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24 Battalion

CHAPTER 11 — Last Days in Africa

page 194

Last Days in Africa

The battalion arrived at Maadi Camp on 1 June. So far as possible the ensuing month was to be a time of rest. All officers and men were given 14 days' leave in two batches, the second lot going away as soon as the first returned. There was no training—only necessary fatigues and camp duties.

Some few breaches of rules and regulations were only to be expected after the long period of strain and hardship. A tendency to wear brown suede shoes in the unit lines had to be officially discouraged. It was found difficult to put down gambling in the beer bar of the New Zealand Forces Club ‘owing to the protective attitude of troops in the Bar’1 Early in July it was thought necessary to point out that'The time has now come when the excuse that troops had just returned from Tunisia and were not acquainted with “out of bounds” areas, can no longer be tolerated.’2 Apart from certain venial offences such as those mentioned, the conduct of the troops was excellent.

Taking into consideration the trying conditions of climate and general environment, it may also be said that their health had been good throughout the war in North Africa. Colds and minor mouth-spread infections were rare in the desert so long as there were enough bivouacs to avoid overcrowded sleeping room; but whenever the battalion was in the vicinity of Cairo, there was always an outbreak of colds picked up in picture theatres or other crowded public places. Diarrhoea was always present, either more or less. Every case had to be reported to the Medical Officer, and a weekly list of numbers in each company was compiled and sent to the Assistant Director of Medical Services. If caught within 24 hours, the complaint would usually be cleared up within a day or so by a dose of castor oil, but if severe and accompanied by a temperature, page 195 the case had to be evacuated. Prior to the war it was generally believed that crab lice were picked up through contact with women, but 24 Battalion had its largest number of cases from El Alamein onwards, in places where women were remarkably scarce. It soon became obvious that Italian clothing was the source of infection. While waiting for dawn after a night attack, shivering soldiers would wrap themselves up in whatever garments or blankets they happened to find, only to discover themselves infected a few days later. At Mersa Matruh one of B Company's cooks reported sick with crab lice in his groin, chest, and armpits. He was treated and declared clear, but next, day he was back again at the RAP. Inquiry elicited the fact that he was sleeping in a captured Italian sleeping bag. Malaria had not been troublesome since the battalion's sojourn in Syria, when the men of A Company had been on guard over the North Tunnel. These men, however, had continued to suffer periodical relapses until the end of the Tunisian campaign. As has already been mentioned, the battalion was never seriously affected by venereal disease at any stage of the war. This partial freedom from most of the complaints to which armies in the field are normally subject must be largely attributed to Captain Borrie's ceaseless vigilance, and his insistence on all possible sanitary and hygienic precautions.

Towards the end of May an arrangement had been made for allowing a certain number of officers and men who had come out with the first three echelons to return to New Zealand for three months' leave on full pay. This furlough was known as the Ruapehu scheme, that being the code-name for the first draft of men to leave the Middle East. Men married at the time of embarkation were given preference of selection, but a certain number of unmarried men were chosen by ballot. While the selection was in process all those under consideration had to remain with their units. They might not be transferred or attached, nor might they go on leave, though it was recognised that should the necessity arise they would have to be allowed to go to hospital. Unit commanders were advised to begin training substitutes for men liable to be chosen who held important positions, as once the ballot had been drawn it would be accepted as final. Four officers and 96 other ranks page 196 of 24 Battalion were chosen to go under this scheme. On 15 June they went to a special repatriation depot and remained there until they sailed.

Three weeks later, on 7 and 8 July, two reinforcement drafts arrived, numbering 202 in all, and the battalion strength rose from 422 other ranks to 623.

July and August were mainly devoted to company and battalion training. On 6 September the battalion left Maadi for Sheikh Salamah, near the shores of the Red Sea, to participate in brigade manoeuvres, the object of which, so it was announced, was to study the conduct of operations in close country. The area in question was to be considered similar in nature to European countries. It was also to be treated as captured enemy territory, in which every precaution must be taken against ambush or night attack by hostile guerrilla bands. Since British and American forces had already invaded the island of Sicily and 13 Corps had recently crossed the Straits of Messina, it required no great powers of deduction on the troops' part to grasp the fact that they were being specially trained for a campaign in Italy.

After four days in the desert the battalion returned to Maadi, remained there till the 15th, and then marched via Mena to Burg el Arab. The troops were seven days on the road. Feet began to blister early in the proceedings and as time went on old injuries began to give trouble, especially in the knees and ankles. For most of the journey 24 Battalion maintained a record for having the least number of casualties through men falling out on the march, but on the last day its colours were lowered by 25 Battalion. Burg el Arab was reached on the 21st, and next day the troops went to the polling booths to record their votes for the general election. Towards the end of September 24 Battalion moved out into the desert as a unit of 6 Brigade to take part in three days of divisional manoeuvres. This was the last occasion of its kind. The African period was fast drawing to a close and the beginning of October found 24 Battalion back at Burg el Arab, preparing for a long and momentous journey.

The planning of an invasion of Sicily had begun as early as January 1943, but not until 10 July did the Eighth British page 197 and Seventh United States Armies carry out their seaborne assault on the island, and not until the middle of August was its conquest complete. The 13th Corps crossed the Straits of Messina on 3 and 4 September; a week later the Fifth United States Army landed at Salerno. Meanwhile an armistice with Italy was announced, but Germany soon showed herself determined to hold a part at least of her late ally's country. A British airborne division landed at Taranto and 78 Division at Bari on the Adriatic, while 13 Corps moved north-east up the toe of Italy and crossed the Southern Apennines on to the plains of Foggia. By the beginning of October the Americans had secured their bridgehead at Salerno; Naples had fallen, the Eighth Army was driving two spearheads into the province of Abruzzi, and 2 NZ Division was about to concentrate in the vicinity of Taranto.

On 3 October 24 Battalion moved in two groups, A and B, to Ikingi Maryut transit camp, Amiriya, and thence, two days later, to Alexandria. Though loaded like packhorses, the troops were in high spirits as they embarked the same afternoon—A group on the Reina del Pacifico and B group on the Dunottar Castle. Escorted by destroyers and corvettes of the Royal and Greek navies, the ships sailed at 9 a.m. on 6 October. Shortly afterwards the convoy's destination was officially announced to the troops on board.

1 24 Bn routine order, 24 Jun 1943.

2 24 Bn routine order, 3 Jul 1943.