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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Move to Italy

The Move to Italy

Captain Sidey5 of Artillery Headquarters left Burg el Arab at 3.30 a.m. on 24 September with a tiny advanced party representing all the regiments. They were bound for an ‘unknown destination’, as the war diary describes it, and their departure attracted no attention. Then, at the end of the month, all New Zealand badges and insignia and all New Zealand markings on vehicles were banished from sight. Anti-malarial precautions shortened the odds on Italy as the destination of the Division and disqualified England. Preparing vehicles and equipment for a sea voyage and then packing, the issue of winter clothing, the tightening of censorship, injections against typhus, and the exchange of Egyptian currency for British Military Authority (BMA) notes—these, in early October, were stepping stones to Italy, as everyone by this time knew. In due course units, less transport parties (which stayed at Burg el Arab), moved to a vast transit camp at Ikingi Maryut, near Amiriya, and were each equally divided between Ship Camps A and B, corresponding with the ships in which they were destined to sail. The idea in relation to each unit was not to carry all the eggs in one basket: if a ship were sunk the unit would not be crippled.

The few men in each unit who had sailed for Greece 30 months earlier felt as though they had seen the film before, especially when embarkation day came and the gunners were grotesquely burdened with personal gear (including five blankets) for the march to the transport. This time it was not by train but by RASC lorries that gunners travelled to the docks. The first flight sailed on 5 October. ‘On board by 1130 hours’, the diary of 36 Survey Battery states, ‘after heavy struggle owing to huge packs carried by men.’ This draft also included Artillery Headquarters, the 6th Field, the 7th Anti-Tank less 31 and 32 Batteries, the 14th Light Ack-Ack and their various signals and page 519 ordnance sections. The two ships were the Reina del Pacifico of 18,000 tons and the Dunottar Castle.6

The first flight sailed in a calm sea along the North African coast, passing close to Derna, and then in a heavy wind and choppy sea, along the coast of Sicily, sighting Mount Etna in the distance. A message from General Freyberg stated the obvious, that the destination was Italy. At Taranto on the 9th the troops disembarked into lighters and marched five miles to a bivouac area in a rocky wasteland overlooking the harbour. Some of the bulky items of personal gear went by lorry and on arrival some bedrolls were missing. There followed almost daily route marches and much football until the end of the month, when the transport began to arrive. The rest of the units and sub-units sailed on 18 October in the second flight in the Nieuw Amsterdam and Letitia, with some officers in the Llangibby Castle. The local bianco was cheap and popular and a bottle of good vermouth could be had for less than 100 lire (five shillings). Evenings were spent mainly sitting round fires sipping and talking.

5 Capt J. M. Sidey, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 16 Mar 1911; stock agent.

6 There were three ships in the convoy; but it seems that New Zealand gunners travelled only in these two.