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Journey Towards Christmas

(1) Birth of a Happy Section

page 27

(1) Birth of a Happy Section

AT this time, while some of us were at El Daba, some at the Virgin's Breast, and some at Abbassia. C Section comes marching into our story.

The main body of the Third Echelon entered Burnham Camp in the middle of May 1940, and there all NZASC units were trained together, the idea being to give them a clear picture of how their own particular cogs would interlock with the rest of the NZASC machine. C Section's officers were Captain J. Veitch1 and Second-Lieutenant J. D. Fenton.2

In no time at all the section's parade-ground work reached an extremely high standard. It could hardly have done otherwise with Sergeant-Major Bill Dillon3—the ‘Bull’—as CSM. He was a power and a personality and his parade-ground voice possessed all the properties of an airburst, each word of command seeming to explode exactly above the centre of the centre rank and about eight feet from the ground. The ‘Bull’ was an example of the best type of modern Permanent Staff man—the exact antithesis of the old-fashioned sergeant-major of the waxed moustache, the face like underdone beef, and the obscene tongue. He knew exactly where he stood and where the officers stood and where everyone else stood, and he used his knowledge with wisdom and forbearance.

Sergeants-major in quest of regimental perfection can be extremely trying and the ‘Bull’ spared neither officers nor drivers (the former, perhaps, even less than the latter), but nearly everyone was pleased for his sake when the complete camp guard was chosen from C Section on the day of the Governor-General's visit and when the section defeated all comers from the NZASC in a drill competition.

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The section was extremely fortunate in its leaders. Captain Veitch—he was called ‘Scotty’ always—was a man of great energy and personal charm, and the spirit of happy keenness with which he and Second-Lieutenant Fenton imbued their drivers during those early months was felt as an influence for unity long after both officers had gone their ways, one of them to a grave in Crete.

July ended and final leave came along. Then, on 27 August, C Section (91 all ranks) boarded the Orcades at Lyttelton. She sailed that evening and was joined in Cook Strait the next morning by the Mauretania and the Empress of Japan, which were carrying the North Island contingent. The escort consisted of HMAS Perth and (our drivers were glad to see) HMS Achilles, whose honours were fresh upon her. In those days the Battle of the River Plate was still a stirring memory.

The next morning the convoy swung west and soon the Southern Alps had faded from sight. Near the coast of Australia the Achilles drew a ring round the convoy, as though placing it within the protection of a magic circle, and turned back towards New Zealand. Her place was taken by HMAS Canberra, which had brought the Aquitania from Sydney.

It was cold in the Bight but the sun blazed as the ships came into Fremantle on 4 September.4 There was leave in Fremantle and Perth and a wonderful welcome from the Australians, and on the 5th the convoy was away again, steaming under cloudless skies through seas like watered silk.

The next land was sighted on the 16th and early in the afternoon the Orcades anchored in Bombay harbour, which was crammed with transports, fussy steamers, and graceful dhows.

The Orcades tied up in the Alexandria Dock at lunch-time the next day and the drivers marched to temporary quarters in the cricket stadium. Leave was granted until a late hour. The New Zealanders spent their money on everything from expensive carved ornaments to cheap Indian babies. The latter were being sold like page 29 puppies and the line was evidently one that had proved popular among visiting troops.

On the following morning, after a long wait near the quayside, C Section went aboard the Ormonde. While the men were embarking they cast disgusted glances at a large pile of carcasses covered with flies. Native stevedores were dragging them through filth and dust and after they had been loaded an odour of decay permeated a great part of the ship.

Shore leave was granted that evening and early the next morning the Ormonde moved into the stream and dropped anchor. For lunch there was stew. It was not appetising and its smell, to put the matter mildly, was powerful. A memory of fly-covered carcasses haunted the men's minds and no one made much of a meal. And there were other reasons for dissatisfaction. The ship had been left dirty by Imperial troops, who had disembarked a few hours earlier, and quarters seemed cramped after those in the Orcades. To make matters worse it began to rain.

There were murmurs and more than murmurs, and while the officers were at lunch serious trouble broke out. At a quarter past one, shortly before the ship was due to sail, troops took possession of bridge and wheelhouse and told the captain that the ship would not leave port until their grievances had been redressed.

The C Section drivers, although as discontented as anyone, remained quiet. Captain Veitch and Second-Lieutenant Fenton visited their quarters and urged them (the former in no measured terms) not to side with the malcontents and to remember that the important thing was to join their comrades of the First Echelon with the least possible delay. Nearly everyone agreed and much disappointment was felt when the convoy sailed without the Ormonde.

That night it became imperative that the ship, which was now under arrest, should leave within a few hours if it was to catch up the convoy. Pickets were posted at all vital points at half past six the next morning and by seven the Ormonde was under way, catching up the rest of the convoy, which had been steaming at reduced speed, at half past three in the afternoon. The next day the ships entered the danger zone.

The Red Sea was entered early on 26 September and shortly after daylight the drivers were encouraged by the sight of a large convoy of merchantmen ploughing placidly towards the Gulf of page 30 Aden. Even if Britannia no longer ruled every wave the old lady was still behaving as though she did. Throughout the day the coastline of Italian-owned Eritrea slid past on the port side and during the night the naval base of Massawa was left behind.

Port Tewfik was reached on the 29th. Our drivers spent the 30th on board and on 1 October they disembarked. That night they ate their evening meal at Abbassia.

From the start the newcomers got on famously with the rest of the unit, and if they were irritated by a slight tendency on the part of some of their new friends to speak of New Zealand as though it were a country in which they had spent a happy childhood long, long ago, they did not show it. In matters such as finding one's way about Cairo and speaking Arabic they allowed the old hands to appear to advantage for a few weeks, but when it came to playing the first tentative games of the Rugby football season they could permit no patronage.

For several weeks they trained in the bull-ring, growing progressively wearier of the ‘Bull's’ bellow, but at last their vehicles were handed over to them. Routine duties in the Cairo Sub-area gave them plenty of driving practice under difficult conditions, and on the whole they provided their seniors in service with disappointingly few dented mudguards at which to raise a pained eyebrow. They helped, too, with the ferry service, which now extended to Mersa Matruh, some thirty miles west of Baggush.

Meanwhile the war had been changing and expanding. Over Britain the Luftwaffe had switched from day-bombing to night-bombing; German troops had virtually occupied Roumania; Mussolini had attacked Greece. But there was another side to the picture. Bombs—not many bombs and not large bombs but bombs that Goering had boasted would never fall—were causing consternation in Berlin and other cities within the Reich, and the German people had been forced to the conclusion that victory before Christmas 1940, which they had been promised by everything except a direct statement from the Fuehrer himself, was now an impossibility.

And then, on a December day, we showed that we too could attack.

1 Capt J. Veitch; bus driver; born Scotland, 2 Feb 1901; transferred to 4 Res MT Coy, 3 Mar 1941; died of wounds, 3 Jun 1941.

2 Maj J. D. Fenton, MBE, m.i.d.; foreman motor mechanic; Wellington; born Waitara, 24 Jul 1912; Regular soldier, RNZEME.

3 Maj W. L. Dillon, m.i.d.; Regular soldier; Central Military District, Wellington; born Wellington, 11 Aug 1912.

4 Cpl Roy Hintz, who had been admitted to the ship's hospital on the first day of the voyage with a severe abscess and had undergone an operation in Bass Strait, was put ashore at Fremantle, the intention being to return him to New Zealand. As soon as he was better, however, he took matters into his own hands, boarding an Australian troopship bound for Egypt. ‘What are you doing here?’ said the OC Troops. ‘I got on the wrong ship,’ said Roy. ‘Well then,’ said the OC, ‘you'd better go and live in the sergeants' mess.’ Roy rejoined his section on 4 January.