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Journey Towards Christmas

(2) Working for Wavell

page 31

(2) Working for Wavell

Ever since the outbreak of the Italo-Abyssinian war the Libyan frontier had been a chink in our imperial armour, and since Mussolini had sided with Hitler it had been a chink with a javelin levelled at it. And the range, since 14 September 1940, when the Italians crossed the frontier and occupied Sollum, had been point-blank.

From then on General Sir Archibald Wavell had been playing David to Graziani's Goliath.

In the circumstances our A Section drivers camped at El Daba, less than 200 miles from Sidi Barrani, towards which the Italians were advancing, had little right to the cheerful happiness they were enjoying. Every afternoon they swam in the Mediterranean, their heads dotting the blue water like corks and their common sense telling them that this was the pleasantest of all pleasant wars. In the evenings they gathered in the canteen tent to sing songs and drink bottled beer while wild dogs howled out their hearts in the surrounding desert and tame Italian pilots moved discreetly among the high clouds.

The Regia Aeronautica, although it was often heard and on moonlight nights and exceptionally clear days sometimes seen, was never a nuisance as far as A Section was concerned. Its behaviour justified the popular witticism: the Italians come in at 5000 feet and dive to 10,000. What they excelled in was sowing the desert with explosive fancy goods—thermos flasks, fountain pens, and other ingenious trifles.

After spending two lazy months at El Daba the section moved a few miles to a new area. Here the drivers had no sooner established themselves in comfort than they were ordered to pack up.

They moved again on the night of 4-5 December, travelling to Qasaba, between Baggush and Mersa Matruh. It must have been a day or two later, no more, that Lieutenant Roberts, who was in charge of the section at this time, Captain Moon being away on leave, came into the mess tent at lunch-time waving a slip of paper. It was a Special Order of the Day by General Wavell. He read it out, adding: ‘Well, there you are, chaps. The show's on. I'm only sorry I shall be missing it.’

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It was hardly Henry V haranguing his troops before Agincourt but the effect was the same. Lieutenant Roberts was not alone in being excluded from the coming show, and the few New Zealanders, the happy few whom fate had chosen to take part in it—transport drivers, engineers, signallers—would have been less than human if they had failed to compare themselves to their own advantage with gentlemen in base camps then abed.

The campaign opened brilliantly and by the evening of the 10th Sidi Barrani was in our hands. Sollum fell on the 16th and Fort Capuzzo the next day.

At first the drivers worked between Qasaba railhead and an advanced ammunition dump a few miles farther west, and later they assisted in stocking the forward supply depots, the trips becoming longer as the campaign pursued its successful course. Occasionally they carried troops to the forward areas, but for the most part they were employed in bringing up ammunition, petrol, water, and rations. On the return trips they took salvage and prisoners to Mersa Matruh.

The Wolves of Tuscany—the Tigers of Tunis—were surrendering in their thousands and they needed no guarding. Their one fear was that they might be left in the desert and they gave trouble only when they thought the lorries were going to move without them. Then they would fly into a panic and start fighting to get aboard, yelling ‘Uno momento! Uno momento!’ Sometimes it was necessary to fire a shot over their heads or, as a last resort, threaten them with freedom. Once they were in the lorries, however, the clouds melted and soon the desert would be ringing with their throaty baritones and sweet tenors. Our drivers didn't mind. There was something notable and even humorous and touching about bumping over desert tracks, or along the vile coast road, trailing clouds of Verdi and Puccini.

After Sollum had fallen the trips to the forward areas took two days, and loading and unloading usually took another day, so the drivers had little time for servicing their vehicles and less for sleep. The roads were always bad and day after day vision was reduced to only a few yards by wicked dust-storms whipped up by high winds. The lorries stumbled through a whirling ginger gloom, crashing into pot-holes, breaking springs, tearing tires.

page break page break
black and white photograph of street scene

Main street, Helwan

black and white photograph of soldiers taken prisoner

Italian prisoners from Bardia

black and white photograph of field gun

Bardia Bill

black and white photograph of disabled tank

In the salt marshes of Buqbuq—a British tank bogged

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On fine days—for a while at least—the work was fascinating and the drivers were like children let loose in a toy department. The desert was dotted with wrecked diesel lorries and abandoned dugouts. Quartermasters' tents debouched boots, bales of new uniforms, knives and forks, jars of face cream, and packets of sweets. It was an embarras de richesse. Undiscriminating as jackdaws, they brought back mixed treasure and rubbish to their Qasaba camp: Italian groundsheets, canteens, water bottles, broken machine guns, motor-cycles. For days ‘Bully’ Higgins1 was resplendent in the sky blue and gold braid of a high naval officer and the amount of useless impedimenta carted around in the ack-ack lorry drew a protest from Captain Moon: ‘How the hell could you work that Goddam gun?’

It was tremendous fun for a while but from the first there had been a bad drawback. You would see the lorries break convoy, converge on some fort or system of defences, and pull up with a squeal of brakes. Then the drivers would plunge into the dugouts and reappear laden with loot, only to cast it away a second later on finding their legs and arms dusted with black fleas and their clothes hopping with them.

After the fall of Sollum and Halfaya Pass there was a lull in the campaign and during that lull came Christmas—the Christmas before which more than one optimist had promised himself he would be home. Well, what of it? Graziani's mighty army was falling to pieces in North Africa and in Albania the heroic Greeks were driving the Italians towards the sea. In Germany no oil, no warmth, no food, no hope. One hesitated to make predictions, but still, possibly by next Christmas….

At Abbassia things were done in style—Christmas turkey and Christmas pudding by ‘Fat’ Davison, a speech by the Major—but at Qasaba it was not possible to make a great deal of the occasion, many of the drivers being on the road. However, the day did not pass unnoticed. It was honoured with beer, with extra rations, and with songs, but not, as Captain Moon had proposed, by the sacrifice of his private rooster. ‘Sheriff’ Davies, with guests to feed after a party, had been before him. ‘I snuck out’, admitted the ‘Sheriff’, ‘and I snuck along to where that ol' rooster lived, and I screwed page 34 that ol' rooster's neck, and I snuck him into the ol' pot.’ However, under the benignant influence of the season, all was forgiven and forgotten: the theft of the rooster and Captain Moon's equally high-handed conduct in closing the bar for a week to punish his chickens for imitating Long John Silver's lambs in the matter of some looted rum.

With the arrival of the New Year Wavell struck again. Bardia, fifteen miles beyond Sollum, was the next objective, and 200 New Zealand lorries were detailed for transporting Australians to the battle zone. Accordingly, A Section embussed Australian infantry at five on New Year's morning, taking them to Buqbuq, about thirty miles east of Sollum, where they bivouacked for the night. From the direction of Bardia, on the far side of the border, came the sound of heavy gunfire and of bursting bombs. A late start was made the next day and the troops were taken to Sollum, where a halt was called at the bottom of the escarpment. ‘Bardia Bill’, the famous big gun of which so many stories have been told, whose capture so many units have claimed, and whose calibre has been the subject of so many arguments, sent over a few shells, some of which were considered by our drivers to have landed close enough to enable them to say they had been under fire.

Towards evening, however, under the huge shadow of the escarpment, with the battle banging away in the distance and night approaching, something inside the drivers, a little knot of anxiety and anticipation, tightened. After all, this was a real battle their passengers were going into and it was the first battle that our drivers had had anything to do with.

As it happened, that period of waiting and wondering was the most memorable part of the trip, for what followed was in the nature of anti-climax. After dark the Australians were driven up the escarpment and deposited near Fort Capuzzo, a dozen or more miles south of Bardia, and there, so far as A Section was concerned, the job ended.

Bardia fell on the morning of the 5th and Tobruk on the 22nd. By the end of the month Derna was in our hands.

As the field supply depots moved forward, the drivers, working in small convoys under their sub-section corporals, made longer and longer trips, but the novelty had worn off. What had seemed treasure once was now dirty Italian rubbish—wrecked lorries, torn page 35 groundsheets, little rifles with ridiculous folding bayonets. What had seemed high adventure was now long hours of bumping over the chunky and half-finished surface of Mussolini's preposterous Victory Avenue.

However, not all the jobs were the same. A few drivers were fortunate enough to visit Siwa oasis where the British maintained a small garrison. Here, 200 miles due south of Sidi Barrani, a surf of date palms broke against an island of mud buildings—some whitewashed and lived in, others empty and haunted. Our drivers can hardly have been unaffected by the atmosphere of the place—an atmosphere of brooding mystery and of secrets so old that only the first Gods remember them.2 They may have noticed, too, that there were few dogs or cats about. The explanation of this was more prosaic. Siwans eat cats and dogs.

A Section's drivers did not have a monopoly of the forward areas at this time. As the fighting troops advanced so did the RASC units catered for by our ferry service, and by the beginning of February we were making round trips of from 1300 to 2000 miles and spending anything from a week to ten days on the road.

The Divisional Ammunition Company was now at Helwan Camp, some twenty miles south of Cairo, having moved there on 13 January after handing over its duties in Cairo Sub-area to the RASC. Other units of the Division had also moved to Helwan from Maadi and the Western Desert.

At Helwan we occupied large huts in No. 1 area—not that the number matters, for no area differed from another except in its relation to Shafto's cinema and the NAAFIs. All the huts were identical and around all of them was the same sand.

On the day after the move C Section was given a new job.

When it seemed likely that the British would have to withdraw towards the Nile Delta, large quantities of petrol, oil, water, and food were buried in the desert at Gebel Ruzza, sixty miles due west of Cairo, but soon after the first victories in Libya it was decided to exhume these valuable supplies and take them to Abbassia. The task was entrusted to C Section, which, with a fatigue page 36 party from the First Echelon, moved to Gebel Ruzza—a hill and nothing more. All around was virgin desert—miles of it, hard and ochrous, miles of it, soft, dazzlingly white, and untouched by wheel track or footprint.

When the lorries were away working and the camp was deserted except for the cooks and a mechanic from Workshops, there was a touch of fantasy about the scene, and for a moment you wondered why. Then you saw it: the tents—two big and one small—the water cart and the lorry the mechanic was tinkering with, they were the only objects of their own size in the whole landscape. Everything else was small like the little pebbles and the wisps of camel-thorn, or large like the hill of Gebel Ruzza, or enormous like the billowing clouds.

The supplies had been buried over a wide area and there were many dumps to be uncovered. The presence of some was proclaimed by the hard outline of a layer of packing cases and around others there was a litter of broken boards, showing that marauders had been at work, but a few had to be searched for like buried treasure.

The members of the digging party were angry and resentful at first, taking it amiss that men junior to them in service should be handling the lorries, but the weather was so fine and the air so pure (being sharp and golden like a good orange) and working in the bright sunshine stripped to the waist was such an agreeable experience that they had no choice but to enjoy themselves, and presently the various gangs were vying with one another in the amount of work they could do.

They worked all day and they worked, illicitly, at night, for it is in human nature to love digging things up—whether buried by Captain Flint or dropped carelessly by the Chaldeans. Evening after evening they would creep out of camp to dig secretly for the rum and cigarettes they believed were concealed somewhere, but they never found anything worth taking except a few cases of condensed milk and some tinned fruit.

The lorry drivers, too, were enjoying themselves. Each morning as the sunlight started to spill over the flats a loaded convoy set out for Abbassia. There were landmarks to steer by—hills and escarpments—but in the desert some demon of confusion plays draughts with landmarks and it soon became necessary to blaze a trail with empty petrol containers. That was after a convoy page 37 leader had taken a day and a half to reach Cairo, travelling 160 miles.

To everyone's disappointment the job lasted only ten days. Its importance, however, was out of all proportion to the miles covered and the tons lifted. It was the story of a party of disgruntled drivers sweating out a grievance in the sunshine and ending up by doing a good job and having a fine time. The unit was growing up and it was growing together.

At Helwan we had neither beds nor bed-boards—only straw palliasses and a concrete floor. However, we had discovered by now that the less the Army does for you the more you are allowed to do for yourself, and we had no difficulty in making ourselves comfortable. Life was becoming daily less regimental and we were still doing enough work to keep us off the parade ground.

We worked for New Zealand units in Helwan and for several weeks many drivers were employed in carting rubble from a local quarry to a road on the outskirts of the camp. This was highly remunerative employment, for it never occurred to the Egyptian contractors, for whose benefit the transport was provided, to insult our intelligence by supposing that we should be willing to work unless it was made worth our while. Always at the end of the day a fat hand would come through the cab window and in it would be anything from 50 to 100 piastres.

Meanwhile we were still operating the ferry service, and on 26 January the unit sustained its first casualties in the Western Desert when Bob Larkin3 stepped on an Italian thermos bomb, injuring his left foot very severely and eventually losing it. Joe Carter4 was wounded in a leg by the same bomb but was able to return to us five weeks later.

February came, and as by now most of the vehicles had covered between 15,000 and 20,000 miles, it was decided to give them a thorough overhaul. To complete the job within a month our Workshops' drivers, helped by everyone who could be spared, slaved page 38 seven days a week, and every night for two weeks they put in three hours of overtime by electric light.

February, then, was a month of hard work and long hours, but it had its lighter moments. The loss of our orderly room through fire and the consequent destruction of the greater part of our records (which we watched with complacency, believing that anything recorded about us was unlikely to be to our advantage); a Divisional regatta in which we won the assault-boat event; the finals and semi-finals of the Divisional boxing tournament, in which Frank O'Connor5 and Jack Cave6 made a fine showing; our victory over the 6th Field Regiment at Rugby by five points to nil—these were incidents that enlivened February, making pleasant interludes in our greasy battle with stub-axles and shell bearings.

Early in the month the return of A Section had been heralded by the arrival of the Don Rs and within a week the last group of lorries had arrived back. As they reported in they were fallen on by the mechanics, for it was now known that a move could be expected any day.

Only one question was asked: where now? Each of us possessed a clue. They hung in the huts or crowned our bedrolls, battered, some of them, already. There had been a fresh issue of sun helmets. Now that, surely, meant the Red Sea and a landing on the coast of British Somaliland. It could mean a trip round the Cape to England. Or (why not?) a landing beyond Benghazi. Greece was out of the question, for the Greeks were showing themselves quite capable of settling Mussolini's hash, and surely Germany, with her hands full in Europe and her shortage of oil, would not be crazy enough to embark on any Balkan adventure? Besides, who ever heard of sun helmets in Greece? A landing in France perhaps—but no, those damned sun helmets….

March came and on the 3rd of the month ‘Bull’ Dillon disappeared. He was our advanced party.

The next day was our last at Helwan. Carefully we made a final check. Tanks full? Water tins full? Tucker box bulging? Hide away those Italian blankets and groundsheets and those extra spanners—might come in useful, eh?

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That night the NAAFIs did a roaring trade. Bottles covered every table. Bottles covered the floor. Underfoot there was a roughness of broken glass and a sloppiness of spilled beer. Every now and again some soldier would be intolerably wounded in his deepest feelings and would strike out wildly.

The next morning was bright and chilly, very soothing to feverish brows. Long before the time to start our lorries were lined up and waiting. At last the Major's car moved slowly towards the road and we followed. Slowly we drove through Maadi, through Cairo, and along the Alexandria road. In Wadi Natrun near the Halfway House (where the drinks were ice-cold and the prices red-hot) we halted, bivouacking for the night.

The next morning we set out for Amiriya, the transit camp for the port of Alexandria.

The engines barely purred for we were travelling very slowly. Louder than the engines, louder than the tires whispering to the black bitumen, was a noise of singing. In no other way could we express our exhilaration, our confidence in the future, our delight in being on the move.

1 L-Cpl W. T. Higgins; miller; Roto-o-Rangi, Cambridge; born Blenheim, 9 May 1914.

2 Between AD 20 and 1792 Siwa disappeared from history, and between then and the First World War no more than twenty outsiders are believed to have set foot in it.

3 Dvr R. C. Larkin; truck driver; Dargaville; born Colchester, England, 27 Sep 1913; wounded 26 Jan 1941.

4 Dvr J. Carter; mechanic fitter; Papatoetoe, Auckland; born NZ, 5 Mar 1917; wounded 26 Jan 1941.

5 Dvr F. E. O'Connor; motor body builder; Christchurch; born Ashburton, 5 Mar 1913.

6 Dvr J. A. Cave; farmhand; Auckland; born NZ, 23 Jul 1918.