27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 2 — Egypt
Egypt had been selected as the destination of the 2 NZEF because of its strategical situation and because of the facilities it offered for training. The forces based there could be despatched, should the need arise, to Europe or anywhere in the Middle East; they could protect the Suez Canal, or the oilfields in Iran and Iraq. But the New Zealanders and Australians were not arriving in a strongly held area; they were joining a weak and ill-equipped garrison and—until their own equipment arrived—were themselves no strong reinforcement. The British troops in Egypt and Palestine were only sufficient for a partially equipped infantry division and a weak armoured brigade; they were short of transport and ammunition.
Our propaganda wisely did everything possible to conceal our real weakness, even proclaiming that we had half a million troops in the Middle East. No doubt it was fortunate for the ill-prepared though resolute New Zealanders—and the other troops in Egypt—that there were then no Germans in North Africa to take advantage of the situation. The Italian Army in Libya was vastly superior in numbers if in nothing else, but Mussolini waited until 10 June to decide which would be the winning side before he declared war on Britain and France. About three months later the Italians advanced with extreme caution a short distance into Egypt.
And so, providentially, the 2 NZEF was allowed ample time to train, equip and organise. The first week in Egypt was given mostly to ‘interior economy’ while the men settled in and adapted themselves to living in the desert—or on the fringe of a desert. About the fifth day a wind began to raise the dust. Dust got into, over, and around everything. To make the tents more or less dust-proof, the skirtings were held down with sandbags, and guy ropes were tied to pieces of wood or rock buried in the ground.
When the camp was properly organised the men were well fed. ‘The MG Bn was the first unit to build their own camp oven and the only unit to supply their men with meat pies page 13 once weekly,’ says Captain Robbie.1 ‘Corned beef originated in our lines and was made by our butcher. A quantity of bread was made and the first loaf presented by the CO to Gen Freyberg.’
At first the desert marches covered only short distances to accustom the men to the soft surface—dust, grit and stones rather than sand—and the hot climate, but before long they ranged farther afield, over stretches of rough and rocky ground to harden feet, until the men were familiar with most of the barren wadis and escarpments within a few miles of the camp. One of the longer and more interesting marches was up the cliffs—which had to be climbed in single file along a winding track—onto Gebel Mokattam, the plateau north of the camp and overlooking Cairo. No matter how far the marchers went or in what direction, they almost invariably met an Egyptian with a donkey or a camel, or with oranges or mandarins to sell.
The daily routine emphasised the toughening-up process. Lieutenant Johansen2 describes a typical day like this: ‘Reveille —5 minutes after all on parade in gym. kit. 20 minutes' P.T. followed by about 1 ½ 2 mile gallop over the desert. Shower— and spit and polish, not to mention rifle cleaning, no mean task—dirt and sand. Breakfast. Platoon, company and then battalion parades and inspection. 10–12 mile route march—foot inspections, methylated spirits. Lunch. Work until “Mad dogs and Englishmen” proved true, then siesta period introduced. Rifle exercises, etc., and elementary gun drill. Evening meal.’ The CO's inspections were no cursory affairs; they were ‘long, agonizing’ and kept everybody up to the mark.
For a while the shortage of proper equipment called for ingenuity and imagination. Gun drill was carried out with boulders and pieces of wood as substitutes for guns and tripods —the first twelve Vickers guns were issued without tripods. Inferior, gimcrack tools were the only implements available for digging gun emplacements. Johansen refers to ‘the great joy of everyone when proper personal equipment was issued of a new pattern. Officers until then had to hang everything on to their Sam Brownes until they looked like Kiwi versions of Santa Claus.’page 15
In due course most sports were catered for: football, hockey, tennis, athletics, boxing, cricket, swimming, water polo, rowing and yachting on the Nile, golf and bowls—but Rugby football had the strongest following. The battalion reached the final of the first series of Rugby competitions, which 19 Battalion won by 11 points to nil, and its water polo team, with expert coaching by an Egyptian former international, won the inter-unit competition for the Freyberg Cup and also beat a side selected from the rest of the 2 NZEF.
Leave to Cairo began during the third week at Maadi. One company at a time was allowed out of camp from 4.30 p.m. until 1.30 a.m. Army transport was provided at a cost of one piastre (about 2 ½d) for the return journey to the Maadi railway station, and fast diesel railcars made frequent trips (the single fare, one piastre) to Bab el Louk station in Cairo. Alternatively a party of half a dozen men could hire a taxi, usually a most ramshackle affair, for about 30 piastres, and travel by direct route from the camp to the city, a distance of seven or eight miles.
Before going on leave each man was issued with a map of Cairo showing what places were ‘in bounds’ or ‘out of bounds’. Already he had been warned by the Provost Marshal—and by a medical officer—how best to avoid the snares and dangers of a large foreign city. So off he went. As a newcomer easily recognised by his uniform, he had to learn how to resist hordes of very persistent Cairenes who pestered him to have his boots shined, to buy obscene postcards, or to see an exhibition of a very questionable nature.
Some visitors to Cairo found ‘the filth, sordidness and degradation inconceivably disgusting and what is so remarkable in contrast the wealth of wonders to be explored.’ The casinos, cabarets, picture theatres, restaurants, bars and clubs got most of their money. The Egyptian Museum was still open (it was closed after Italy entered the war), and trips were organised to the mosques and bazaars, Coptic churches, the Pyramids of Giza, Memphis and Sakkara, and the Nile Barrage. Later excursions went farther afield, to Alexandria, to Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt, and to Palestine.
But it wasn't necessary to go as far as Cairo to fill in off-duty hours. Shafto's bug-ridden cinema—once wrecked by an exasperated audience—showed well-worn films twice nightly seven days a week; the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute) provided wet and dry canteens and a restaurant for the men page 16 and corporals; the officers and sergeants had their own mess bars; and there was the YMCA. The Maadi Tent, an excellent and much-appreciated institution run throughout the war by the English residents of Maadi, offered light meals, concerts, and a place to relax in comfort. The Maadi Sporting Club reserved some of its amenities for officers, including the use of its swimming pool and club house, but allowed all ranks to use its cricket ground, golf course and tennis courts.
Training exercises that had begun at platoon level progressively involved larger formations, which brought the machine-gunners into close association with the other arms of the 2 NZEF. On 8 April and for the next four days the battalion joined 4 Infantry Brigade in an exercise at El Saff, alongside the Nile about 30 miles due south of Maadi. The battalion was required to march from camp to a bivouac area at Wadi Garawi, half-way to El Saff; in the heat of the day this was a grilling test of endurance, and some men fell out on the way. The exercise was the battalion's first experience of co-operation with an infantry brigade. It comprised a brigade attack before dawn, a night withdrawal, and the preparation and occupation of a defensive position. At the conclusion the machine-gunners returned to Maadi by motor transport—tired, but with a better knowledge of how they would ultimately go into action.
Experience had also been gained in how to cook, eat, wash and sleep in the open. The meals were very good; the food arrived in the company areas in hot boxes. Water, rationed at one and a half gallons a man a day for all purposes—cooking, washing and drinking—was supplied by water truck. To manage all day on one bottle of drinking water, while digging and carrying machine guns and heavy equipment, with the temperature sometimes over 100, required self-discipline. Attempts to sponge off the mixture of sweat and dust on the first night so reduced the water supply that for the remainder of the exercise very little washing was possible. A fairly severe dust-storm was a nasty initiation in sleeping out, but many men built ingenious break-winds with groundsheets, tarpaulins from trucks, dixies, gun chests, and anything else they could find.
At one place, where a stop was made for a couple of meals, the flies were the worst yet encountered, and quite a few were swallowed with the food. ‘It wasn't that they were so plentiful as so blasted persistent,’ complained a machine-gunner. ‘I don't think there is anything so exasperating as to make half-a-dozen page 17 swipes at a fly which merely dodges the barest minimum and settles in exactly the same spot.’
The battalion's next spell in the open was under more pleasant conditions, for less wind meant less dust. On 22 April, again at El Saff, the First Echelon began an exercise which lasted four days and was the nearest thing to battle the men so far had experienced. A force called ‘Milesia’, commanded by Brigadier Miles3 and comprising 27 (MG) Battalion, Divisional Cavalry, a battery of 4 Field Regiment and a detachment of engineers, defended some wells against attacks by the ‘Puttagonia’ force, consisting of 4 Infantry Brigade and attached units under the command of Brigadier Puttick.4 Even in practice the 4 Brigade Group was a sight to boost morale— not that it needed any boosting.
By May it was evident that Mussolini had made up his mind to enter the war on the side of Germany. He wished to ‘rectify’ Italy's position in the Mediterranean, and public opinion in Italy was being whipped up by organised demonstrations and an inspired press campaign. ‘The myth of Britain's invincible naval power is gone,’ boasted one fascist newspaper.
At this time of uncertainty ‘flap’ was a word much in use at Maadi; it described any move or unexpected development that gave rise to excitement and rumour. Anti-aircraft pits suddenly appeared in the camp. Orders came to stand by for varying periods as inlying pickets, and troops suddenly vanished overnight—for garrison duty, it was soon discovered. On 13 May 1 Company occupied prepared positions east of the camp; on the 18th 2 Company took over guard duties at the Citadel, and 3 Company a similar task at the Helwan airfield. New Zealand troops became responsible for the security of Cairo, where more than 30,000 Italians lived and fifth column activities might be attempted.
The posting of 2 Company to the Citadel, which was used as a detention barracks, was the subject of some comment by the rest of the battalion; some suggested that discipline in the page 18 company would benefit. Nevertheless the quarters were found to be comfortable, though the heat was oppressive, and both officers and men had their washing and boot-cleaning done for them. The company provided the first guard from 2 NZEF for the fortress and rose nobly to the occasion. ‘I have yet to see a smarter guard,’ said one officer. ‘There was great competition even among the hardest cases and the anti-spit-and-polish men.’
Built in the twelfth century by Saladin with the slave labour of captured Crusaders, the Citadel stands on a spur jutting out from the cliffs of Gebel Mokattam; with the dome and slender twin minarets of Mohammed Ali's mosque rising above its sturdy walls, it dominates the landscape for miles around. Cairo is laid out below. Nearby, among the narrow, tortuous, foul- smelling streets that tunnel their way through a bees' comb of native dwellings, are the towers and minarets of other mosques: farther off are the taller, whiter buildings of the more spacious, modern, European quarter, and beyond this, isolated by the Nile, is the green, complacent island of Gezira. Across the river the city merges with the cultivation, and on the horizon the pyramids squat at the edge of the Western Desert.
The other scene of guard duties, Helwan, lies 16 miles south of Cairo, to which it is connected by the railway that passes through Maadi. In peacetime this small town, on rising ground east of the Nile, is known to tourists as a health resort; it has a mineral spa and a very ornate bath-house. The tourist trade now languished, but Helwan assumed fresh importance because of its aerodrome, an RAF station, the army camp that was soon to spread across the desert to the south, and the conversion of its largest hotel into a New Zealand general hospital. At the aerodrome the machine-gunners were employed on the general security scheme—defence against air attack, parachutists, fifth columnists and saboteurs—during the next three months. The guns were dug in and sited to cover the perimeter of the aero drome, and the gun teams were accommodated in dugouts alongside the gunpits.
While digging gun sites in some low mounds the men of 4 Company (which relieved 3 Company on 27 May) struck water which advertised its mineral properties: it smelt like Rotorua. Further investigation revealed water under each mound, which had been built up by wind-blown dust adhering to the damp surface. The machine-gunners enjoyed the luxury of a spa of their own.page 19
This period of guard duties was very strenuous, not only because of the heat, which sometimes reached 110 degrees in the shade, with humidity adding to the discomfort while the Nile was in flood, but also because the troops available were scarcely sufficient for the task. The same day that 4 Company relieved 3 Company at Helwan, 1 Company went to the Heliopolis aerodrome, east of Cairo, where perimeter defences were also established, and two days later 2 Company was relieved at the Citadel by Rhodesian troops and returned to Maadi. Thereafter, while two machine-gun companies were on guard at the aerodromes, the other two and Headquarters Company remained at Maadi, and the companies on guard duty were relieved fortnightly.
From time to time captains and subalterns were recalled to Battalion Headquarters for a fortnight's reversion to the ranks for a drill and duties course under warrant officers. Sergeants took command of platoons; officers, who ‘mothered a rifle and gear like any private soldier’, learnt to see things from the privates' point of view; the rest of the battalion enjoyed the spectacle, and it is even recorded that the officers themselves thoroughly enjoyed their respite from authority. ‘Most of us learnt the rudiments of soldiering and sweated out the slack and slovenly habits of other days,’ says Captain Robbie.
After Italy entered the war, some 60-odd New Zealanders, mostly from Divisional Cavalry, but also from 27 Battalion and one or two other units, were selected to form three long-range patrols to collect information about the Italian garrisons of the oases in southern Libya. Most of the original officers of these patrols were Englishmen who had explored the Libyan Desert before the war, but Lieutenant Steele,5 a machine-gun officer, was one of the first patrol leaders and later commanded the New Zealand squadron of the Long Range Desert Group, as the new unit became known.
The long-range patrols, which were the first6 to cross the vast Egyptian Sand Sea, hitherto considered impassable, made many expeditions deep into enemy territory; they explored every page 20 corner of Libya and southern Tunisia, raided lonely Italian outposts, co-operated with the French of Equatorial Africa, and later supported the British Eighth Army by raiding enemy airfields and destroying aircraft on the ground, shooting up transport, keeping a day-to-day watch on road traffic behind the enemy lines, reconnoitring routes, and navigating for outflanking forces.
Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis, who had moulded a heterogeneous crowd of civilians into a strong and effective fighting unit capable of using the machine gun to the best advantage in all phases of battle, was to be denied the opportunity of commanding the battalion in the field. On 13 August he was promoted to the temporary command of 4 Infantry Brigade; subsequently he was to take this brigade into action, first as infantry and then as an armoured formation, and on two occasions he was to command the New Zealand Division. He was succeeded as commanding officer of 27 (MG) Battalion by Major Gwilliam.7
Field-Marshal Graziani's Italian army assembled on Egypt's western frontier. Except for the small mechanised forces which raided the Italian frontier posts as soon as Mussolini declared war, the heavily outnumbered8 British awaited the expected enemy onslaught near Mersa Matruh, the small coastal town at the head of the Western Desert railway, about 200 miles west of Alexandria. To reach Matruh the Italians would have to cross about 150 miles of barren, largely waterless, coastal plain, and would have to maintain themselves with ever lengthening supply lines.
The first New Zealand units joined the British forces in the Western Desert in mid-June. During the next two months two battalions of infantry were busy excavating an anti-tank ditch (never used) at Garawla, near Matruh, and other units were employed on the protection and maintenance of lines of communication. By the beginning of September most of the New Zealand troops were in the desert, many of them at Baggush, about 30 miles east of Matruh.page 21
While 1 and 2 Companies remained on guard duty at Helwan and Heliopolis, the rest of 27 Battalion, now fully equipped with transport, left Maadi for Baggush on 27 August. From Cairo the battalion motored seven miles to Mena House, the fashionable hotel a few hundred yards from Cheops' Pyramid, and there turned north onto the monotonous desert highway to Alexandria. Halfway House, the rest house at Wadi Natrun, was the only sign of human habitation until the tents of bedouin camps were seen near the Mediterranean coast. The battalion spent the night at Ikingi Maryut, about ten miles south of Alexandria, and then headed westwards past a few miles of tall palms and fig trees—rooted, surprisingly, in white sand—and onto a switchback road along a low ridge a mile or two from the sea. Inland stretched an apparently limitless, dun-coloured desert, much of it covered by stunted, sparse scrub. The one or two villages along the route were almost too insignificant to notice in passing; the occasional, solitary railway station seemed to serve no purpose at all. The convoy climbed a fairly steep rise near Fuka, and a few miles beyond, near the Sidi Haneish station, reached its destination in the evening. A dust-storm was blowing and some trucks were late in getting in; it was midnight before everybody was settled.
Between the sea and an escarpment, and surrounding the wells of Maaten Baggush and Maaten Burbeita, the machine-gunners and the other New Zealanders assigned to the task constructed a chain of earthworks, the Baggush Box. There 1 and 2 Companies, after being relieved of their guard duties at the Cairo aerodromes and spending a fortnight near Ikingi Maryut as lines-of-communication troops (1 Company defending the Amiriya aerodrome against airborne attack and 2 Company as a mobile reserve), joined the remainder of the battalion on 16 September.
Careful planning and many weeks of arduous digging went into the construction of a skilfully concealed fortress. A war correspondent described a machine-gun team's ‘miniature fortress’, which was entered through a zigzagging trench: ‘Blindly for a while, after the brilliant sunshine outside, you grope past solid, sheltering walls—hard sand, limestone or perhaps reinforced concrete. The roof above you, flush with the surface of the ground, is so firm that you feel nothing could come through it. You pass into a tiny but snug living room, where bunks may be placed along the walls. Now your eyes are “in focus” again, and you see that there is really plenty page 22 of light, led indirectly through ingenious arrangements of empty petrol tins and stovepiping. Ahead, in the gun position proper, you realise how well this defensive post is placed. The concealed opening through which the gunner directs his fire commands a remarkable view of his front, but is so small and so perfectly camouflaged as to be invisible from any distance.’
Had the Italians been willing and able to push so far into Egypt, these defensive positions might have been the first testing ground of the 2 NZEF—but a siege in the Baggush Box was not to be the New Zealanders' first action.
The Italians crossed the Egyptian frontier in mid-September and, in face of the light screen of British mechanised troops, pushed as far east as Sidi Barrani, where they halted. Not in a position to start an immediate counter-attack, the British took what precautions they could against a further enemy thrust. Orders were given for the mining of the main road and tracks between Sidi Barrani and Matruh, the destruction of the telephone lines, and the salting of all wells9 in the area. A party of New Zealand machine-gunners, led by Lieutenant Frazer,10 assisted in the salting of the wells.
With ten 15-cwt trucks, each carrying two men (drawn from the Anti-Aircraft and Signals Platoons), Frazer was told to report to a major of the Royal Engineers at a rendezvous on the Matruh-Sidi Barrani road. ‘We loaded crude salt from Matruh on the way up and sampled a high altitude bombing attack by the Italians while doing so. It caused us no grief.’ The English major explained that the machine-gunners were to work with a party of Royal Engineers who had already reconnoitred the wells and estimated the amount of water in them. Sufficient salt was to be tipped into each well to render the water undrinkable, and this was to be followed by a stick of dynamite, ‘to help with the mixing process’.
Working in an area about 50 miles from east to west and extending 15 or 20 miles into the desert between Matruh and Sidi Barrani, and travelling some 300 or 400 miles altogether, they salted about forty-five wells during the next ten days. When they ran out of salt they returned to Matruh for more.page 23
Meanwhile the Italians had moved into Maktila, about 11 miles east of Sidi Barrani, and were busy preparing their positions at Tummar East, Tummar West and Nibeiwa, south of Sidi Barrani, but obviously they were not looking for trouble; their transport kept to the main road and to the tracks running to their outpost positions. ‘We were working in the desert with a screen provided by the 11th Hussars and a Recce group of the 4th Indian Division,’ says Frazer. ‘Sometimes we worked behind the Italians and often saw their convoys. Either they did not see us or did not want to; that suited us too, as we wanted to get as much done as possible without interruption.’
Other parties of engineers were laying minefields around road and track junctions—on which two trucks were blown up, one belonging to the machine-gunners and the other to the engineers. The machine-gunners managed to salvage theirs. Also, Indian engineers were cutting down the telephone posts, drag ging them together and burning them. But after all these preparations for delaying their advance, the Italians failed to attack. Instead, the British themselves attacked about two months later. ‘The mines had to be lifted and new telephone posts put in. Above all, we had to drink the water from our own salted wells. The general opinion was that it had a gently purgative effect, made the milk curdle in one's tea, but made passable coffee. We had occasion to sample the fruits of our labours for several years thereafter as we passed and re-passed this area on various occasions.’
If the Italian Army seemed reluctant to give battle, the Italian Air Force was a little more active, but seldom were its bombers seen by daylight, and they usually flew too high for accurate bombing. An occasional hit-and-run raid—usually they ran before hitting—was harmless enough. Aircraft sprinkled parts of the desert with ‘thermos bombs’, explosive devices shaped like khaki-coloured thermos flasks, which were primed by impact with the ground and afterwards exploded by vibration or when touched. These were made harmless by rifle or Bren-gun fire. On one occasion a bold Italian fighter pilot in a Macchi biplane machine-gunned the Sidi Haneish airfield and destroyed a Valencia on the ground.
Dust-storms were frequent occurrences at Baggush. High winds, sometimes howling gales, swept the fine dust over miles of desert and even out to sea. Dust that could be smelt and tasted, irritated your eyes and nose, gritted in your mouth, mixed stickily with the perspiration on your skin and matted page 24 your hair, found its way into the most securely fastened tents and dugouts, lay thickly on beds, eating utensils, weapons and equipment, reduced visibility to a few yards and cast a gloom over the countryside.
The dust-storms were severe where the continual movement of men and vehicles loosened the surface of the desert; conditions were more pleasant farther inland, beyond the escarpment, where the companies went for exercises and manœuvres. ‘We liked these trips because there didn't seem to be so much dust, and if we went far enough not many flies, and it was a break,’ wrote Major White.
Near the escarpment were areas covered with mounds about a foot high, where dust had been embedded in the scrub bushes; this made the going very rough. In other places a clay surface that showed signs of cultivation was like corrugated iron to drive over; elsewhere stretches of good, gravelly surface extended for miles, or outcrops of rock would slow vehicles down to a walking pace. Beyond the limit of the vegetation, not so very far inland, jutting rocks might replace small bushes as points to steer by. On higher ground trig points would be marked by cairns or tar barrels set in cement. These trig points, or wells marked by cairns, or graves (usually mounds of stones), were aids to navigation.
The companies practised separately the selection and rapid occupation of positions by day and night, and also indirect machine-gun fire. The battalion, travelling in 120-odd vehicles, carried out a desert march in open formation, with the companies taking turns as advance guard, flank guards and rearguard. The companies also trained with the infantry battalions, and the whole battalion took part in a 4 Brigade Group exercise, in which the RAF co-operated, and a battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment acted as ‘enemy’. Mock attacks were made on a perimeter camp (similar to the Italian camps near Sidi Barrani) by night and a hastily prepared defended locality by day.
The New Zealanders trained with zest and were eager to meet the enemy. Others, however, were to win the spectacular victories of General Wavell's offensive, which began on 9 December. Some New Zealanders—Divisional Signals and Army Service Corps units—did take part, but the men of 4 Brigade Group remained in reserve at Baggush, disgusted and at first unable to believe that they had been left out.page 25
Italian aircraft raided Baggush on 10 December, dropping bombs in 4 Company's area, which was near the airfield and alongside the railway. Two tents were damaged, but there were no casualties. Two days later some 500 drivers and relief drivers of 220 trucks from 4 Brigade Group, including sixty-seven trucks from 27 (MG) Battalion, were given a small but not altogether unimportant part in the advance. They were to carry petrol and oil to a supply depot near Bir Abu Misheifa, about 25 miles south of Sidi Barrani, and to bring back prisoners of war from the Sidi Barrani area to the railhead at Matruh. They set out in high spirits, with ‘Skypu Gogetters’ and ‘Bring 'em back alive’ chalked on their vehicles. During a week of dust, driving by moonlight on bitterly cold nights, loss of sleep, and scratch meals at odd hours, nothing dampened their enthusiasm.
On their first trip they collected nearly 300 prisoners, half of them Italians in shabby, bluish-grey uniforms and the remainder Libyan natives in even shabbier multi-coloured clothing, who scrambled eagerly aboard the trucks. The transport was then required for another task, the delivery of about 100 tons of ammunition and rations to a supply depot not far from the Libyan frontier and 20-odd miles inland from Sollum. On the way the convoy passed through several captured Italian camps, littered with vehicles, weapons and equipment. How very crude these defensive positions seemed in comparison with the skilfully planned and camouflaged Baggush Box. The convoy made a third trip, this time with urgently needed petrol and oil, for the forward supply depot. Italian aircraft bombed the depot while the trucks, unobserved, were halted about seven miles away.
The 200-odd trucks returned to their units on 20 December. The men who had to remain at Baggush all this time saw their first Italians when train-loads of them passed on their way back to the prisoner-of-war camps. And that, apart from the souvenirs brought back by the envied truck drivers, was about all they did see of Wavell's campaign.
Christmas 1940, the first Christmas in the desert and the first overseas for the 2 NZEF, was spent at Baggush and was celebrated well. Thanks to the assistance of the National Patriotic Fund Board, turkey, chicken, mutton, vegetables, fruit and Christmas pudding were spread before the men, whom the officers waited on at the tables. ‘Beer appeared mysteriously … and it was not long before old enemies became friends and old friends became enemies….’page 26
A few days later, on the 29th, 4 Brigade Group received another call for transport, this time to convey 19 Australian Infantry Brigade to the Libyan frontier, and again the sixty-seven trucks from 27 (MG) Battalion were among those employed. The Australians were collected at Burg el Arab, near Alexandria, and carried to Fort Capuzzo. The drivers and their passengers slept through the coming of the New Year in the open desert. The leading convoy reached its destination next day and the others a day later. The Australians debussed and, while the transport returned eastwards, prepared to storm the Italian fortress of Bardia, which fell on 5 January.
On that day another event was celebrated at Baggush: the First Echelon had completed its first year overseas. Now, however, the spell in the Western Desert was drawing to a close. Orders came on the 9th to move back to Helwan. Tents were struck, gear packed, and everybody was ready to leave on the 11th. The journey took two days, the battalion bivouacking for the night well past Amiriya, and on the second day a dust-storm which had sprung up overnight put nearly all the motor cycles out of action and sand-blasted the paint down to the bare metal on the windward side of the trucks.
At Helwan the battalion found units of the Third Echelon (which arrived in September) already in residence—in huts. The more seasoned troops had to be satisfied with tents and a few partly completed huts for messrooms, offices and stores. The machine-gun officers decorated their mess with trophies brought back from the desert. Pride of place was given to an Italian machine gun which the drivers had collected from the wreckage of the Italian defeat at Sidi Barrani.
The battalion was rejoined by 1 Company, which had left Baggush in November to assist in the training of 6 Infantry Brigade at Maadi. It also received twenty-two men who had arrived in Egypt with the Third Echelon; they had gone into camp in New Zealand as machine-gun reinforcements, had been transferred to an anti-tank company, and now became machine-gunners again. The battalion was below strength as the result of a year overseas without reinforcements. This deficiency was partly made up when 60-odd men of the 4th Reinforcements arrived in January, but the battalion did not return to full strength until another sixty reinforcements came with the Second Echelon from the United Kingdom early in March.
The two months at Helwan were a period of final intensive training. The battalion, company by company, practised at the page 27 rifle and machine-gun ranges. A very impressive demonstration was given by 5 Platoon of an indirect shoot with Mark VIIIZ ammunition, which has a range of 4500 yards, as compared with the extreme effective range of 2800 yards of the ammunition used in the First World War.
The companies practised river crossing on the Nile. Paddling themselves and their guns across in collapsible assault boats, the men at first moved gingerly to avoid falling into water that was not at all enticing in its natural state, but soon handled their boats with more assurance. The vehicles were ferried across on rafts assembled by the engineers.
The machine-gunners co-operated with the artillery and infantry in a series of mock attacks in which only the presence of the enemy was left to supposition. The infantry, advancing behind an artillery barrage, was supported by machine-gun fire, and live ammunition—smoke and high-explosive shells and mortar, light and medium machine-gun fire—convincingly simulated battle conditions.
Much emphasis was laid on route-marching with heavy loads. Probably no other unit packed its men so heavily, but the long marches by day or night with guns, ammunition, tripods and spares hardened and strengthened shoulder muscles and feet and prepared the battalion for the arduous campaign on which it was soon to embark.
These months of training, of working and living together in the desert, had wrought changes. The men were leaner, browner, fitter than they had ever been; they carried out their manœuvres and exercises with the smoothness and precision that comes only with practice; they handled their weapons instinctively and with the utmost confidence. And now, at long last, the New Zealand Division was assembled under its own commander. It was ready to meet the enemy.
3 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914–19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940–41; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; escaped 29 Mar 1943; died Oct 1943.
4 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914–19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde, Jan 1940–Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr–27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941–Dec 1945.
6 An English officer and five NZ machine-gunners (L-Cpls C. H. Croucher and W. J. Hamilton, Ptes R. A. Tinker, J. Emslie and R. O. Spotswood) were the first to cross the Egyptian Sand Sea and reconnoitre in southern Libya. Both Croucher and Tinker later commanded patrols of the LRDG; Tinker was awarded the MM and MC.
8 In a telegram dated 11 Aug 1940 from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the High Commissioner for the UK in NZ, the forces in North Africa were given as follows: British—one armoured division less one brigade, one infantry division, one infantry brigade, one NZ infantry brigade, one Indian division less one brigade; Italian (in Libya)—16 divisions (8 ½ facing Egypt, 7 ½ facing Tunisia).
9 These wells, the old Roman cisterns, or ‘birs’ as the Arabs call them, are often huge subterranean caverns hewn in the limestone; surface water runs and filters through into them during the brief rainy season and is stored there during the long dry summer.