20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 12 — Infantry to Armour
Infantry to Armour
Once again the disappointment of defeat had to be surmounted. Both to the rapidly diminishing number of old hands and to the rawest reinforcement, the complete collapse of the Ruweisat operation after a most successful night attack was a blow that would last long in the memories of the survivors. Twice now, after gaining its objective, the battalion had been practically annihilated as the result of an enemy counter-attack with tanks. Again the failure of our armour to give support at a critical time caused harsh criticisms to be levelled by some of the more resentful against those mysterious, anonymous, invidious muddlers, ‘the heads’. But not at our own; there was no criticism of the leaders of the Division, whose bold planning and intrepid leadership had extricated the brigade from the collapse of Greece, the nightmare of Crete, from the Belhamed disaster, and the encirclement of Minqar Qaim.
The men in the tanks were immune from blame. Their smoking derelicts, strewn across the desert, were sufficient proof of their willingness whenever the order was given to engage an enemy who invariably enjoyed the advantage of superior equipment. The rings painted round the barrels of German 88-millimetre anti-tank guns indicated heavy losses sustained by British tank units in support of other arms.
The frank admiration of such tank crews for the infantry they supported had been expressed on the morning of 12 July by an English Grant tank sergeant who, describing the advance of 4 New Zealand Brigade on Alam Nayil ridge the previous evening under heavy shell and mortar fire, said: ‘I never saw anything like it. They just walked over that ridge through a perfect hell of fire as calmly as if they were going to a picnic. I take off my hat to your infantry.’ And, pulling off his oil-stained beret, he suited the action to the word. Resentment against such men was unthinkable.
It is interesting to analyse the factors in its make-up that enable a unit after each serious reverse to return once more to page 289 the fight. Undoubtedly it was the high standard of discipline and morale in the battalion, coupled with the responsibility felt by all survivors to maintain its identity in spite of such heavy casualties, that assisted everyone to settle down again.
The ability to carry on after four successive reverses, still with confidence in the ultimate victory, goes further back. It is a part of our national life. In a country where there is a healthy climate and a high standard of living, the type of the nation's youth is good. In addition, few men in New Zealand have not at some stage in their lives engaged in team sport. The sense of comradeship thus developed, the necessity for mutual support, the knowledge that co-operation and co-ordination are the chief factors in success were lessons early learned and never forgotten. Qualities of leadership, fortitude in the face of tough opposition, the undaunted return to the attack after each reverse, modesty in victory, courage in defeat—all were developed on playing fields that stretched from Auckland to Bluff. The ability of teams to fulfil their fixtures Saturday after Saturday, season after season, had no doubt some connection with the recovery of the battalion after reverses on the field of battle. The time-honoured method, also, of drowning the afternoon's disappointment in the boisterous conviviality of a Saturday night found an echo in the canteens and Naafis of Egypt.
Encouragement to return to the job was drawn from the knowledge that they were not alone in adversity. The stout-heartedness of Londoners during the fury of the Blitz, the suicidal heroism of the sailors of Sebastopol, the dogged defenders of Stalingrad and the tenacious Aussies of Tobruk, all portrayed the spirit necessary to tide over the dark days after 15 July. Unlimited time for reflection when thoughts are not pleasant is not a good thing for men. The war still continued, another brigade had taken their place in the field, some day it would have to be supported or relieved, and then it would be necessary to return to the task of evicting the Axis forces from the desert.
Under Major Fountaine, promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel, the battalion's survivors settled down to a modified training syllabus while awaiting issues of equipment.
During this period life became a series of fairly monotonous days of training, enlivened occasionally by a few outstanding page 290 incidents. When news is scarce rumours are at a premium, and at this time there was no shortage. In early September late arrivals from the ‘blue’ brought back tall tales of 60-ton tanks and ‘Yanks’ parked behind the lines. News of the Japanese advance in New Guinea to within 40 miles of Port Moresby, received through squadron and mess radios, kept attention focused on the Pacific.
To the pests of Egypt the sorely-tried troops now added that of yet another insect. The ladybird, harmless subject of many childish lispings at home, was found to be an even greater nuisance than the much-cursed fly. Swarms of them nested in the eaves of the tents and bit sharply and impartially, enjoying maximum opportunity during shower periods, battalion parades, and the very desirable sessions of ‘Maori PT’.
By September sweeping changes were afoot. After beating off Rommel's determined drive at the end of August—his flanking attack in the south at Alamein—5 and 6 Brigades were in urgent need of reinforcements. For reasons that were not hard to guess it had been decided that the New Zealand Division should have its own tank brigade. For this purpose 4 Infantry Brigade was to be trained in armour and reinforced from the tank brigade already in training in New Zealand; those men who had not been with the battalion for six months were posted to 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades and began training for the epoch-making battle of Alamein. At this stage some incomprehensible transfers were put through which were later rectified.
Sunday, 13 September, was an eventful day in the history of the battalion. Orderly-room clerks worked feverishly all day, and right up till midnight lists of surplus personnel fluttered back and forth through the lines to Battalion Headquarters. The following day those who were to leave the battalion paraded early in the morning. The unfit were sent to 33 Battalion training depot, or to other base units, and their places filled by others taken off fatigues at the last moment to pack hurriedly and catch trucks already lined up at the midan. As the convoy pulled out there was quite a ceremony, unique in the nature of its farewells, characteristic in its humour and last-minute messages to friends in other units.
On 16 August Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows had resumed command of the battalion with Major Fountaine as his second- page 291 in-command. A fortnight later he was evacuated sick; then Major Fountaine was posted to command 26 Battalion and the battalion had a succession of temporary commanders—Major J. B. Gray,1 Major G. A. Murray, and Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. McKergow2—until Colonel Burrows rejoined the unit on 10 October.
Periodically, trucks left to take reinforcements to the Division, on one occasion under orders to tour round the units and bring back as many original members of the battalion as possible. They returned with a full load, including many men who had been away from the battalion for over a year. Of those who had marched out on 14 September one was already a casualty —by drowning.
On 17 September the battalion forsook the flat beyond the Lowry Hut road terminus for a new area on the escarpment east of the engineers' lines. A tour of the area revealed many unaccustomed luxuries—clean messrooms with thick, cool walls and tables and seats for everyone, enabling the men to sit down comfortably at meal-times for the first time in months. There were three good cold showers, walled round with stone, with concrete floors and wooden seats. While the camp was well away from the bitumen roads, it was handy to the Pall Mall cinema and the Church Army hut on the one side and to the Lowry Hut below the escarpment on the other. The cooks had roomy, well-built kitchens and good ovens. It was little wonder that the new home was voted the best the 20th had ever had. As in previous camps swarms of ‘Wog’ workmen were either fooling around the messrooms or dozing in the shade—mostly dozing.
Headquarters Company took over the area nearest Cairo, officers and sergeants spread over the central hill, B and C Companies grouped round the messrooms, and A Company went out into the suburbs nearest Brigade Headquarters. Most of the tents were in a shallow hollow shut in by hillocks, but from the edge of the escarpment splendid views of tree-fringed Maadi and of the minarets and mosques below the Citadel could be obtained.
Spasmodic air raids over Cairo and the suburbs enlivened page 292 the nights from time to time, and on 26 September, a Saturday, large fragments of anti-aircraft shells fell in the camp area, while the most spectacular sight was provided by German planes diving on and machine-gunning searchlights.
On 30 September the newly-formed unit discussion group was given a good start by Lieutenant-Colonel McKergow, who gave an entertaining talk on his experiences with the Royal Greek Army in Palestine. The lecture concluded with some curious information about the summary punishment of Greek officers with fines and CB (spent in real cells). Finally, Colonel McKergow confided to his hearers how, after preaching and insisting on a rigid transport discipline, he had had his own car ‘pinched’ in Haifa.
Besides the multitude of courses at Abbassia, Almaza, and at brigade schools, training now progressed in camp to the stage of desert navigation. Preliminary lectures in messrooms, followed by outdoor exercises in or near the camp, were succeeded by traverses on a larger scale in the area between Sunstroke Plain and El Saff, which, to the older hands, brought back memories of the gruelling march of April 1940. The process of going from point to point in the desert with the aid of trucks, compasses, and maps, so simple as explained in a messroom, developed in the sandy vastness between North Cone and Stromboli such complications as impassable escarpments, soft sand, deep wadis, and uncertain mathematics. Admiration increased for the exploits of the redoubtable LRDG whose raids on Derna, Bardia, Barce, Benghazi, and Jalo were topics of camp gossip.
On 5 October the unit was officially designated 20 NZ Armoured Regiment, the date coinciding with the third anniversary of the entry of the First Echelon into camp. It was an occasion for celebration. The ‘originals’ of No. 6 Platoon and guests from far and wide held an elaborate and successful party just below the transport lines. Trucks formed walls with a canopy of canvas overhead. There were tables and seats, a real bar, and efficient barmen. Guests included the CO, Jim Robertson (a captain in Base Pay), Jack Jones (LRDG), Gray Scott, and some Americans. A supper of oyster patties interrupted a programme of speeches, songs, and music that included masterpieces in verse from the chairman, Ray Lynch.3page 293
Nature is merciful. Time smoothes the mind of its scars. After an action one finds the memory blurred, and few can recount the full happenings of a battle from day to day, hour to hour, completely and with accuracy. Perhaps this is due to the fatigue suffered, but it is well for a man's mental peace that such is the case. So it came about that, when glasses were raised to the memory of the battalion, most men's thoughts were of the happier days: the exploits of the battalion's ‘hard-cases’ and their various reactions to the mavrodaphne of Greece, the arak of Syria, the zibbib of Cairo, and tales of the days when beer flowed freely in the bars of Egypt. But just as in the fog of memory there are clear patches where certain incidents stand out clearly in every detail, so in nights of noisy celebration there are brief periods of silence when the tide of conversation ebbs and groups are lost in momentary reverie, and each man is deep in his own thoughts, incommunicable and solemn, reminiscent and remote.
Then he remembers his first glimpse of the coast of Greece, a girl with the face of a Madonna in a cottage in the hills near Katerini; the first fluttering paratroops in the skies over Galatas, and the last quick hand-grip before the bayonet attack on the aerodrome; the scream of the diving Stuka, and the leaves, bullet-whipped, dropping from the olive trees in a swiftly approaching swathe; men falling like just such leaves; the jolting mad career of a desert convoy at night, the far-stretching expanse of trucks of the Division in desert formation; blue days at sea, brown, gleaming bodies in the surf; the trilling from a reed pipe, wafted down from a grassy spur in the rock-crowned Syrian hills, the soothing murmur of rippling water in the beer gardens of Zahle; the cruel heat and parching thirst of a day's action in the desert; the menacing, black snout of a Mark IV hull-down on the escarpment; the irresistible, mad rush of the breakthrough at night; the cool peace that comes with an African sunset, pickets beneath the stars, and the chill whispering of the errant, wandering breeze before the desert dawn; the lonely grave beside the track, the friend long since left beneath wind-drifted sand, where now tread above him none but the wandering bedouin, the padding camel, the scampering jackal, or the pattering, delicate-limbed gazelle. From such thoughts his mind recoils to remembered noisy nights in the page 294 canteen, the raucous voice of the ‘housie’ man, the ‘Pound he tails 'em’ outside the window, and the impromptu concerts where singing contests reached a climax with the appearance of a burly cook in ‘scanties’; yes, that's better, another drink, his shout, and here's to the old days in the 20th.
So, three years after its inception, 20 Infantry Battalion, with its veterans of Greece, Crete, Libya, and the Western Desert, quietly set about preparing for the new and very important role it was to play as an armoured unit in support of the other two infantry brigades.
The canteen, as usual, was the hub of the regiment's life in the evenings. A large building, with two fireplaces, it was crowded each night with thirsty patrons, to satisfy whose wants the canteen staff had often to use considerable initiative. The canteen truck toured far and wide in search of supplies, and the news that beer was to be found in a certain Naafi was sufficient to set the wheels a-turning. Distance was no obstacle— time was vital. As a result of these excursions in search of supplies a varied collection of labels was accumulated, including Egyptian, Australian, New Zealand, Greek, German, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canadian, Indian, Syrian, Palestinian, British and South African. In spite of all these sources the supply during September and October grew steadily less, until, on 17 October, it is recorded that the unit canteen had its first beerless night. Even the New Zealand Club bar failed to secure supplies on this occasion and had to close down.
It was at this stage that permission was given to sell zibbib in the canteen. The ‘Wog session’ will always be remembered by those who were in the regiment at this time. The transport platoon provided the setting. The radio was tuned in to Cairo, and, to the melancholy strains of a cabaret singer, men squatted round the hubbly-bubbly and paid two ‘ackers’ for a smoke. Nearby, on a primus, the charcoal was heating, zibbib was drunk, Egyptian style, in tiny glasses, and at a suitable stage ‘George’ performed the ‘can-can’.
It was no doubt the friendly atmosphere of the unit canteen that made it so popular with visitors. From time to time the regiment played host to visiting American instructors from Almaza, who were always eager to obtain Axis souvenirs.page 295
As always, the canteen had its sidelines. ‘Housie’ inside and ‘two-up’ outside were the chief additional pastimes, although in the latter game chief interest was centred at the Pall Mall ‘school’, particularly after the return of the Division from Tunisia. This ‘school’, it was said, became the subject of much debate between 4 Brigade and ‘The Hill’, in which responsibility was tossed lightly back and forth. Finally, Brigade struck swiftly in a pincers movement when two regiments on a planned manoeuvre converged upon the school and two lorry-loads of men were carried off for orderly-room investigation.
Some excitement was caused on 12 October when burning rubbish set fire to the mud walls of the canteen, but as soon as it became apparent that there was no need to rescue the beer the crowd melted away, leaving the fire to be put out by a more energetic teetotaller.
Perhaps the most outstanding event in the canteen's history took place in September 1943, when it was used as a polling booth for the parliamentary general election; unless, perhaps, the famous after-hours trading case could be considered equally historic. For selling a bottle of beer a few minutes after closing time the canteen salesman received a sentence of seven days' CB. Extensive research in legal and drinking circles was undertaken by the historian of that time, ‘Sandy’ Robertson, but he could not find any previous convictions on this charge. It was the first, and probably the only case of its kind, in the Division.
In later years it was the lack of such an institution during the rest periods in Italy, and the unavoidable disintegration of the unit into squadron areas, that caused a narrowing of the regimental life, so that as time went on a visitor from one squadron to another found an increasing number of unfamiliar faces whose acquaintance there was little chance of making. The social opportunities of the canteen were never adequately replaced.
Intensive training began again in October. Wireless courses were attended at the New Zealand Signals School and at Brigade, where future operators were initiated into the mysteries of codex, sheetex, and the No. 19 set. At the Signals School extensive training on the No. 19 set was given through manoeuvres by day and by night along the desert road to Helwan page 296 and back by way of Maadi township. Messages over the ‘A’ set were occasionally correctly formal, if seldom formally correct, but on the ‘B’ set, out of range of control, vocal items, abuse, and ‘bint-spotting’ constituted the main traffic. The Homestead and the Maadi Tent experienced a sharp rise in sales on such occasions.
Courses on the six-pounder and 25-pounder were held at the anti-tank and artillery training depots as an introduction to gunnery. Shortly afterwards personnel from the regiment attended driving and maintenance and gunnery courses at the American school at Almaza and at the Middle East Royal Armoured Corps School at Abbassia, where wireless courses were also attended. At various times there were over two hundred officers and men away from the unit on such courses. Parades during this period were decidedly sketchy affairs. Headquarters Squadron, for example, could muster only one WO II, two sergeants, a corporal, and one private for one morning parade—a pretty problem when it came to manoeuvres.
At Almaza the men made their first acquaintance with American instructors. No greater contrast in methods of instruction could be found than those of Abbassia and Almaza. The Tommy is from habit and training strictly formal, word perfect, and the slave of the book. Reasons why are neither given nor considered important—‘the book says so’ is sufficient. But the really good Tommy instructor has no superior. The American is chatty and informal, eager for discussions, welcomes questions, is apt to be side-tracked because of this, but will go to no end of trouble and spend any amount of his spare time to explain a knotty point. He is an enthusiast. English instructors avoid personal peculiarities, Americans abound in them. Many will remember the 37-millimetre tank-gun instructor who chewed Bears' tobacco incessantly, spat unerringly into the tin that he hooked out from under the table with his foot and returned as deftly, or the Thompson sub-machine gun instructor—‘You hold this baby in yo' arms, pull the trigger, and she jes' mows' em down.’
The Maleesh attitude of the New Zealanders puzzled the Almaza cadre, who were keen for their classes to do well and rather apprehensive of the examinations, which were held at the end of the six-weeks' course. The consistency with which page 297 the easygoing Kiwis collected ‘P.1 plus’ passes surprised the instructors no less. Leg-pulling found expression in a game of baseball. During the ‘smoke-oh’ blarneys the class had convinced their instructors that they were experts and challenged them to a game. The Americans took them up in all seriousness and picked a strong team. When, after the first five minutes, it became apparent that the New Zealanders knew absolutely nothing about the game, the Americans relaxed and entered enthusiastically into the spirit of the burlesque.
As the regiment was originally intended to consist of one light squadron of Crusader tanks and two heavy squadrons of Shermans, it was necessary for men to learn no fewer than ten guns—75-millimetre, 37-millimetre, .30 inch Browning, .50 inch Browning, Thompson sub-machine gun, two-pounder, six-pounder, 7.92 Besa, 15-millimetre Besa, and later, the 17- pounder.
From those first sent on such courses were chosen instructors for the brigade schools in driving and maintenance, gunnery, and wireless which opened on 16 November. Tents, later replaced by huts, and a large hangar were erected near the Church Army hut. In these, officers and men from the three armoured regiments received extensive and intensive training during courses which lasted from six weeks to three months.
In an address on training on 20 October Brigadier Inglis explained that the brigade was unlikely to receive much in the way of armoured equipment for at least two and a half months, but six tanks, including the latest British and United States makes, were to be used for initial training. Shortly afterwards Crusader and Grant tanks began to arrive, and much practical experience, particularly in maintenance, was gained during driving periods near Flat Hill.
During this period a brigade parade for Brigadier P. J. Hurley, former American representative in New Zealand, was held on the football ground north of Lowry Hut. The Brigadier was a fine soldierly man and a splendid speaker. His address was one of the best heard on such an occasion.
The coming of cooler weather brought a revival of winter sports. Football found its customary large following, and in December Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows took over the training of the regimental team. Squadron competitions had aroused page 298 considerable interest and brought to light several promising players, some of whom—Bruce Beechey, ‘Dad’ Shaw, Lance Iles, George Hart, and Martin Donnelly—played at times for the 4 Brigade team.
It was the unofficial fixtures, however, that aroused chief interest in the regiment. About a week before Christmas it was noticed that at odd moments during the day the cooks broke off from their normal tasks of preparing stews, etc., shooed away hungry visitors, and proceeded to kick footballs around and practise passing. Thus it was learned that the match of the season was shortly to take place—Cooks v. Transport. The trophy, the ‘Maadi Dixie’, was an aluminium painted utensil mounted on a handsome home-made stand and rumoured to contain zibbib.
The cooks, who could muster only fourteen men, decided to add weight to their scrum by including Bill Brass (temporarily attached to Brigade School). Both teams trained more or less seriously for the big event. The cooks were favourites in betting circles, their keen work having impressed the spectators.
On 20 December, at 1.30 p.m. sharp, the cooks marched smartly on to the field, being played into position by the pipes (the rumoured secret weapon) and followed by the stalwarts from Transport. Each team was accompanied by its cat mascot, ‘Wallad’ and ‘Tiger’ of Cooks and Transport respectively. A fair crowd gathered on field and escarpment to watch this battle between weight and youth. Betting odds, however, were rudely upset, both sides having celebrated the night before, but the cooks the more so. First blood went to Transport when ‘Doc’ Ellison retired winded. The pace was slower in the second half, both sides suffering from lack of wind, and no one managed to carry through to the goal line. A hard-fought struggle ended without score and with both teams exhausted. The CO refereed.
Christmas parcels had continued to arrive since early in the month, and, to add to the enjoyment of the season, mail up to 12 November was received on Christmas Eve. Parties were held in most tents and canteen sales broke all records. German flares and a few bombs went off in all directions. Those who went on leave to Cairo found most bars and restaurants closed early, leaving the remainder hopelessly overcrowded.
Christmas morning produced more than the usual number page 299 of strange sights and strange guests at breakfast. Americans, Scotties, RAF, Aussies, and a South African, many of them wondering where in Egypt Santa Claus had dropped them, appeared for breakfast with spare dixies and friends to guide them. For Christmas dinner there was turkey, pork, peas, potatoes, etc., Christmas pudding and fruit salad—all generous helpings—plus cigarettes and beer. Colonel Burrows, Padre Spence, and other officers went up and down the mess exchanging greetings, and the whole atmosphere showed that the 20th had not lost that fellowship and friendly understanding which was an enduring part of its character. The climax came with the lusty bellowing of a well-known nickname as the Brigadier arrived and was shepherded round by Sergeant ‘Robbie’.
The following morning—Boxing Day—a large crowd gathered at Maadi Club grounds to watch the officers play the sergeants. The officers had two ex-All Blacks, Colonel Burrows and Lieutenant Hart, but the hero of the match was Allen Shand at fullback. At half-time his admirers crowded round with oranges and big jars and cans, and at the close of play he had to sprint away from their attentions.
A penalty goal by Tom O'Connor, a splendid kick from the sideline, put the sergeants in the lead 3—0 at half-time, and in the second half Captain Baker kicked a penalty for the officers, making the score 3-all. Play finished at a brisk pace but neither side could score. It was a bright beginning to another day of good fellowship.
These were, perhaps, the most orderly of the Christmas celebrations. The most noteworthy exploit was probably that of a well-known original member of the regiment, Sergeant Ted Karst, who for a long time had wanted to fire the two-pounder anti-tank gun. Finally, his long-cherished desire was put into effect. Saying nothing to anybody, he left the roistering scene at the mess, selected two rounds from the ammunition dump, and, one under each arm, trudged purposefully across the undulating sandhills to the only two-pounder in the vicinity, that on a stand outside the Gunnery School. Loading presented no difficulty and, pointing the gun in the general direction of ‘Bludger's Hill’, he sighted along the barrel and fired. Away sped the projectile into the night and a blinding sheet of flame shot from the muzzle. This, and a whack on the jaw as the page 300 piece recoiled, somewhat sobered this midnight gunner. With the gun merely resting on trestles it was a miracle that he was not seriously injured; still, the jolt was nothing to the satisfaction of having gratified a long-cherished wish, and back he trudged to the mess, content.
At the end of December the last of the field service caps were traded in with no regrets for the much more comfortable and smarter-looking black berets—to be worn with badges above the left eye and half an inch above the brim, etc., etc. As a link with the infantry days a red flash was worn behind the badge. Individualists in styles came in for the usual attention on parades, but the chief sequel to the change was probably a fresh wave of customers for Cairo photographers.
On 31 December all available personnel paraded before Brigadier Inglis in their new berets. The Brigadier spoke of reinforcements from New Zealand, hoped for an issue of training tanks, and outlined a fairly long programme of training. Referring to an episode at Saturday's football match, he said that brigadiers could not accept rum rations in public, even at Christmas.
New Year's Eve was brightened with the usual bonfire. The transport platoon had made extensive preparations down below the escarpment, and at one minute past midnight a well-soaked pile of rubbish went up in a glorious blaze, accompanied by showers of flares, Very lights, and Jerry screamers. It was easily the brightest show in camp.
Eight officers and 139 other ranks of 3 Battalion, 1 New Zealand Army Tank Brigade, which had left New Zealand with the 8th Reinforcements, were absorbed into the regiment on 5 January and immediately began courses of training at the brigade schools and at Almaza and Abbassia. At the foot of the nearby escarpment a miniature sub-calibre range had been constructed to scale, a two-pounder anti-tank gun with a Bren mounted on the barrel affording excellent practice in the giving of fire orders. The ‘puff range’ which members of the regiment had constructed at the brigade gunnery school was also popular. Later, training films were shown at the Pall Mall theatre. At the tank range at Bir Gindali regiments in turn supplied tanks and men for practice shoots, and in this way most valuable training was given.page 301
C Squadron at this time possessed most tanks. Unfortunately, the reconditioned Crusaders proved unreliable mechanically, and the route on squadron manoeuvres could frequently be traced with ease by the trail of pools of oil and derelict, over-heated tanks. However, it was on these exercises, and later during A and B Squadrons' three-day manoeuvre on the Mena–Fayoum road, that the real lessons were learned.
On 4 February the first parade of 4 New Zealand Armoured Brigade was held on the football ground near the Lowry Hut. The occasion was a visit and inspection by the officer in charge of AFV equipment and its distribution in the Middle East, General C. W. Norman.
At this stage a revival of sports swept through the regiment, an order by the CO stating that on Wednesday afternoons every man would play some sort of game, no leave being granted before 4 p.m. In no time, in the clear spaces between the tents, appeared baseball pitches and basketball and tenniquoit courts, where inter-squadron games were played, not only on sports afternoons, but throughout the long summer evenings. A good cricket pitch was laid down in Headquarters Squadron area, where inter-unit games and matches with British and South African teams were played. Athletic sports found many competitors. At the New Zealand Base championships the regimental team won the relay. A Squadron was premier squadron at the regimental championships, and the regiment won the major honours at the brigade sports.
On 19 February a ceremonial parade was held at which the GOC presented decorations won in the recent campaigns. The regiment's recipients were: Lieutenant-Colonel J. T. Burrows, DSO; Rev. G. A. D. Spence, MC; Captain J. A. Johnston, MM (won in Crete); Staff-Sergeant G. G. P. Weenink, BEM; Sergeant P. A. McConchie, DCM; Trooper P. R. Blunden, MM.
By this time the weather had indicated that another issue of summer clothing was due. Very strange is the mind of a Quartermaster-General, and on this occasion the troops were introduced to the latest atrocity in army clothing, surpassing in absurdity of appearance even the ludicrous ‘Bombay Bloomers’ of two years previously—the bush-shirt, Mark I, whose voluminous folds would flap round a man's ribs like a felucca sail in a Nile breeze. Making necessary alterations to summer equipment at the soldier's expense afforded numerous Egyptian page 302 tailors a very lucrative trade. Each season growing piles of khaki cloth scraps beside the feverishly driven sewing machines testified to the patience of the long-suffering ‘askari’ in a desperate effort not to look ridiculous as he passed members of other and better-clad units on the sidewalks of Fuad el Awal and Soliman Pasha. Many men went on leave in the summer in clothing that they themselves had bought from Egyptian drapers, and not out of any clothing allowance. Shirts, KD, had at least been presentable; bush-shirts, as issued, were impossible. At an order from Brigade, regimental funds were used to have alterations made and a belt, minus buckle, supplied. The result was a definite improvement, both in the dress of the trooper and to the coffers of Ali Ditt.4
On 22 March the brigade once more paraded, this time for the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones. His tour of the Division had not been without incident, but a word of caution by the Brigadier prior to the parade put the occasion in its correct perspective.
On 24 May the brigade supplied 600 men for the Empire Day parade in Cairo, and on 14 June at the United Nations Day parade, making their first public appearance, the brigade's new Sherman tanks rumbled through the densely-lined streets. During this period successive leave drafts left each fortnight for the Eighth Army rest camp at Nathaniya in Palestine. The camp provided troops with a cheap, restful holiday under ideal conditions. Organised sightseeing bus trips, a fun fair, open-air concerts, an excellent library, and ample sea and sun bathing were the chief pastimes.
Towards the end of May, parties began to erect tents for the return of the Division from Tunisia. The sense of unreality in being left behind at Maadi while the rest of the Division trounced and routed the old enemy, Afrika Korps, had to a certain extent been forgotten in the whirl of new training and equipment as an armoured unit. But from time to time rumours had swept the messrooms: ‘The Div. was in again’—El Alamein, El Agheila, Medenine, Gabes, Wadi Akarit, Enfidaville, and the grim heroism of Takrouna.
And now they were coming back, all who were left of the men who had gone to join infantry units in September 1942. First came the engineers. Some of the regiment went by scout car page 303 and truck to Maadi to meet them, others lined the escarpment to look down on the long lines of sturdy three-tonners, now with thousands of fresh miles on their speedometers, lurching over the uneven sand and bearing aloft flags of every description— swastikas, Free French, Italian, and banners of more obscure origin. With the arrival of 5 and 6 Brigades the regiment played host to hundreds of thirsty campaigners and tales of action and long pursuit were told far into the night.
On 23 May Brigadier Inglis announced that married men serving in the first three echelons and a proportion of single men selected by ballot would return to New Zealand on furlough. These men, the Ruapehu draft, left the regiment on 3 June and sailed from Egypt in the Nieuw Amsterdam on the 15th. The draft was commanded by Brigadier Kippenberger and included from the regiment Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows, who was succeeded in command on 4 June by Lieutenant-Colonel McKergow, Major J. B. Gray, and the Regimental Quartermaster, Lieutenant Bolwell.
The next few months can be covered briefly. The men lost to the furlough draft were replaced by reinforcements from New Zealand, many of them from 1 Battalion of the New Zealand Army Tank Brigade, who went overseas with the 9th and 10th Reinforcements. To the great relief of the technical staff, new Shermans were received from time to time to replace C Squadron's Crusaders. Tanks and men trained for battle on squadron and regimental exercises, the new tanks giving the regiment's fitters the usual running-in troubles. There was plenty of sport: the regiment did well in the divisional athletic championships, sharing the Freyberg Cup with 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment; its cricketers won the 2 NZEF championship; its swimmers were represented in the brigade and divisional championships and its non-swimmers—nearly 100 in one party and 78 in another— were taken on two-day trips to the Red Sea with parties of instructors. Off-duty there were school, club, and office reunions to renew civilian friendships — even high-country musterers organised a reunion of their own. Then rumours of a move began to stir the lines, late issues of equipment were received and base kits packed and stored. On 2 September another batch of the unit's ‘old hands’ marched out to join the second furlough draft and a week later an advance party under Captain Abbott left Maadi for Burg el Arab. The regiment's days in the desert were fast drawing to a close.
1 Maj J. B. Gray; Milton; born Milton, 12 Jul 1907; draper; 2 i/c 20 Regt Sep 1942.
2 Lt-Col J. W. McKergow; Rangiora; born England, 26 May 1902; farmer; CO 20 Regt 4 Jun-22 Dec 1943; wounded 22 Dec 1943.
3 Cpl R. J. Lynch; Dunedin; born NZ 22 Sep 1911; grocer; wounded May 1941.