour impotence, realising that again it was destined to play the role of spectator only. The members of the transport platoon under Lieutenant John Carryer,8 who went forward as troop page 50 transports, were the envy of all ranks, but even a carefully worded special order failed to relieve the general resentment. Out of the blue came the Aussies; passing Baggush, they leapfrogged through the first battlefields to continue the attack in Cyrenaica. Wavell’s brilliantly timed, audacious offensive swept on from success to success. Though still feeling slighted, the New Zealand troops could not but share in the general elation as each communique was issued.
Then came the annual deluge and the desert was turned into a sea of mud. The torrential fall flooded the bivouacs, and where men were camped in wadis there were some narrow escapes from drowning, so swiftly did the floods come down. Wellington Company lost its records, and the camp of a nearby British unit, located in the Maaten Baggush basin, became a lake dotted with small cones where the tops of bell tents protruded from the muddy six-feet-deep pond. Though it lasted but one night, the rain when it drained away left the desert cold and bleak.
The 19th had now been out in the wastes for almost seven months; it was ill clad and aggrieved by the inactivity. Duststorms harried the position daily and January opened the New Year unpleasantly. On the 13th, in a howling sandstorm, the battalion packed up and entrained at Sidi Haneish, en route for Helwan. None were sorry.
1 Maj Y. K. Fleming, DSO; Auckland; born Dunedin, 6 Oct 1912; plastering contractor; platoon commander 19 Bn 1940-41; company commander 1 Scots and 29 Bns 2 NZEF (IP) 1942-44; 21 Bn 1945; wounded Apr 1945; now Regular soldier.
2 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Green-meadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; CRE 2 NZ Div 1940-41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps 1941-42; comd 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949-52; Commandant, Northern Military District, Mar 1952-Sep 1953.