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23 Battalion

CHAPTER 3 — To Greece via Egypt

page 20

To Greece via Egypt

FOR the voyage to Egypt the battalion embarked on the Athlone Castle, a Union Castle luxury liner and the convoy flagship, which proved to be nearly as spacious and as comfortable as the Andes. The massing of the convoy took time and practically a week was spent at Liverpool and another two days in Belfast Lough, off Bangor, before the ships headed north and west for the North Atlantic. At first the twenty-one ships were escorted by one battleship, four cruisers, twelve destroyers and by bombers of the RAF.

The men of the 23rd showed little enthusiasm for this voyage. Many were genuinely sorry to leave England; the majority had found the thrill of sea travelling under war conditions wearing thin during the voyage to England. But soldiers adapt themselves to all kinds of conditions and, to combat the malaise produced by idleness, a full programme of training and entertainment was organised. Some twenty Bren guns were mounted in an anti-aircraft role and all the routine of ‘Action Stations’ was learned afresh. The deck space permitted route marches and plenty of PT as well as revision of weapon training. Advantage was taken of the specialised knowledge acquired on courses in England by getting the officers and NCOs concerned to lecture to the troops. Concerts, debates and sporting contests of all kinds were held. Nevertheless, the days stretched into weeks before the destination was reached.

The troops had to remain on board when Freetown was visited, but leave was given at Capetown. The convoy divided off Capetown and half went on to Durban. This half included the Australians, a circumstance which was later held to explain the very orderly conduct of the New Zealanders on this particular visit. On five days, while the ships were refuelling and securing supplies, the troops had shore leave. A six-mile route march preceded leave, but even route-marching on land was a pleasure after weeks at sea. Once again the hospitality of this sister Dominion was lavish and much appreciated. On 11 February the GOC Cape Command took the salute during a march past by 5 Brigade, and later complimented the men on page 21 their bearing. The Mayor of Capetown also commended the troops for their exemplary behaviour during their five-day stay. Their experiences in England and their extra months of training had done much to make the 23rd a disciplined body of men, able and willing to conduct themselves in a fitting manner. But, if none of the excesses of the visit of the previous May were repeated, the unit's record was spoilt in another direction—thirteen men were left behind when the convoy sailed. For security reasons, no sailing date had been announced. Most of the absentees would have been on board had they known when the convoy was departing from Capetown.

Sharing the Athlone Castle with the 23rd on the voyage to Egypt were the Maori Battalion, B Company 5 Field Ambulance and 5 Field Company, New Zealand Engineers. The specialists of the Field Ambulance and the sappers instructed the infantry in the mysteries of their respective crafts. But, from the point of view of the subsequent history of the 23rd, the association with their brother infantrymen in the 28th was of considerable importance and between them a remarkably strong feeling of friendship and mutual regard sprang up. In the tug-of-war and other tests of strength, the Maoris usually emerged victorious but the 23rd won most of the boxing contests. Suitable celebrations followed in bars and officers' messes: foundations were laid for the remarkable 23–28 co-operation which was a feature of the history of 5 Brigade. In subsequent years the men of the two battalions fought alongside each other on a number of occasions, and always with the greatest of confidence in each other. ‘The White Horis’, as the 23rd were known to many Maoris, was a title of which the South Islanders were justly proud.

By the time the Somaliland coast was sighted on the voyage up the east coast of Africa, the battalion had been on board the Athlone Castle as long as it had been on the Andes on the voyage from New Zealand to England—such was the effect of using the Cape route to Egypt during the war. On 4 March, however, the troops went ashore by lighter at Port Tewfik, whence the journey was continued by train to Helwan Camp, where the area vacated by 20 Battalion was taken over. All members of the 23rd did not arrive in Egypt at this time. Apart from the small group absent without leave in Capetown, others had been detached for manning anti-aircraft guns in ships which did not arrive simultaneously with the Athlone Castle. For page 22 example, one detachment under Corporal McEwen1 embarked at Glasgow on 18 December 1940 but did not reach Egypt till the end of April 1941. The exciting experiences of their ship, which was left behind by the rest of the convoy and had to return to port, may here receive only the briefest mention as one of the incidental features of the move from England to Egypt.

The 23rd did not stay more than a few days in Helwan Camp but, for some, the contrast between the Egyptian sands and the countryside of Kent and Surrey was too stark to warrant any display of enthusiasm over their new surroundings. Typical entries in diaries and letters at this time by soldiers of different ranks are ‘nothing but sand and stones here’, ‘sand, sand, and more sand’, and ‘sun, sand, and flies and smell and bareness’. In one respect, and that an important one, there was an improvement: rations were more plentiful than in England. As one private soldier wrote: ‘meals very good—plenty butter and sugar’. Under the tutelage of the 26th, their sister South Island battalion in 6 Brigade, the 23rd soon settled down to training and hardening up after two months at sea.

On 7 March Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer returned to the battalion as its commanding officer. Those officers who had to revert to a lower rank did so cheerfully because of the respect and regard in which they held the Colonel. Reinforcements from 29 Battalion made up for ‘wastages’ suffered since the departure from Burnham. Route marches and minor tactical schemes occupied most of the training hours. The hardening process continued slowly. Despite the attractions of Cairo, the original opinions of Egypt were more than confirmed when khamsin dust-storms blew up and filled ears and nostrils as well as tents and mess buildings with a fine dust which seemed to penetrate everywhere. The battalion was not sorry to learn that its stay at Helwan was to be less than a fortnight.

In consequence of decisions taken at a higher level, 4 NZ Brigade was leaving Egypt for Greece just when 5 Brigade was arriving from England. Sixth Brigade moved out of Helwan on 6 March and, eight days later, Headquarters 5 Brigade issued a warning order to all its units telling them to be ready to move as from Sunday, 16 March. Equipment was checked and, where necessary, brought up to scale or replaced by the latest available. The issue of Thompson sub-machine guns was in- page 23 creased to forty for the battalion and the officers exchanged their Webley revolvers for Smith and Weston pistols which fired the ‘tommy-gun’ ammunition. Base kits were packed and sent into store at the New Zealand Base Camp at Maadi, a few miles north of Helwan. On 16 March all tents were struck and packed; the camp site was made as tidy as time permitted; surplus items were sent to the salvage parks. The battalion was ready to move off. The unit transport left early next morning and took the desert road through Mena and past Halfway House to Amiriya. The troops followed later in the day by train.

Of considerable importance as a transit and staging camp for troops moving from the Cairo area either to the Western Desert or to the European theatre of war, Amiriya was probably the most unpopular camp in the Middle East. Invariably there was a sandstorm blowing there and frequently the ‘flight’ before one's own had been summoned forward on short notice and had left the bare, dismal camp area in an untidy and filthy state. When the 23rd arrived for the first time at Amiriya at 10.30 p.m. on 17 March 1941, this camp was no better than usual. Only one tent for every twenty men was available and cooking arrangements could scarcely have been more primitive in the field. The seven days spent there awaiting orders to embark must count amongst the most boring in the history of the unit. The NAAFIs had been cleaned out of stock by earlier ‘flights’ of troops; no one was expected to stay long and therefore no amenities and no entertainments were provided. Perhaps the battalion had been spoilt in England, but life seemed to have suddenly become unnecessarily grim. All were glad to leave Amiriya and proceed by train on 25 March to the Alexandria wharves to embark.

The 23rd went on board the Cameronia, an Anchor Line ship which had been a member of the convoy in which it had come from England. The troops soon found themselves at sea for the third time, and whether or not there was anything in the theory that the third time was lucky, they were confident that this voyage would bring them into touch with the enemy and enable them to strike the blow they had imagined striking when they first entered camp fifteen months earlier. A special order of the day, issued by General Freyberg, was read to all troops on board the Cameronia. In it the General said: ‘In the course of the next few days you may be fighting in defence of Greece, the birthplace of culture and learning. We shall be meeting our page 24 real enemy, the Germans, who have set out with the avowed object of smashing the British Empire. It is clear therefore that wherever we fight them we shall be fighting not only for Greece, but also in defence of our own homes.’ After praising the fitness of the troops and warning them against being caught unprepared or being upset by the conditions of modern warfare, the General concluded: ‘You will be fighting in a foreign land and the eyes of many nations will be upon you. The honour of the New Zealand Division is in your keeping. It could not be in better hands.’

The General's message confirmed the view that battle would be entered within a matter of weeks if not days. Its effect no doubt varied from man to man, but the battalion's Intelligence Officer made a sound estimate of reactions when he wrote home on 26 March: ‘I have in front of me General Freyberg's Special Order…. It is to be hoped that once more we may be given a responsible place in the line as in Britain, but this time action should be a certainty. I have been struck with the changed attitude of our fellows—from a happy-go-lucky rabble they have suddenly become a compact force to be reckoned with, and perfectly confident of the issue. Everybody is pleased with the prospect of coming to grips at last—New Zealand troops tend to rot with inactivity, and spirit and camaraderie plus our long training make up for what I once imagined was a weakness in the original recruits.’ In keeping with the more serious spirit abroad, the Padre, the Rev. Bob Griffiths,2 held an evening church service. Although it was Wednesday, the service was well attended.

On 27 March the 23rd landed at Piraeus, the port of Athens and the chief port of Greece, to the accompaniment of every conceivable demonstration of pleasure on the part of the Greeks. Lieutenant McGregor,3 the battalion transport officer, and some of his drivers, who had gone to Greece as an advance party, were at Piraeus to ferry the heavier stores and equipment to the transit camp. The troops marched in battle order through the crowded streets of Piraeus and Athens to this camp, Hymettus No. 3, a camp as different from the sandy desert waste of Amiriya as day from night, since it was situated among cypresses and pines on the slopes of Mount Hymettus. The Greek people gave the battalion a most enthusiastic welcome: page 25 they applauded their arrival, they entertained the men with the wines of the country, and presented them with flowers. This grand welcome made everyone feel that the Greeks were, as one man put it, ‘well worth fighting for and alongside’.

Next day, at 4 p.m., the battalion began its move north in a train composed mainly of sheep and cattle trucks. The trucks were crowded with forty or more men in each. But, if there was insufficient room in which to stretch out and sleep comfortably, most men had secured a bottle of the local cognac or other warming drink for the long journey. If the night was somewhat trying, daybreak on the 29th revealed scenery of real grandeur. Early spring had clothed the trees and fertile plains with green, but the rocky hills stood out, silhouetted against snowclad mountains. Picturesque villages, perched high on precipitous slopes, looked like pictures from Grimm's fairy tales. The peasants appeared to be sturdy, thrifty, hard-working people capable of producing good fighters.

The 23rd reached Katerini, its destination on the train journey, about 4 p.m. on 29 March. The battalion was but one of many units recently arrived in Greece and now ready to put their long months of training to the test. British, Australian and New Zealand troops, numbering 58,364, had crossed to help the Greeks defend their land.

Their arrival at Katerini brought the men of the 23rd into touch with 4 Brigade for the first time since the First Echelon left New Zealand in January 1940. Interchanges of visits, particularly with their sister South Island battalion, the 20th, were frequent. The welcome given by Lieutenant-Colonel Kippen-berger4 and Major Burrows,5 CO and second-in-command of the 20th, was much appreciated, especially by those who had originally entered camp with the 20th. ‘Kip came over with Jim Burrows to welcome us. It was good to see him again—so quiet, efficient and confident, just like our own C.O. I page 26 travelled up with Falconer and relished his imperturbable good humour,’ wrote Bassett. Men began to realise the potential strength and solidarity of the New Zealand Division, the concentration of which was now practically complete in the country where its first battles were to be fought.6

1 WO II G. H. McEwen; Masterton; born Cheltenham, England, 23 Jan 1918; civil servant.

2 Rev. R. J. Griffiths, MBE; Waimate; born Gisborne, 26 Jul 1905; Presbyterian minister; p.w. 23 May 1941.

3 Lt-Col A. F. G. McGregor, MC (Gk); Christchurch; born Invercargill, 2 Nov 1918; butcher; p.w. Nov 1941; CO 2 Royal NZ Regt (Japan) 1948.

4 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde (Crete) May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943 and 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group in UK 1944–45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.

5 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941-Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942-Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commander, Southern Military District, Nov 1951-Oct 1953; Commander K Force, Nov 1953-Nov 1954; Commander SMD, Jan 1955-.

6 The main officer appointments of 23 Battalion on its arrival in Greece were:—CO: Lt-Col A. S. Falconer, DSO, MC; 2 i/c: Maj D. F. Leckie; Adjt: Lt R. M. S. Orbell; IO: Lt B. I. Bassett; QM: Capt I. Patterson; MO: Capt R. S. Stewart; Padre: Rev. R. J. Griffiths; HQ Coy OC: Maj T. Fyfe; A Coy OC: Capt C. N. Watson; B Coy OC: Maj S. J. Kelly; C Coy OC: Maj H. H. Thomason; D Coy OC: Capt I. O. Manson.