Chapter 11 — Departure from Egypt
Departure from Egypt
THE reserve area selected for 6 Brigade lay close to the sector occupied on 15 April. Here the troops remained eight days, expecting each morning to be told to get ready to move back into the line. Practically no training was done. Sappers showed how giant cactus hedges could be gapped by Bangalore torpedoes. Surplus ammunition, including some of the enemy's, was expended on nearby ranges. Each evening mosquitoes gathered around in their hundreds. Lice also caused some inconvenience, but regular visits to the beach and hot showers nearby soon got rid of them. Mail and parcels arrived almost every day. The Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, paid a brief visit to the unit and at question time was informed that forage caps were useless. A short time afterwards berets replaced them.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Tunisia drew nearer to a close. For a few days it seemed that the battalion would take part in another attack. Fifth Brigade took over a section of the line, and subsequently 25 Battalion also occupied a sector. On 5 May the battalion moved north-west of Enfidaville to a reserve position near the village of Djebibina. Not far away the Axis forces were making a last-ditch stand and expending as much of their ammunition as possible. A plan was drawn up for another divisional attack; everyone was relieved when it was abandoned. On the 7th Tunis and Bizerta fell. The end was in sight. Five days later the BBC announced that all organised resistance in North Africa had ceased. By this time the battalion was again camped south of Enfidaville. The news was received late in the evening, but not too late to stop the celebrations. Canteen stocks of wine rapidly disappeared.
With the end of hostilities all restrictions on leave were relaxed. Parties were taken to nearby towns, the chief source of interest being Kairouan, famous for its sacred mosque. Others visited the battlefront or hitch-hiked to Tunis. Everywhere civilians and soldiers were celebrating, both thankful the battle page 282 was over. Wine was drunk like water and often the camp was the scene of festivities. ‘Bell's birthdays’, a well-known excuse for a party since the days of Greece, became more frequent. The doctor's warnings about ‘Purple Death’ were forgotten, at least for a time. The celebrations were not only confined to other ranks. One officer, solemn-faced and upright (but very drunk), paraded through the camp on a mule—naked except for a long, black Italian cloak. The new issue of summer dress caused more merriment. Nearly every shirt and pair of shorts was XOS size. Amateur tailors tried to recast the glamour suits into something like normal; sometimes their efforts were even more ludicrous than the original.
About the middle of the month orders for the return of the Division to Egypt were received and the troops began to pack in readiness for the long journey. Most of them were carrying surplus gear—souvenirs acquired on the battlefield or from the long columns of prisoners who daily marched past the camp. The loss of three company commanders in the recent action necessitated some changes in command. Captain Frame,1 who arrived from Maadi with 34 reinforcements, was given the command of C Coy; Capt Kennedy took over A Coy and Lt Buchanan became Adjutant. The spell had done a lot of good, particularly to those who had looked drawn and tired when they came out of the line three weeks earlier.
On the 16th the battalion joined the rest of 6 Brigade and set out on the 2000-mile journey back to Maadi. The convoy followed the main road, passing many of the battlefields which had been so much in the news a few months earlier. Now they were almost forgotten by the world. Rusting wire, burnt-out tanks, derelict trucks, guns lying askew, and a few crosses here and there were all that remained. But to many of the men they brought back a flood of memories—sad memories of friends who had died or who lay near death in hospital.
Three days after leaving its camp the battalion reached Tripoli, camping in the familiar surroundings of Suani Ben Adem. The journey was not continued until the 20th to allow the drivers to effect repairs to their trucks. In the meantime page 283 the LOBs rejoined the unit and Capt R. S. Smith2 took over B Coy. Tunisian money was changed back into Egyptian currency. No leave was granted, but after dusk on the 19th the Kiwi Concert Party staged a show in the camp. The carriers remained in Tripoli to continue the journey by sea and eventually arrived at Maadi almost a month after the unit. Another full-day halt for vehicle maintenance was made four days later when the convoy reached Benghazi. Parties went swimming at the beach or visited the town, and pictures were screened in the camp lines on both evenings. On the 25th Capt Wilson set out with an advanced party to make preparations for the battalion's arrival at Maadi.
The journey was continued on the 26th, and the following night the troops bivouacked near Tobruk, which had cost so many New Zealand lives in November 1941. The convoy was averaging over a hundred miles each day and by the 29th it had reached Mersa Matruh. On the last day of the month the battalion passed the huge war cemetery at Alamein, where many of the unit were buried. The rows and rows of white crosses neatly laid out and gleaming in the sun looked oddly peaceful. Near Amiriya huge dumps of enemy equipment lined the roadside for several miles. A stop was made for lunch at the transit camp, after which the convoy continued on to Halfway House at Wadi Natrun. By midday next day the long journey was over and the troops were settling down in their new quarters, formerly the Southern Infantry Training Depot.
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Maadi Camp was buzzing with excitement. Details of a new leave scheme had just been released. Long-service personnel were to return to New Zealand on furlough. Married men plus a balloted number of single men would form the first draft.
For those whose names appeared on the lists a hectic fortnight followed, with visits to Cairo and the hospitals and, towards the end, a round of farewell parties. Less than a fifth of those who had left New Zealand aboard the Orcades in August 1940 remained. On 14 June eight officers and 154 page 284 other ranks marched out on furlough; they were followed nearly three months later by a smaller party of eight officers and 20 other ranks. To them the thrill of returning to New Zealand was tempered by the thought that they were leaving behind many friends and a spirit of comradeship which might never be regained. The battalion lost not only half its officers but also most of its battle-trained NCOs. For this reason Col Fountaine was loath to see them go, although like everyone else he realised they had earned their spell. A First Echelon officer himself, the CO was not granted furlough, the policy being to retain key personnel until suitable replacements permitted their release.
One of the sorriest to leave was the QM, Capt Wilson. A veteran of the 1914–18 War, in which he had won the MC, this officer had been a tower of strength to each commander of the battalion and was a friend to all. He held the great record of not having left the unit for sickness or any other reason during his three years of service. In the battalion the ‘quartermastering’ was done so well that it was apt to be overlooked. In action the troops came to expect their rations, hot meals, and other supplies to arrive as usual, and seldom did the QM and his staff fail to get through no matter how heavy the shelling.
Those who were left behind settled down to enjoy themselves. Maadi Camp had changed a lot since the battalion first arrived there in September 1940. Not only had it increased considerably in size, but long wooden huts had replaced most of the tents and entertainment facilities had greatly improved. The weather was very hot, and this increased the demand for liquid refreshments. The Naafis sold locally brewed beer, but it paid to be early in the canteens for room was limited. At intervals unit canteens distributed limited quantities of other brands of ale—Canadian, American, etc. As soon as the men had settled down in their new quarters, a leave scheme was introduced in addition to normal day leave to Cairo. Each week about twenty men left on a 14-day visit to Cairo, Alexandria, Sidi Bishr or Palestine. Swimming and cricket became the most popular recreations. The Maadi Baths were always crowded, but a rotation system for units improved the position. On 16 July a sports meeting was held at the baths. Almost every platoon had its cricket team and many half-day matches were played. page 285 A battalion eleven, selected after a series of inter-company games, won seven of its 13 matches.
On 6 August a battalion picnic was held, the troops spending the day amidst the pleasant surroundings of the Barrage, a well-known picnic resort. Tea, soft drinks, ice-cream and beer were provided and everyone enjoyed himself. Four days later a large party attended the divisional sports meeting at the Farouk Stadium in Cairo. A battalion representative, Sgt S. A. McCartney, won the hop, step and jump title. Meanwhile preparations were being made for another battalion concert. It was staged at the El Djem Amphitheatre at Maadi on 1 September before a large audience which gave the performers an enthusiastic reception.
Only two formal parades were held during this period. On 14 June a United Nations Day parade was held in Cairo and was a colourful and impressive display. Battalion representatives were selected and for a week before the parade were put through a rigorous training programme—much to their disgust. Two months later, on 19 August, a ceremonial brigade parade and march past was held near the camp. General Freyberg took the salute and later presented decorations won during the recent campaign.
The departure of so many men on furlough and the subsequent regrading of others left the unit very low in strength. It was not so for long. By mid-September the return of casualties from hospital and postings from the 9th and 10th Reinforcements increased the strength state to 34 officers and 748 other ranks. The constant influx and exodus of officers and NCOs on leave, furlough, and to instructional courses, plus internal changes in command, had interfered to some extent with training during the first six weeks back at Maadi, and it was not until the middle of July that a training programme was attempted. Leave was curtailed and the troops settled down to a fortnight of barrack drill and elementary training. When this was over—and everyone was glad of it—field exercises and specialist lectures and training began. At first the exercises were confined to platoons and sometimes to companies. Patrolling, with special emphasis on making the best use of natural cover, was one of the main features of the programme.page 286
Towards the end of August the exercises became more comprehensive. It was obvious that the Division was training to fight under European conditions. Many of the features of desert training disappeared and were replaced by others, some the lessons drawn from the campaign in Greece. It was difficult even for those with a good imagination to picture cultivated valleys, terraced slopes, stone walls, narrow country roads and scrub-covered heights, when all around was sand and more sand. On 7 September began a five-day brigade manœuvre which was held in the desert south of the camp. The object of the exercise was ‘to study the conduct of operations in close country.’ In the sandy wastes where the battalion camped on the night of the 7th, it was hard to visualise country such as can be seen in most parts of the South Island, but this limitation was not allowed to hamper the exercises. Companies and battalions practised quick debussing from transport, small-scale assaults on fixed defences, patrolling, attacking and taking cover. Special attention was paid to vehicle dispersion, faster means of communication, and all-round protection against guerrilla activities. The exercises ended fittingly on the shores of the Red Sea, where all ranks waded out into the cool water. Four days later the battalion left Maadi for the last time.
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Everyone knew that the Division's stay in Egypt was limited and expected that in due course it would rejoin the Eighth Army, which was by this time in Italy. The change in the training syllabus supported this theory. First stage in the move to a new theatre of war was the transfer of the Division to Burg el Arab on the coast. The 100-mile journey was to be done on foot.
After their return from the manœuvres the troops packed and prepared to leave Maadi. On 15 September they embussed on transport, and as the column of vehicles moved through the camp they gazed for the last time on the rows of huts and tents, Naafi buildings, theatres and recreation halls which had been ‘home’ for so long. The convoy stopped at the 40 Kilo peg on the Maadi-Amiriya highway and all ranks debussed to continue the journey on foot. The march was to extend over seven page 287 days, the troops resting during the heat of the day and beginning their march at sunset. Ambulances would follow to pick up those with blistered feet. After treatment these men would be graded A, B, or C; only those in Grade C would be given a ride for the rest of the way.
Great rivalry existed between platoons, companies, and battalions over this march, and each man was on his mettle for hot bitumen roads are notoriously hard on feet. On the first two nights the RAP attended to over eighty men. Others required treatment as the journey was continued, and by the time the last leg of the march was started few were without blisters. Nevertheless it was with nearly a full complement that the battalion reached its destination, although few of the men were by then walking naturally. At Amiriya transport was waiting to carry them to Burg el Arab where the cooks had hot tea waiting. It was after midnight before bivouacs had been erected along the sandy foreshore and everyone had settled down, with their blisters, to sleep.
The next day, Wednesday 22 September, was polling day for the New Zealand General Election, and keen interest was shown in the results when they came to hand. Two days later the battalion moved out into the desert to take part in a divisional manœuvre. For some reason or other 5 and 6 Brigades completed the exercise separately. New features of the exercise were a further speeding-up of communications, particularly in relation to tank and artillery support, the greater use of codewords in passing messages, and improved co-ordination of all arms. On the 26th General Freyberg addressed officers and sergeants on the lessons of the exercises. The following day, hot, tired and dusty, the troops returned to Burg el Arab and, almost as one man, made for the cool surf.
For the next three days the men practically lived in the water. Doctor Fletcher and his staff completed the typhus inoculations. On the last day of the month orders for the Division's move to Italy were received. An advanced party under Maj Bullôt3 had already left. Brigades were to travel separately. Sixth Brigade page 288 was to move to Amiriya on 3 October in readiness to embark on troopships two days later. All vehicles, together with their drivers, were to remain behind and follow by a later convoy.
The last three days at Burg el Arab were busy. Everything had to be packed, rations distributed, embarkation rolls made out, and arrangements completed for the disposal of base kits. The battalion was to travel in two flights; at Amiriya A and B Coys went to Camp A and C and D Coys to Camp B. Headquarters Company was divided between the two camps. Before lunch on the 5th B Flight paraded with full equipment. Some of the men were so heavily laden that it seemed incredible they could walk under such a weight. Trucks carried this party to the docks at Alexandria, where the troops were transferred by barges to the Dunottar Castle. A Flight followed and during the afternoon embarked on the Reina del Pacifico. These two transports and a third, the Sabijak, escorted by five destroyers of the Royal Greek Navy, were to carry the brigade to Italy.
Early the next morning the convoy steamed out to the open sea. The battalion had left for ever its old haunts—Maadi Camp, with its huts and shouting paper-boys; Cairo, with its gharries and evil smells; the Desert and the battlefields where so many men had fought and died. Now all was quiet and peaceful where once artillery thundered and machine guns rattled. Major Horrell was the only ‘original’ left. It was perhaps as well the others had gone for their memories were of the Desert and Greece. The battalion was to fight under totally different conditions in a new country, and for most of the men, recently arrived from New Zealand, Italy was to provide their haunts, camps, and battlefields.