CHAPTER 1 — Trentham—Voyage Overseas—Training in Egypt
Trentham—Voyage Overseas—Training in Egypt
On15 May 1940 large numbers of men from all parts of the Wellington, Hawke's Bay, and Taranaki provinces arrived at Trentham Military Camp, which at that time was the training camp of the Central Military District. This influx continued for three days, when a little over one-third of the men who were to form the units of the Third Echelon of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force were in the camp. At the same time the remainder of the echelon was assembling at the district training camps of Papakura (near Auckland), Ngaruawahia (near Hamilton), and Burnham (near Christchurch).
Twenty-fifth (Wellington) Infantry Battalion was forming at Trentham, its neighbours being 8 Field Company, New Zealand Engineers, Divisional Provost Company, Overseas Base (Records), Base Pay Office (Details), Base Post Office (Details), 2 NZ General Hospital, 6 Infantry Anti-Tank Company, Divisional Signals, Headquarters 6 NZ Infantry Brigade with 19 Light Aid Detachment attached, and Headquarters New Zealand Division (Details), together with first reinforcements of 1228 all ranks. The total strength of this section of the Third Echelon (which does not include the first reinforcements) was 2808 all ranks; Papakura with Ngaruawahia had 2703 and Burnham 2333 all ranks.
Twenty-fifth Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder,1 was one of the three battalions of 6 NZ Infantry Brigade, the other battalions being 24 Battalion at Papakura and 26 Battalion at Burnham. The First and Second Echelons had also passed through these camps and included 4 and 5 Brigades, now overseas. Each of these brigades was similarly organised into Auckland, Wellington, and Canterbury-Otago battalions, 4 Brigade comprising 18, 19, and 20 Battalions, and 5 Brigade 21, 22, and 23 Battalions. Two other battalions, but not forming page 2 part of any of the infantry brigades, were in the Division; they were 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion and 28 (Maori) Battalion, the latter usually being attached to 5 Brigade.
As was the case in the preceding echelons, officers and non-commissioned officers for the Third Echelon had commenced their training in advance of the men, entering the camps on 1 February. Many of these officers (chiefly adjutants, quartermasters, and officers second-in-command of units and companies) and selected warrant officers and NCOs were attached for a short period to units of the Second Echelon, a preliminary ‘canter’ giving most valuable practical experience in the duties they would shortly undertake in their own units.
Despite the very low state into which the military forces of the Dominioin had fallen in the years preceding the war, there were fortunately, in addition to the small but very efficient Regular Forces, considerable numbers of Territorial Force officers and NCOs who had maintained an active interest in the forces and kept abreast of the times. Many of these were veterans (though they would disclaim the term) of the 1914 – 18 war, and together with others of similar war experience were an invaluable leaven in the great, inexperienced mass forming the greater part of the new enlistments. Among the men, too, were a few with war experience and also a great many who had had some years' training in the secondary school cadets, which often included periods in camp and one or more courses of instruction. The Territorial Force units had also provided a good many partly trained men. All these were a great help, either as officers and instructors or in the ranks, where they were able to show the ‘run of the ropes’ to those ignorant of camps and army life.
Trentham had long been a military training camp but in the years between the wars its buildings had been increasingly used as part of the very large Ordnance Depot housing great quantities of weapons, equipment, and military stores. On the outbreak of war a large and urgent building programme had been commenced to provide hutted accommodation for over 2500 men and excellent facilities that included a cinema, library, wet and dry canteen, institutes (Church Army, Salvation Army, and YMCA), Post Office (including telegraph, telephone, money and postal order, and savings-bank facilities), hot showers, drying rooms and laundry, an excellent hospital (including a contagious diseases hospital), dental hospital, and a very useful shopping area. In the second year of the 1914–18 page 3 war mud and dust had created a serious and dangerous nuisance, and to prevent a repetition of this, all the roads and the parade ground were sealed by the Public Works Department, an activity in which the Minister of Public Works, the Hon. R. Semple, took an enthusiastic and urgent interest.
The first few days in camp were spent in organising the battalion into its companies, platoons and sections, and in issuing bedding, clothing and equipment. All was not plain sailing as the heavy demands made by the mobilisation of some 20,000 men in a few months were of course beyond the capacity of the peacetime reserves, and industry was just beginning to show in increased production the results of the expansion programme. Issues in some items had necessarily to be made almost from day to day as supplies came to hand and attendance at quartermasters' stores often tried the patience of all concerned.
Such then were the camp and generally the conditions in which the men of 25 Battalion were to live for the next fifteen weeks. They were to have the privilege, as it seems to have been universally regarded, of receiving as members of the Third Echelon the newly adopted battle dress, which was not ready in time for the earlier echelons. It proved to be a well-designed and popular uniform, particularly suitable for active service. The absence of brass buttons with their attendant drudgery may have had something to do with its popularity. The small men of the battalion, however, were a little unfortunate as there was a shortage of the smaller sizes and they had to wear drill or the older pattern serge uniforms when on leave.
As an economy measure denim jackets and trousers were worn for training and for fatigues, serge trousers being worn underneath for warmth during the cold weather. This denim working dress was certainly a cure for vanity, a great leveller, and until one became accustomed to it tended to confirm the adage that ‘clothes make the man’. It was, however, very suitable for the purpose for which it was used. It was easily cleaned, dried quickly, and relieved the strain on supplies of normal uniform. Men in denim uniform could take no pride in their. appearance but as all men were dressed alike it mattered little. The striking transformation which took place when the men were dressed in their battle dress was adequate compensation. After wearing denims a man in battle dress felt he really was someone and in every way looked the part.
The real purpose of the battalion's presence at Trentham was training and that commenced in earnest, on a syllabus that page 4 had been prepared months ahead, after the first week or so of settling down. The men came from all walks of life, from all parts of the district, from cities, towns, villages, and country areas, including the back country. Men accustomed to work in the bush or on the farm found the sharp, quick movements on the barrack square and the continuous alertness required both difficult and tiring. Sometimes, too, the hard surface worried their feet. The townsman, though more at home in these respects, found the all-day exercise in the open air equally strenuous. These comparatively minor troubles passed and very soon a considerable improvement in carriage, movement, and mental and physical alertness could be observed.
As the training progressed it lost much of its monotony. Weapon training reached the stage when range practices could be commenced, and a very useful introduction to these was the use of .22 rifles converted from .303 rifles. One hundred were issued to the battalion and they helped a great deal to overcome a shortage of rifle-range accommodation, caused by the priority given to other troops who were going overseas almost immediately. The use of the short ranges for the .22 rifles speeded up the practices and it was often a help for the men to see exactly where their shots went. These rifles were also valuable in introducing the tyro to rifle shooting, especially so for those men who were nervous when required to fire the .303 weapon. It was quite surprising to find that a few such men, hailing from town and country alike, could be found in a country such as New Zealand. Taken patiently, however, they were usually brought up to the same standard as the others. A cheap and plentiful supply of .22 ammunition enabled plenty of practice to be given.
In July the men had their first experience of what could perhaps be called an old army custom, frequently to be repeated, never welcomed, yet of great value to all. This was an injection, on this occasion of tetanus prophylactic. It was a curious fact that from time to time cases occurred of strong, tough men of undoubted courage fainting while awaiting their encounter with the needle; the anticipation of this deliberate and cold-blooded triviality seemed to have this strange effect upon some men.
The troops soon became accustomed to this ordered life with everything done to time and its strict insistence upon punctuality. The training made steady progress and became more interesting as the early recruit stage was passed. Route marches, page 5 cross-country runs, and various sports kept the men fit despite the wet, winter weather. Football was played on grounds behind Quinns Post Hotel, the troops marching there and back, and it was remarkable how many men disappeared at half-time. A good deal of training had necessarily to be carried out in the men's quarters and over the whole period in-camp training was also hampered by sickness, which included an influenza epidemic of three or four weeks' duration. It was difficult for the battalion to arrange that all men who had missed training received additional and special instruction to bring them up to the general level, though a considerable effort was made to do so.
In the usual report rendered on a unit just prior to its departure overseas the state of the battalion and the progress it had made were reviewed. It stated that all ranks were well up to the standard of the previous echelon in physique, intelligence and keenness, but discipline generally was not quite up to the same standard. This was ascribed to the greater proportion of inexperienced officers, NCOs, and men in this echelon and to the presence in the camp of small sub-units raised for special duties, and with little previous training, which could hardly reach the same high standard that was essential for a fighting unit such as an infantry battalion. The officers and NCOs were reported as keen and hard-working; many of them showed the benefit obtained by attendance at the District School of Instruction. Despite the difficulties caused by the weather and the shortage of rifle-range accommodation, the battalion's weapon training was regarded as satisfactory.
By comparison with battalions of the previous echelons 25 Battalion was unfortunate in having to train in the winter and could not be expected to make quite the same progress. It had, however, reached a reasonable standard of training and was expected to make rapid progress in the excellent training camp in Egypt.
The Officer Commanding the Central Military District, Colonel R. A. Row, inspected the battalion in July after it had completed two months' training. A few days later the Governor-General, Viscount Galway, visited the camp and after an inspection addressed the troops.
Before 25 Battalion left New Zealand it saw the end of the system of voluntary enlistment, conscription by ballot coming into force after 22 July. (It is of interest to notice that by that date the total voluntary enlistments were 59,644. Of this number page 6 13,373 sailed with the First and Second Echelons; 8799 were in camp with the Third Echelon (including a surplus to replace casualties during training); and 9190 were in the three training camps as reinforcements. The remainder of those who had registered voluntarily had either not been called up at this date or had failed to pass the medical examination.) This development was of some interest to 25 Battalion and the other units of the Third Echelon as in future their reinforcements, apart from those already in camp, would be provided under the new system.
The establishment or strengths of the various components of an infantry battalion were altered slightly from time to time, but in 1940 they were as given below:
Battalion Headquarters consisted of 4 officers, 1 WO, 4 S-Sgts and Sgts, 2 Cpls, 36 Ptes—Total 47, plus 1 MO attached.
Headquarters Company, chiefly specialists, had a strength of 8 officers, 210 other ranks, consisting of:
|Coy HQ||1||6 (plus 5 attached)|
|No. 1 Signal Platoon||1||33|
|No. 2 Anti-Aircraft Platoon||1||15|
|No. 3 Mortar Platoon||1||16|
|No. 4 Carrier Platoon||1||29|
|No. 5 Pioneer Platoon||1||19|
|No. 6 Admin Platoon||2||92|
|Total Coy||8||210 (plus 5 attached)|
There were four rifle companies, each associated broadly with the military areas from which its men were drawn, A Company (Wellington City), B Company (Wellington-West Coast), C Company (Hawke's Bay), D Company (Taranaki). A rifle company had a Company Headquarters of 2 officers, 10 other ranks, and three platoons, one of which had 1 officer, 38 other ranks, and the other two each of 1 officer, 37 other ranks, a company strength of 5 officers, 122 other ranks. The total strength of the battalion was therefore 32 officers, 741 other ranks, plus 1 officer, 5 other ranks attached. A first reinforcement of 7 officers, 147 other ranks, was to accompany the battalion overseas.
The battalion's departure for a theatre of war was now imminent. Final leave was given on 1 August and the men returned to camp between 12 and 15 August, allowances being made for variations in travelling time. The men had some page 7 doubt as to whether this was really ‘final’ leave, but the preparations for embarkation which began on their return to camp speedily convinced them that sailing date was near. From 5 p.m. on 13 August the battalion was placed ‘On Active Service’, a change of status which increased materially the pains and penalties attached to absenteeism.
On 17 August a farewell parade was held in Wellington when the troops marched through the streets and, at a short farewell ceremony, were addressed by the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and others. It was the first occasion on which battle dress was worn by all troops and the parade made a deep impression on all who saw it. Similar parades were held in Auckland and Christchurch.
At long last, ten days later, the time arrived for the battalion to leave Trentham and embark. It was, of course, an occasion of mixed emotions. All were glad to end the monotony of the training camp and looked forward with keen anticipation to the voyage, the first experience of overseas travel for the great majority of the troops. Mounting excitement and the urge to move onward to the task for which they were in training were tempered by memories of sad partings and by the deep realisation of all that this departure, a significant and irrevocable step, meant to those who must remain behind and wait and pray and hope. But the bustle of departure, the novel surroundings, the proximity and companionship of hundreds of others, and the resilience of youth soon dissipated any sombre thoughts, and so the excitement of the occasion reasserted itself.
The officers of 25 Battalion on embarkation were:
Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. Wilder, DSO, MC, Commanding Officer
Major S. M. Satterthwaite, Second-in-Command
Major C. D. A. George, Officer Commanding A Company
Major C. J. Williams, Officer Commanding C Company
Captain J. D. Armstrong, Adjutant
Captain H. F. Smith, Officer Commanding B Company
Captain A. J. R. Hastie, Officer Commanding D Company
Captain H. G. Burton, Officer Commanding HQ Company
Captain F. R. McBride, Second-in-Command C Company
Captain S. W. Josland, Second-in-Command D Company
Captain W. H. Roberts, Second-in-Command A Company
Captain H. J. Dalzell, Second-in-Command B Company
Captain P. L. Bennett, Quartermaster
Lieutenant R. Morrison, 4 Platoon (Carriers)page 8
Lieutenant B. H. Wakelin, 13 Platoon
Lieutenant S. M. Porter, 1 Platoon (Signals)
Lieutenant W. L. Rutherford, 6 Platoon (Transport)
Lieutenant M. J. Mason, Intelligence Officer
Lieutenant N. Bancks, 16 Platoon
Lieutenant W. A. O'N. Canavan, 10 Platoon
Lieutenant W. J. Heslop, 17 Platoon
Lieutenant H. G. Witters, 14 Platoon
Lieutenant G. A. W. Possin, 9 Platoon
Lieutenant G. Colledge, 8 Platoon
Lieutenant R. M. McLeay, 15 Platoon
Lieutenant C. M. Sealy, 5 Platoon (Pioneers)
Second-Lieutenant H. H. Hollow, 18 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant G. J. B. Morris, 12 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant J. P. Tredray, 11 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant I. D. Reid, 3 Platoon (Mortars)
Second-Lieutenant H. Macaskill, 7 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant M. Handyside, 2 Platoon (Anti-aircraft)
Captain L. H. Cordery, NZMC, Medical Officer
Rev. C. E. Willis, Chaplain
The battalion embarked in HM Transport No. 11, the trans-atlantic Cunard liner Mauretania, of 35,739 tons, at 9 a.m. on 27 August, the total number of troops aboard being 2334 all ranks. Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder was appointed Officer Commanding the convoy; Lieutenant-Colonel Weir,2 commanding 6 Field Regiment, was appointed OC Troops; and similar appointments were made for the two other ships of the convoy, the Empress of Japan and the Orcades.
The Mauretania and the Empress of Japan left the wharf early in the afternoon and anchored in the harbour until next morning. This pause enabled essential ship's routine and organisation to be established before the vagaries of the ocean could exert any unsettling influence. Escorted by the cruiser HMS Achilles, the ships sailed at 8 a.m., 28 August, and an hour later were joined in Cook Strait by the Orcades from Lyttelton. The sight of the Achilles of River Plate fame sent a thrill through the troops, the more so as she belonged to the New Zealand Squadron.page 9
On the second day the escort was reinforced by the Australian cruiser Perth but lost the Achilles the next day when she turned back for New Zealand, her crew cheering each ship in turn as she passed along the convoy. Everyone was sorry to see her go. The following day, 31 August, the Australian contingent which sailed from Sydney, escorted by HMAS Canberra, joined the convoy, whereupon Perth departed.
The first few days of the voyage were spent in settling down to shipboard routine. Regular submarine lookouts were established and boat-drill was frequently practised to ensure that everyone knew his duty and station if an emergency occurred. Life jackets, which had to be carried at all times, were regarded as a cumbersome nuisance, or worse. In these big ships, with their numerous decks, corridors, lifts and stairways, it was easy to get lost and only constant practice offered any prospects of avoiding disastrous confusion if trouble arose. The large numbers aboard necessitated careful routing and timing to prevent ‘traffic jams’ and it had to be remembered that enemy action at night by mine, torpedo, or gunfire could destroy the ship's lighting system and so immeasurably increase the difficulties.
Fortunately the weather was fine during these preliminaries and all went well. Elementary training proceeded throughout voyage, including, in addition to physical and recreational training, a good deal of weapon training, semaphore signalling, and lectures on a variety of subjects. The training was hampered by a shortage of equipment and lack of space; route-marching round the decks with the men wearing boots is very useful exercise and also the best way of keeping the feet in good condition. Unfortunately, 25 Battalion and other troops from Trentham and Ngaruawahia were denied this advantage as both pairs of boots on issue had been hobnailed and so, because of the damage that would be caused, could not be worn on the decks.
The 800 miles of the Great Australian Bight produced its usual great rollers from the south, to the discomfort of many of the men, and of course disrupted the training. Fremantle was reached on 4 September and the ship berthed at noon. For the majority this was the first sight of a land other than their own and it carried a thrill of interest and anticipation which few will forget. It was of course well known by repute, through reports from preceding troops in both wars, as the gateway to a land of unbounded hospitality, which was never diminished by the frequent demands upon it nor by the boisterous behaviour page 10 of a proportion of its visitors, both Australian and New Zealand. Leave was granted from 1 p.m. to midnight and the troops enjoyed the same enthusiastic hospitality in Perth and Fremantle as those who had gone before. The Third Echelon must have established a record by having only one man absent on sailing time, though ten others who were too late to rejoin their own ships were placed in the last ship to leave.
The convoy, which had now completed some 3100 miles of its voyage, sailed just before noon the next day and encountered a moderate sea which had the usual effect, but from then onwards, as the ships approached the Tropic of Capricorn on their north-westerly course, the weather was fine with calm seas and rising temperatures. Sports meetings were commenced soon after the voyage was resumed, a boxing tournament and tugs-of-war creating keen interest; the officers distinguished themselves by winning the tug-of-war. ‘The Sunday Church parades were impressive,’ said one man, ‘with 6 Brigade band playing the hymns.’
The tropical weather was rather a revelation to many of the men, who found the high temperatures in the sleeping quarters below very trying. A strict blackout had been maintained throughout the voyage and the various ventilation devices, efficient though they were, did not overcome the effect of closed portholes and doors. Vaccination and an inoculation (Tet. Prop. II), which had been purposely delayed to avoid interfering with training in camp, had been given during the first few days after leaving Fremantle, and their after-effects aggravated the discomforts below. Sleeping on deck was permitted and was popular, though there was sometimes a tropical shower and always the unwelcome interruption when decks were hosed down very early in the morning.
In addition to its effects on ventilation the blackout prohibited lights of any kind on deck and smoking there was forbidden. Double doors, one of which had to be closed before the other was opened, were installed, and all portholes were masked. Unless there was moonlight it was pitch dark on deck and this caused one amusing incident. On opening a door to go on deck an officer was grasped firmly by someone on the outside who said fervently, ‘I just stepped out for a breath of fresh air and I've been groping round for that door for the last half-hour.’ Collisions with objects animate and inanimate also occurred with results that had better, perhaps, be left to the imagination. But it was a serious matter when the ever- page 11 vigilant escorting cruiser reported a light showing. This was regrettably frequent and caused a considerable flurry among the officers both of the ship and the army, for the troops were not always at fault.
On 15 September the ships reached Bombay after a voyage of about 7000 miles from Wellington and were then a little under 3000 miles from Suez. Unfortunately it was now necessary to tranship as the big liners were required elsewhere, being too valuable with their speed and carrying capacity to be exposed unnecessarily to the risk of attack in the narrow waters at the entrance to the Red Sea. Twenty-fifth Battalion and other troops from the Mauretania were to re-embark in the Ormonde and those in the Orcades in the Orion.
The battalion spent 15 and 16 September in the Mauretania at anchor in the stream, the shore authorities stating that no transport was available to take the troops ashore. At seven next morning disembarkation into another vessel, the Rona, began and after what appeared to be an unnecessarily long delay in the very hot sun, the men were landed, had lunch, marched two miles to the Ormonde, which lay alongside the wharf, and embarked. Leave was then granted from 3.30 p.m. to midnight.
But the men's troubles were by no means ended. While on leave the troops were drenched by a severe thunderstorm, with torrential rain of a density far exceeding any they had previously experienced, and on their return to the ship found there were no drying rooms or a change of clothing available. Altogether it had been a trying day, for the men had had trouble in changing their money, Ceylon rupees placed on board in New Zealand for use at Colombo, the usual and expected port of call. The trading banks could not change this currency and the native shopkeepers would not accept it. However, the Reserve and Imperial Bank of India and the larger European stores converted the rupees into Indian currency at face value, though money-changers charged up to 7 per cent. It was most frustrating and exasperating to run into this difficulty, which wasted a good deal of precious leave.
Next morning, 18 September, the Ormonde moved into the stream and anchored. It was soon evident that the change of ships was a change very much for the worse so far as the men's accommodation was concerned. The messing arrangements were poor and the sleeping quarters overcrowded. The ship was dirty and insanitary as there had not been time to clean up after the disembarkation of British troops the day before, and the page 12 very hot climate aggravated the conditions. The contrast between the Ormonde of 15,000 tons and the Mauretania of 35,739 tons was startling.
The troops remained on board during the 18th as again transport was not available to take them ashore. At dinner that night the meat was bad, with a peculiar taint. There had previously been very strong comment amongst the men about the way the meat had been handled at the wharf, where natives had been noticed walking over the carcases, which were exposed to the blazing sun and to numerous flies while awaiting loading. That this made a very deep impression amongst the men of the battalion is very evident since men in discussion about it eighteen years later condemned it in the strongest terms.
Colonel Weir did his best to remedy the bad conditions aboard. He tried without success to have New Zealand beef transferred from the Mauretania and to have 400 men disembarked from the Ormonde to make more room. Another serious difficulty was the different ration scale, the Ormonde being on the British scale which was less generous than that to which the men had been accustomed. It was unfortunate, too, that the continuous rain forced the men off the decks and so accentuated the discomforts below, which as the ship was stationary, were more acute than when she was under way.
This catalogue of errors and misfortunes came to a head shortly before 1.15 p.m. on 19 September when the convoy was due to sail. A large body of men, allegedly encouraged by a disgruntled crew, occupied the ship's bridge and wheelhouse, telling the Captain they were taking charge and that the ship would not sail till their grievances were adjusted. A deputation then waited on Colonels Wilder and Weir and all the grievances, other than the one of accommodation, were disposed of satisfactorily. In the meantime the remainder of the convoy had sailed at the appointed time.
On discussing the situation with the naval and embarkation authorities ashore, Colonels Wilder and Weir were told that the convoy had been slowed down to enable the Ormonde to rejoin, that the action of the troops was very serious, and that the ship had been placed in arrest. Colonel Wilder had earlier declined an offer of naval assistance to restore order aboard.
On his return to the ship Colonel Weir told a conference of officers that the overcrowding had been largely overcome by arranging for many of the men to sleep on deck. The trouble page 13 then seemed to have died down, guards were posted at various points early next morning, and at 7 a.m. the ship sailed without further incident.
This very unfortunate occurrence was the subject of an inquiry held on board during the voyage to Suez which elicited the facts already related. There were also inquiries from the New Zealand Government, which had received disquieting reports regarding the discomforts of the troops during the voyage. General Freyberg3 reported that he was satisfied the trouble had been mainly due to the poor transhipment at Bombay, a contributing factor being the inexperience of officers and other ranks. He said that although the New Zealand Government might think it worth while making representation to the War Office, it had to be remembered that New Zealand had a case to answer as the sailing of the Ormonde had been prevented by the concerted action of a body of other ranks. He recommended that no action be taken.
There seems to be no doubt that, whatever the difficulties, the arrangements made by the embarkation staff at Bombay failed in several respects. Surely the Ormonde could have been cleaned and no arrangements should have been accepted by that staff which did not provide for this to be done. Then there was the question of leave. To keep men in crowded transports at anchor in a tropical climate for two complete days on arrival and for a further day after transfer to the Ormonde was just not facing up to the realities and requirements of the situation. In a large port such as Bombay, it is difficult to believe that transport from ship to shore could not have been provided had there been the will to do so; even the ship's launches and boats could have broken the back of the problem and after the re embarkation the Ormonde could surely have remained at the wharf for another twenty-four hours.
The suspicion is inescapable that the shore authorities did not wish to have the troops ashore for a longer period than the bare minimum; perhaps they feared disorders or the civil situation may have been delicate, as it sometimes was in India. But whatever the real reason, if one existed it should have been explained; and in any case it was not sufficiently realised that troops from a temperate climate would suffer severely in the page 14 hot and humid atmosphere, and that on this, their first visit to India, leave would have a strong and very special appeal, especially after a voyage of nearly three weeks.
People living in temperate zones with no experience of the tropics have no conception of the heat and humidity of Bombay and of how unbearable it is to young men encountering it for the first time. The broiling the men received during their transfer from the Mauretania, the leave situation and the delay in changing their money, the drenching from the tropical storm and the absence of a change of clothing and of drying facilities, the dirty, insanitary, and crowded state of the Ormonde, the tainted maggoty meat and the reduced scale of rations, the constant rain which drove the troops off the decks into the overheated and crowded quarters below—all these add up to a formidable total of exasperation and frustration. At all events they proved too much for a number of troops still undergoing transformation from civilian to soldier. There we must leave the matter.4
Eight hours after leaving Bombay the Ormonde rejoined the convoy of the Empress of Japan and Orion escorted by HMS Colombo and HMAS Kanimbla. Very hot fine weather was experienced during the rest of the voyage so that the large number of men sleeping on deck not only relieved the crowding in the sleeping quarters below but also enjoyed better conditions, untroubled by the sudden rain storms that are apt to occur in that locality. The convoy was soon approaching the straits of Bab el Mandeb (the Gate of Tears), bordered by the Italian territory of Eritrea to the west and Yemen of south-west Arabia to the east. The straits are only 20 miles wide at their southern end but gradually widen to 50 miles opposite Mocha, the Yemen port famous for its coffee, 50 miles to the north. The island of Perim, occupied by Britain as a precaution about eighty years ago, is in the southern entrance to the straits, which do not reach a width exceeding 100 miles until the island of Kamaran is reached, 200 miles from Perim.
These narrow waters were naturally a source of some anxiety to the British naval authorities responsible for the passage of the convoy, and the troops took an increased interest in their local geography and in their escort as they approached the straits on 26 September. The previous day HMS Ajax, two destroyers, and an anti-aircraft cruiser had taken over the page 15 convoy from Colombo and Kanimbla, and with such evidence of naval alertness the troops manning the submarine lookouts and anti-aircraft posts showed increased keenness. However, the Italians made no attempt against the ships and two days later the destroyers departed for duty with another convoy, followed by the remainder of the escort late the same day. The convoy then broke up, the ships sailing independently for Port Tewfik at Suez, which was reached early in the morning of 29 September.
General Freyberg came aboard to greet the troops and a message of welcome from the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, was read. General Wavell emphasised the necessity for all ranks to work their hardest so as to reach a high state of training in as short a time as possible; their job was, he said, to fit themselves to take their places among the other Empire troops of the Army in the Middle East who had been training hard since their arrival in the country.
That day an advance party of two officers and six other ranks was sent to Maadi Camp and the battalion followed the next day, disembarking in barges at 4.30 p.m. and entraining a few hours later.
And so this long voyage of thirty-two days and almost 10,000 miles had ended. During it the German air attack on Great Britain, which had begun nearly three weeks before 25 Battalion left New Zealand, had continued with great intensity and had been opposed with considerable success. The first night bombing of London had occurred two days after Fremantle had been passed. The United States had come a good deal closer to entering the war by transferring fifty destroyers to the Royal Navy in return for bases. These items were of great interest and some encouragement to the men of the battalion on their first entry to a theatre of war. Perhaps less encouraging but of more immediate and personal interest was the threat to Egypt by large Italian forces under Graziani, which on 18 September had advanced to Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast 50 miles inside Egypt. It was to be expected that these forces, which greatly outnumbered the British forces in Egypt, would continue their advance in the near future. Clearly, as the men of the battalion recognised, General Wavell's message regarding hard training and quick results had stated the obvious.
The first day in the new camp was taken up erecting tents and settling in. To give protection against bombs the tents had to be dug in, a laborious task which evoked little enthusiasm page 16 at the time. This attitude, however, changed completely about three weeks later when an enemy aircraft dropped a few bombs half a mile away. Although practically all the units of the First Echelon were at Baggush near Mersa Matruh, in reserve to the British forces facing the Italians, and the Second Echelon was still in the United Kingdom, the battalion had a good many visitors from the camp staffs and reinforcements anxious to greet the new arrivals, hear news from home, and find relatives and friends. The men soon learnt the run of the ropes and training commenced in earnest.
Troops arriving in a strange country naturally have much to learn, and if they are inexperienced and the country is non- European the need is the greater and the more urgent. Some of the conditions in Egypt as they affect the individual and collective health of the troops, such as the preparation and handling of much of the food for sale, the condition of the water (apart from the established civil supply systems), the hordes of flies, and the curious habits and standards of the people, were quite foreign to New Zealand. Personal safety in some quarters of the great city of Cairo, with a population of well over a million and a quarter, was not necessarily secure; the mixed population made the work of enemy agents comparatively easy; respect for religious customs which were unknown to many New Zealanders and correct behaviour by the troops in their contact with the people were of great importance.
These subjects and others, to help the troops become acclimatised to the unusual conditions, were explained in several lectures to the battalion during the first few days at Maadi Camp, the lecturers being the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, the Field Security Officer from General Headquarters, Middle East, and the ADMS New Zealand Division.5 On the medical side the men were warned against one disease in particular which threatened men accustomed in their own country to drinking water from almost any stream: that was bilharzia, of which the average New Zealander was completely ignorant. New Zealand troops of both world wars were warned against this disease in terms which everyone seems to have remembered and which made them loth even to dip a hand in the waters of the Nile. The troops were told that bilharzia is a worm disease, found in fresh water where the very small snails Bulinus and Planorbis feed and muliply on certain water weeds. These snails are hosts of the bilharzia worm and they thrive par- page 17 ticularly well in the irrigation canals into which the snails discharge the tiny parasites. The water spreads these over the fields, where they quickly penetrate the skin of people working there and so reach the liver, resulting in various distressing and dangerous ailments and early debility and lassitude. Clearly it was a disease to be avoided.
Within the first fortnight General Freyberg addressed all officers and all NCOs above the rank of corporal on the subject of ‘Defence’, which was one of the roles the battalion might be required to undertake in the existing situation in Egypt. In addition to being instructive the lecture gave the GOC NZ Division and his audience their first really close contact.
The first leave out of camp in this strange land was of course a great event and was granted on 5 October, half the strength of the battalion being granted leave daily (after duties were completed) until 10 p.m. Late leave until 1.30 a.m. to allow travelling by train from Cairo was granted for 80 per cent of the strength on Fridays and Saturdays only, but the men were required to be out of Cairo by half an hour after midnight.
Very strict sanitation rules were enforced in Maadi Camp to control or reduce the severe fly nuisance and as a safeguard against disease generally. These were of such a nature as to impress the men with the seriousness with which the medical authorities regarded health questions in Egypt.
The presence of large numbers of troops in and around the capital of a foreign country necessitated greater care than usual to secure a satisfactory standard of conduct. In addition to the military police (the Red Caps) maintained by the British Army, each division had its provost company and the units their regimental police which were given such duties outside the camp as were thought necessary. In addition pickets, usually under an officer, were provided by the various units to patrol the streets, maintain order, and take into custody men incapable of taking care of themselves or who were guilty of gross misbehaviour. An innovation, ‘behaviour patrols’, had been introduced in Cairo to help and advise men who showed signs of getting into trouble; names were taken of men misbehaving themselves and in cases of gross misbehaviour the offenders were arrested. There were three of these patrols, each commanded by a sergeant, with one man of the Cairo Military Police as a guide, two Australians, three British, and one New Zealander. Drugging as an excuse for drunkenness was not page 18 accepted as there was little or no risk of drinks being drugged in reputable establishments, though elsewhere there was considerable risk.
Another kind of trouble arose in connection with trains running between Maadi and Cairo. Men were not paying their fares, the most recent method of evasion being to tender a one-pound note in payment of a fare of one piastre. This was checked by requiring men to have the correct fare before boarding the train. Individuals of the civil population were also a cause of trouble from time to time, for the camps attracted villagers and Arabs with fruit or curios for sale or with hopes of acquiring some useful trifle such as a tin or bottle; such people were not above picking up something more valuable, perhaps clothing or a rifle. In the desert areas bordering the camps the Egyptian Government maintained Sudanese patrols, mounted on camels and armed with rifles and whips, to intercept, question, and sometimes chastise any wanderers. Rifles have always been attractive loot and it was a standing order that when not in actual use they must be chained and padlocked to the tent pole with a special fitting provided for the purpose.
The men of the battalion had much to attract them in Cairo and its immediate vicinity and as opportunity offered visited the Pyramids, the Sphinx, mosques, the Citadel, Old Cairo, the splendid museum and equally fine zoo, the Virgin's Well, the Mousky with its metal workers and other arts and crafts, the Nile with its bridges and the feluccas and other craft constantly moving up and down the broad river, and all the varied scenes within the city itself. Organised trips to these and other points of interest at low cost took place each week, the bookings with the various agencies concerned being arranged by Padre Willis,6 the battalion's chaplain. More ambitious trips were also arranged, one such tour leaving camp at 7 a.m. on a Sunday for Ismailia on the Suez Canal, travelling along the Canal to Port Said and returning to camp by 11 p.m.; lunch and tea were provided, the total cost being 83 piastres (a little over sixteen shillings) and the distance about 270 miles. Other tours covered Alexandria, the Delta Barrage on the Nile, 15 miles north-west of Cairo, and two long journeys up the Nile, one to the Aswan Dam at the first Cataract about 600 miles from Cairo, and the other to Luxor a little under 500 miles away, for both of which special leave was necessary.page 19
Intensive and thorough training continued throughout the battalion's first month in Egypt, the emphasis being mainly on close-order drill, rifle exercises, and strict march discipline, interspersed with weapon training, rifle shooting, and a general refresher in a variety of subjects. A little company training in defence was also introduced in preparation for battalion exercises shortly to take place.
A strict blackout was maintained in the camp, a wise precaution as was shown on Sunday evening, 20 October, when an enemy aircraft dropped a few bombs half a mile west of Maadi Camp, causing several casualties among the inhabitants of the village of Bassatine. This first glimpse of war and the continued presence of the Italian invaders at Sidi Barrani, 400 miles to the north-west, where they had been ‘marking time’ for nearly five weeks, gave zest to the training and all were looking forward to the time when they could be adjudged fit to take the field. The bomb-dropping near the camp and the occasional air-raid warnings raised an interesting financial problem in connection with the cinema established in the camp. After programmes had been interrupted and the soldier-audience dispersed on several occasions, it was arranged that if this occurred before half-time, refunds of admission money would be made, otherwise there would be no refunds. There had been a good deal of dissatisfaction with the cinema (which incidentally culminated in its destruction at a later date), the troops alleging that the proprietor arranged half-time long before it was due.
There were several inspections during October. General Wavell made an inspection early on the 12th; the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Barrowclough,7 who on arrival in Egypt on the 13th took over command from Brigadier Inglis,8 made his first inspection six days later; and the third inspection of the month was made on the 25th when Mr Anthony Eden reviewed all the troops in camp at a ceremonial parade and left the following message:page 20
‘I welcomed your first contingent when they arrived in Egypt; I have just seen them fighting-fit in the Western Desert; I saw the second contingent in England waiting for Hitler's invasion. To-day I have seen the third contingent and I cannot tell you how impressed I am by the wonderful physique and bearing of the New Zealand troops.
‘I wish to convey to all ranks the keen appreciation of His Brittanic Majesty's Government of the part that they are playing in the Empire's cause. Good luck and God's Speed.’
On 20 October, the day the bombs were dropped, 25 Battalion undertook its first duty outside the camp when five officers and 120 other ranks were detailed for one week's guard duty at the Tura Caves. These caves, situated about midway between Maadi and Helwan, had been converted into excellent magazines for bombs, explosives, and ammunition of all kinds and were proof against the heaviest bomb. The men welcomed the task as a relief from the exacting grind of the training camp, but training of course was hindered. Later such duties, which normally would not have been given to a battalion which had not completed its training, were concentrated in one unit over a period of a week, with a free interval of about three weeks before recurring; in November, for instance, the battalion provided for guard duties at Tura Caves, Helwan, and Abbassia 16 officers and 546 other ranks for one week.
Japan's military alliance with the Axis powers on 27 September aroused keen interest and some apprehension throughout the battalion, New Zealand's action in despatching within a month strong forces to Fiji emphasising the possibility of a dangerous situation arising in the Pacific.
A period of intense tactical training was now to begin, with the first battalion exercise taking place between 31 October and 2 November in the vicinity of El Saff, a village on the east bank of the Nile, 30 miles south of Maadi Camp. Apart from a very narrow ribbon of cultivation adjoining the river, the whole of the country was desert, with a four-mile strip of flat or gently undulating ground rising to a height of a thousand feet or more ten miles east of the Nile. There were numerous wadis, ridges, and isolated hills to give scope and variety to the training, and the absence of fences, houses, roads, and other encumbrances of civilisation completed an attractive training area.
The first exercise gave practice in movement by mechanical transport, a good deal of route-march training, the digging and page 21 occupation of a defensive position in detail, and administration and bivouac training in the desert. It involved, as many of the tactical exercises did, a good deal of hard pick-and-shovel work, very rough and dusty travelling in the vehicles, meals which were adequate but not to be compared with those provided in camp, hard and probably cold sleeping conditions, and much monotony; in fact, practically all the ingredients of active service with the exceptions of excitement and danger.
But the desert has a strange and strong attraction for most men. Its limitless horizons, the complete absence of artificial obstacles and restrictions and of any aids as well, the silence and stillness and the danger to the ignorant or the unwary of its blazing heat and waterless wastes, the mirages and dust-storms, its brilliant sunsets, and the importance with which these attributes clothe any minor happening or intrusion, all these exert a powerful influence on those who stand on its borders or travel its surface. All men, however, do not regard the desert in the same way and there are those who have described it as ‘miles and miles of … all’, or in even more picturesque language, with admittedly a good deal of justification.
With winter approaching, the weather was now much cooler and November was consequently a good training month. Many excellent schools of instruction in the numerous subjects required for modern war were available both in British Army and NZEF establishments, and a constant stream of officers and NCOs from 25 Battalion attended them. This soon had a marked effect on the quality of instruction within the unit. Two rifle ranges, ‘D’ range at Abbassia and ‘No. 2 Improvised’ range, had been allotted in turn to all companies of the battalion and Battalion Headquarters, and so the majority of the men were able to complete their rifle courses and pass the qualifying tests.
The battalion was now well up to standard in its elementary training and was showing increased confidence and pride in itself, with some comprehension of how war was waged and a dawning realisation of its strength and the heights this could reach in the future. Tactical training now took most of the time available, and in the desert bordering the camp companies were able to practise their own exercises. These included the company in attack and defence both by day and night, defence against aircraft by the use of infantry weapons and by dispersal, patrolling, and protection at rest and on the march. March page 22 discipline was practised on the way to and from the training areas. All this led up to the wider battalion training of which the unit already had had three days' experience. On 18 November there was a very early start with reveille at 2.30 a.m., hot soup at 3, and move off at 3.45. An hour's march brought the battalion to the forming-up position and half an hour later an attack was commenced. The end came with the sounding of ‘Rally’ and the troops marched back to breakfast.
Two days later there was an all-day route march of 21 miles, starting at 7 a.m. and returning to camp about 5 p.m. A midday halt was taken from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and hot tea was provided with the meal, which was carried on the ration lorry. A distance of sixty yards was kept between platoons and protection against air attack was insisted upon both as a training measure and as a precaution against possible but improbable attack. Each man armed with a rifle had twenty rounds of ammunition and the carrier platoon picketed the route, the starting point, and the midday-halt area, providing anti-aircraft protection at these places. Strict march discipline was observed and any man compelled to fall out had to obtain written permission from his platoon commander, thereafter joining the rear party, which included the medical officer and moved at a slower pace.
Following this lengthy route march the Black Hills nearby were attacked; the next day an attack was practised over ground at the back of the unit lines, preparatory to a night attack over the same area, and repeated a couple of days later.
There had, of course, been other training sandwiched between all these tactical exercises. On 25 October several weapons, new to 25 Battalion, had been received, a notable event arousing considerable interest and giving increased variety to the training. Among these was the Bren light machine gun, which in the training manuals was described as the principal weapon of the infantry battalion, which was required thoroughly to train every man in its use. The men found it a very efficient weapon, easy to handle, very accurate and, a matter of considerable importance to the men carrying them in action, not easily distinguishable from a rifle and so not likely to draw concentrated enemy fire. The scale of issue to a battalion was fifty (nine per rifle company and fourteen for HQ Company); the first issue was twenty-six which was ample for training purposes.
Another new but unpopular weapon was the Boys anti-tank rifle, of which ten were received against an establishment of twenty-three per rifle company and fourteen for HQ Company. page 23 It was a long-barrelled, heavy, very cumbersome and conspicuous weapon, effective only against lightly armoured vehicles, and was in the category of being better than nothing. It was discarded later when two-pounder anti-tank guns became available in sufficient numbers.
Three of the new 2-inch mortars were also received, the full establishment being a total of twelve, or three per rifle company. This was a very small mortar, so small in fact that there was a tendency to regard it as a toy. It was intended to be a front-line infantry weapon and was useful if skilfully used and in suitable circumstances, but was deficient in range and burst in comparison with enemy weapons. Its smoke bomb was particularly effective.
In this welter of training recreation was not neglected–no risk was taken of Jack becoming a dull boy. As a general rule Wednesday afternoons were set aside for organised sport, which included a tabloid athletic meeting and rugby, soccer, hockey, cricket, and other games in season or when practicable. On 27 November teams for rugby, soccer, and hockey were organised in readiness to commence the season.
Events of interest during November included, on the 9th, the rather unique experience of being inspected on a ceremonial parade by the Emir Abdullah of Transjordania; another inspection was one by the Chief of the New Zealand General Staff, Major-General Sir John Duigan.9 Four air-raid alarms added some interest throughout the month, three in the evening and one at the rather uncomfortable hour of 4 a.m., but there was no apparent enemy action.
During December tactical training continued on much the same lines as in November though the first week was interrupted by the guard duties already mentioned. On the 12th a further interruption was caused by the transfer of 6 Brigade from Maadi to Helwan Camp, ten miles to the south. Several days were spent settling in, 25 Battalion having to erect a tented camp and dig in its tents to provide protection against bomb splinters. The camp provided a welcome change of scene, the nearby and perhaps the only attractions being the town of Helwan and the RAF airfield. Extensive training areas were available immediately south of the camp and so conveniently situated both for the tactical training of platoons and companies and the larger page 24 manoeuvres of the battalion and the brigade. A slight disadvantage from the troops' point of view was the increase of ten miles in the journey to Cairo, a small matter as the train service was speedy and cheap.
The great event of the month, which naturally created the most intense interest throughout the battalion and elsewhere, was the opening on 9 December of the British offensive against the Italian forces in the Western Desert. It achieved spectacular success against very superior numbers and within two months was practically to annihilate the Italian army in Libya at comparatively small cost to the British forces. Visible evidence of the initial success of the operations was brought almost to the front entrance of Helwan Camp by the establishment of a large prisoner-of-war camp in the vicinity, and it fell to the lot of 25 Battalion on 19 December to detail three officers and 119 other ranks to keep guard over its numerous occupants.
Early in December it was decided to provide some protection against air attacks on the camps. Anti-aircraft light-machine-gun posts were established at suitable points throughout Maadi and Helwan camps and these were manned continuously for twenty-four hours each day by No. 2 (Anti-Aircraft) Platoon of HQ Company of each battalion and by the anti-aircraft sections of other units also. This precaution continued until the progress of the British offensive made it unnecessary.
A brigade tactical exercise within an hour's march of the camp was held on 19 December, the brigade attacking objectives to a depth of 9000 yards from the starting line. Twenty-fifth Battalion, one of the two leading battalions, was on the right of the attack, with 24 Battalion on the left and 26 Battalion in reserve. Sixth Field Regiment and 1 Machine Gun Company supported the attack and 6 Squadron Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment co-operated on the right flank of 25 Battalion. A skeleton enemy showed flags to indicate they had opened fire and flashed mirrors at those troops at whom the fire was directed. Exercises such as these were of special value in practising the infantry commanders of all ranks in making the best use of the supporting arms to help the infantry to secure the objective; the strengths and limitations of the various arms were exposed and tactical plans influenced accordingly; and the officers concerned got to know each other.
Demonstrations of the use of various weapons were frequently arranged, one battalion staging the demonstration while the others looked on. Usually the demonstrating battalion had an page 25 officer or other instructor who had recently been taught the subject at a school of instruction and thus passed on his knowledge to a wide and discerning audience, or the battalion had shown special aptitude in the subject. A demonstration of the mortar detachment in the attack was given by 25 Battalion, followed by one of tank hunting by 26 Battalion.
Though not entitled to be termed a tactical operation, there took place at the end of December an exercise which gave many of the men just as much trouble. This was a cooking trial designed to prepare the men for those occasions such as active operations when they would have to fend for themselves, and they were required to cook their breakfasts over open fires, with what results is not revealed in the battalion's records.
Mid-winter in northern Egypt is of course on 21 December, and although the Cairo area is within eight degrees of the Tropic of Cancer, very low temperatures are experienced, the climate being continental in character. The change of seasons was marked on 5 December by the closing of the swimming baths and by an order that battle dress was to be worn at and after the evening meal and for leave and all duties until 6 a.m. The weather in the daytime was usually gloriously fine and really warm, though an occasional cold wind made conditions unpleasant.
A motor-cycle platoon as part of HQ Company of each battalion was formed on 9 December, the commander being Lieutenant Handyside,10 who interviewed the men who volunteered for it. It had a very short life, however, being disbanded twenty days later.
Sports of all kinds were much to the fore in the cooler weather, with tabloid sports meetings every Wednesday afternoon as was customary and inter-company and inter-unit matches on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. These matches created keen interest and great rivalry throughout all units of the Division, 25 Battalion distinguishing itself by winning the divisional rugby seven-a-side tournament and in consequence receiving a cup from General Freyberg.
Christmas Day was celebrated in an atmosphere of good fellowship and conviviality, tempered inevitably by thoughts of home. For the majority of the men it was the first Christmas spent away from home or at least from their homeland, and the separation was felt particularly by the married men, page 26 especially those with children, with whom Christmas is inseparably associated. The comradeship of good companions and the festivities arranged within the battalion, however, made the occasion a happy one. An excellent Christmas dinner, which included turkey, plum pudding, and most of the trimmings, was provided and the spirit of the season was heightened by the army custom of the officers waiting on the men. Beer was served with the meal and cigarettes, chocolates, and other dainties were provided from canteen profits. Patriotic Fund parcels and others from relatives and friends in New Zealand provided a host of additional delicacies and the large New Zealand mail which had arrived most appropriately in time brought home very close to these men in a foreign land. Liberal leave and gay festivities in Cairo completed a memorable Christmas.
After the feast came, not the famine, but a lengthy route march on Boxing Day, when the whole brigade marched 16 miles, a march which the festivities of the day before and the wearing of battle dress for the first time on a march rendered a good deal more difficult than usual.
Live-shell practices enlivened the training during the next few days, 25 Battalion firing 3-inch mortar practices and the 25-pounders of 6 Field Regiment firing from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily between 30 December and 2 January. The battalion had now been under training in New Zealand and Egypt for seven months, though the voyage and guard duties had disrupted the continuity of the instruction. Much had been achieved. Individual, section, and platoon training had been given the close and persistent attention essential to the development of a sound, well-disciplined battalion, and in the higher training every exercise showed an improvement in leadership, handiness, endurance, and a general understanding by all ranks.
Weapon training was well advanced though, as was always the case, there were some men who had still to qualify on the range with the rifle and the Bren gun, the men to whom shooting does not come easily, as well as those who had been absent at times for a variety of reasons. Rifle and bayonet, the Bren, 2-inch and 3-inch mortars, anti-tank rifle, grenade, pick and shovel, all these, the weapons of the infantry soldier, had been attended to. Specialist training, which was largely centred in Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company, had necessarily received the closest attention.
In the somewhat complex HQ Company the six platoons, each with its own clearly defined task, were also trained as page 27 normal infantry. No. 1 (Signal) Platoon had to master its technical equipment (wireless, telephone, telegraph and flag) and reach high speeds in sending and receiving signals; it also required a knowledge of cable-jointing, map-reading, and compass. No. 2 (Anti-Aircraft) Platoon had to be expert in handling the Bren against air targets and also against ground targets. No. 3 (Mortar) Platoon was concerned with the technical and tactical handling of mortars. No. 4 (Carrier) Platoon's job was to handle the Bren carrier over all types of ground and to the best tactical advantage in widely different roles, from semi-cavalry reconnaissance ahead of advancing columns to close support of tanks and infantry in attack and defence; the men had to be well trained in the Bren gun and have a good knowledge of map-reading and desert navigation. No. 5 (Pioneer) Platoon contained the handy men or tradesmen of the battalion, ready also to take part in battle at any time. No. 6 (Transport) Platoon required expert knowledge of motor vehicles and was responsible for driving, maintenance, checking and testing, camouflage and concealment, and dispersal of vehicles. As in the case of the other specialist platoons, it had to be able and ready to fight when required.
The first month of the New Year was fortunately free from the exasperating guard duties of previous months. This was due to the return from the Western Desert of the fully trained 4 Brigade, which relieved 6 Brigade of these duties and was able to help in other ways, notably in the loan of its vehicles and drivers to enable 6 Brigade to stage full-scale, mobile desert exercises.
Twenty-fifth Battalion suffered a setback in January when, from the 6th to the 15th and again from the 20th to the 26th, it was placed in isolation because of some cases of anterior poliomyelitis, but this did not interfere with training to any extent. It did, however, stop the usual weekend jaunts to Cairo and elsewhere.
Increased attention was paid early in the New Year to advanced tactical training and some interesting exercises, some of them a little unusual, took place. The attack practised on 19 December was repeated, though 25 Battalion attacked on the left instead of the right flank. On 7 January the unit, moving by MT, endeavoured in an all-day exercise to ‘intercept and destroy’ an enemy motorised force advancing from the south along the east bank of the Nile. The carrier platoon fanned out to the front and flanks to provide protection for page 28 the battalion, which advanced in ‘box’ (or square) formation over the open desert. The exercise ended with an attack on ‘Horse Ridge’, the troops moving in their vehicles close up to the enemy position before debussing to finish the attack on foot.
A demonstration of the company in the attack was staged by A Company the next day and a route march of 15 miles followed. An unwelcome visitor, a sandstorm, arrived just after breakfast on a Sunday, four days later, but fortunately ceased about 4 p.m., an unusually short visitation. Apart from these sandstorms, which smother everything in sand and reduce visibility sometimes almost to zero, the weather during the winter in Egypt is almost ideal.
Probably the most interesting of all the training so far took place on 15 January when the battalion crossed the Nile in folding boats and established a bridgehead on the west bank. The folding boats were delivered to a point close to the bank, C Company carrying them to the water's edge. That company then crossed to an island and established a local bridgehead or covering position there while the boats returned to the east bank and took A Company to the island. A Company then carried the boats across the island and, crossing over to the west bank, established a bridgehead. The boats then returned to the east bank and took over B and D Companies, Battalion Headquarters, and (from the island) C Company in that order, those troops advancing through A Company and occupying positions beyond.
The carrier, mortar, and pioneer platoons crossed at allotted times, followed by the first-line transport. Altogether it was a considerable undertaking and a novel experience which the troops thoroughly enjoyed. It was, in fact, a rehearsal for a night operation and, excepting in the matter of light, was carried out as such, all precautions being taken to avoid noise from talking, splashing, bumping and rattling of the equipment, and from oars and rowlocks; no lights could be used at night so smoking was prohibited. The confusion that could so easily occur in darkness was guarded against by a careful drill in the handling and launching of the boats and the forming-up and embarkation of men and equipment.
In order to break them in to some extent to the noise and some of the realities of battle, and especially to demonstrate the powerful support which is normally given to infantry both in attack and defence, all three battalions of the brigade in turn carried out an attack on Point 97, Siesta Hill, with actual page 29 fire support from medium machine guns and the 25-pounder guns of the artillery. On 20 January 25 Battalion watched with close attention a demonstration of this attack by 24 Battalion and then rehearsed the operation, completing it with fire support the next day. Naturally the men were much impressed with this exercise; the shattering reports of the 25-pounders together with the ominous rattle of numerous machine guns from immediately behind them, and the noise overhead of the shells and bullets, gave a sense of reality and danger, which was heightened by the savage crash of the exploding shells a few hundred yards away, the smoke, flame, and dust of the explosions, and the screaming ricochets of the bullets. When the men were told that, because of the need to exercise reasonable economy in ammunition, the demonstration fell far short of the real thing, they had no doubts of their ability, when supported with such power, to carry out against an actual enemy all the operations of war they had been practising.
This interesting demonstration was followed by five days' manoeuvres by 6 Brigade in the El Saff area and 25 Battalion marched there on 24 January, practising defence against air attack on the way. That night it occupied a defensive position in the vicinity of El Tibn Knolls. Next day the march was resumed to Wadi Rishrash, seven miles south of El Saff. There a ‘landing’ exercise on Gebel Heyela was practised, a good deal of imagination being necessary to turn the desert into an ocean and the bottom of the hill into a foreshore for the purposes of the exercise.
Bivouacking for the night, the battalion in the morning marched to Nag Hassan, action against flank attacks by mobile columns being practised during the march. The night of 29 January was spent at Nag Hassan and next day the battalion attacked El Tibn Knolls and on the following night exercised the troops in a move by MT to the north, closer to the camp. On the final day Wind Hill was attacked from Wadi Amman and the battalion returned to camp at midday.
The next day General Freyberg gave a lecture on the operations to all officers and NCOs of and above the rank of corporal. He commented on each exercise, pointed out the weak points, and indicated how he thought the operations would have fared against an enemy. Thus the lower ranks obtained a better understanding of each operation and the lessons learnt were driven home to all present.page 30
As usual other training was sandwiched between the tactical exercises during the month. This included weapon training and range practices, the crossing of barbed-wire entanglements, street fighting, bayonet fighting, unarmed combat, patrols, gas protection, hand grenades, tank hunting, and some revision of elementary training. The training was strenuous but sports were continued much as usual. Divisional boxing championships were to be held and 25 Battalion began to sort out and train its boxers. Tabloid athletics, football, and basketball were in full swing and cricket made its appearance under considerable difficulties as regards wickets and equipment.
During January the offensive against the Italians continued with unabated success, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi and El Agheila all being captured, the two last in the first week of February. Enormous quantities of arms, equipment, and stores were captured as well as many thousands of prisoners, who for the campaign between 9 December and 8 February numbered over 133,000.
A difficult night-operation exercise on 12 February involved a landing from pontoons, the establishment of a local bridgehead, and a subsequent advance to an all-round defensive position at Sandy Hills and Coal Hill. Carriers, anti-tank guns, and first-line transport were landed with the troops and were hauled up cliffs by hauling parties from each company of the battalion to which they belonged. Other exercises by 25 Battalion included the digging of a defensive position, and one by the companies moving independently in the dark across country on compass bearings to a given area, in which at first light a defensive position was dug and occupied.
On 21 and 22 February a command and staff exercise was conducted by 6 Brigade to practise the commanders and staffs of brigade, battalions, and companies in conducting various operations. Route marches were continued as usual during February, two by 6 Brigade each of twenty miles, and two of ten miles each by 25 Battalion. There was also a good deal of marching to and from the tactical exercises so that this toughening process was receiving adequate attention.
One of the most important duties of officers and senior non-commissioned officers is the testing and selection of men likely to make good leaders. Fortunately there is no dearth of such men in New Zealand units and early in the month an eleven days' course for prospective NCOs was commenced. Miscellaneous training at this time provided variety and less physical exertion page 31 than the constant work in the field. A little instruction in anti-gas training was given as a precaution against surprise gas attack and was repeated at long intervals. On 6 February a very interesting demonstration of anti-tank mines, minelaying, and the use of Bangalore torpedoes (long pipes filled with explosive) for cutting wire entanglements was given by the Engineers. Another demonstration which aroused interest was street fighting by 20 Battalion; it was quite a spectacular and rowdy affair and was viewed with a professional air by 25 Battalion, which had already had some training in this fierce type of fighting.
Sporting activities on the usual scale continued and rugby, soccer, hockey, cricket, baseball, basketball and boxing, a somewhat unusual variety, had now made their appearance on the current sporting menu. A higher plane had been reached and inter-unit matches were frequent. Within 25 Battalion many games were played on a company level. These created considerable rivalry, contributing in no small measure to the maintenance of a strong esprit de corps in the unit.
The battalion had now been in Egypt for five months and in one month's time would qualify for the seven days' leave of absence which, provided circumstances permitted, was granted to all ranks after six months' service in the Middle East. But, as will be seen, circumstances were not to permit the granting of this privilege, at least not on the due date.
Towards the end of February an issue of nine Thompson sub-machine carbines, universally known as tommy guns, was made to each rifle company of the battalion, a very popular innovation. The gun had a good reputation, and for close-quarters fighting, in villages, in wooded or other country with plenty of cover, and for fire during movement, this rapid-fire short-range weapon was of considerable value.
For some time the strength of the battalion had been slowly dropping till, on 1 February, it was four officers and 175 other ranks under establishment, a rather serious shortage at such a vital training period. The shortage was soon to be made good with reinforcements trained at Maadi but the new arrivals would require some time before they were fully incorporated in the battalion. Fortunately that time was to be available before the battalion was engaged in operations against the enemy.
The strength of the battalion and of its headquarters, companies, and platoons when up to establishment has already been page 32 given. It is now necessary to say something of its transport, weapons, and ammunition.
The transport provided for a battalion consisted of thirty-five bicycles, fourteen motor-cycles, one (four-seater) car, nine 8-cwt trucks, thirty 15-cwt trucks, two 15-cwt (water-tank) trucks, thirteen 30-cwt lorries, ten carriers. One additional car, a two-seater, was provided for the chaplain.
The weapons and the ammunition available for them within the battalion were:
|With man or gun||Reserve||Total|
|22 anti-tank rifles||200||880||5,280|
|50 light machine guns||1,000||25,000||75,000|
|24 pistols, signalling||20||—||480|
|2 mortars, 3-inch (HE)||75||45||195|
|12 mortars, 2-inch (HE)||9||180||288|
|(Signal bombs—Proportion may be allotted in addition to HE and Smoke)|
|10 pistols, signalling, for carriers||18||—||180|
Additional reserves of ammunition were carried in Brigade Reserve and in the Ammunition Company of the Division.
The tools carried by the battalion were 12 felling axes, 37 hand axes, 160 pickaxes, 13 crowbars, 57 wire-cutters, 56 machetes, 4 folding saws, 14 hand saws, 188 shovels. A divisional reserve of axes and shovels was carried by the Field Park Company, as were assault, reconnaissance, and folding boats and bridging equipment. Mines were also carried by the Field Park Company and by the Divisional Ammunition Company.
The transport vehicles in the battalion could carry only 16 officers and 321 other ranks, leaving 16 officers and 420 other ranks to march or to be carried in vehicles allotted from the Reserve Mechanical Transport Company.
The figures given above varied from time to time.
1 Maj-Gen A. S. Wilder, DSO, MC, m.i.d., Order of the White Eagle (Serb); Te Hau, Waipukurau; born NZ 24 May 1890; sheep farmer; Wgtn Mtd Rifles 1914 – 19; CO 25 Bn May 1940–Sep 1941; comd NZ Trg Gp, Maadi Camp, Sep-Dec 1941, Jan-Feb 1942; 5 Bde 6 Dec 1941 – 17 Jan 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Apr 1942–Jan 1943; 1 Div Jan-Nov 1943.
2 Maj-Gen Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular Soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941–Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944–Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG, Army HQ, 1951–55; Chief of General Staff 1955–60.
3 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Greek); born Richmond, Surrey, 21 Mar 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914–16; commanded 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917-18; GOC 2 NZEF Nov 1939–Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor- General of New Zealand Jun 1946–Aug 1952.
4 It is only fair to record that the war diary of 25 Battalion remarks, ‘very few 25 Battalion personnel participated in this action’.
6 Rev. C. E. Willis; England; born England, 29 Jun 1907; Anglican minister; wounded and p.w. Nov 1941.
7 Maj-Gen Rt. Hon. Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr); Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde May 1940– Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div, Aug 1942–Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.
8 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde 1941-42, and 4 Armd Bde 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.
11 Thompson sub-machine guns are not included in this table.