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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 8 — Murder On The Old Hook

page 112

Chapter 8
Murder On The Old Hook

CRETE was a German island and in Libya it was all to do again. In the Mediterranean the balance of sea power was against us and the Royal Air Force was at a greater disadvantage than ever. Everything was as black as night, but in the NAAFIs at Helwan no shadow fell athwart the merry-makers.

Readers of Westerns must have been irresistibly reminded of the saloons in their favourite boom towns. Pianos tinkled interminably, oceans of beer were drunk, and no one thought twice before changing a 100-piastre note. Credits were substantial after the austerities of Greece and Crete and remittances were on their way from New Zealand. ‘Send her along! Get into her! Shoot her up!’ That was the feeling of the hour and nowhere in the Middle East was it being translated into action with more enthusiasm than in the Helwan NAAFIs. Pandemonium reigned. South Africans and New Zealanders sang, screamed, and argued, never quite drowning, as shrieking seagulls never quite drown the surf, the steady rhythmic booming of the Crown and Anchor kings. Two at a table they sat —one to rattle the dice and put over the spiel, one to rake in the money.

‘The old firm boys the old firm. Here before Greece here before Crete here before Christmas. You pick 'em and we pay 'em. We're not here to make money we're here to make friends. You gotta speculate to accumulate. A good horse never stumbles and a good sport never grumbles. The more you put down the more you pick up and a good bet to you Sport. Ten akkers on the old corner pub. Pounds crowns and browns. No bet too big no bet too small pass round the cigarettes Ted. Roll up here gentlemen to make your Palestine leave. A good bet to you Sir. Fifty on the old Sergeant-Major from our friend over there give the gentleman his change Ted. That leaves the old Mae West and the dinkie-die running for the old man. Its murder on the old hook murder on the old hook. Any more before we lift her up we can't keep these good punters waiting. She's a game of speed gentlemen and we want to keep her that way. Yes we've got to lift her up and what do we see. We see the old name of the game two hooks and one crown. Just where the money lies and the old man coughs blood. Pay out on the hook and crown Ted and away to war we go again. it's the old firm boys it's the old firm….’

black and white photograph of army truck

Driver's windscreen removed for visibility

black and white photograph of military car

Two bombs in one hole near a staff car

black and white photograph of overturned army truk

Destruction of Workshops' store lorry —page 90

black and white photograph of army trucks and crowd

Retreat through Athens
‘When they waved to us’ —page 90

page 113

The Crown and Anchor kings were reaping a golden harvest. Needing no equipment beyond lungs of brass, a heart the size of a pea, and the conscience of a hermit crab, they had been making a good thing out of the Army ever since the first day of the war and they intended to go on making a good thing out of it as long as the good Lord gave them health and strength. They knew all the dodges. Not for them parades and fatigues. Not for them the discomforts and limitations of the field.

For a while they were untroubled by competition and there were enough suckers to go round. Soon, however, a large number of outsiders, among whom were members of the Ammunition Company, succumbed to the lure of quick riches. They pooled their resources and set up in business on their own, and it was not long before a table shortage developed. The result was a new racket: table-broking. At auction a table would fetch anything from 15 to 30 shillings.

The authorities probably had a fair idea of what was going on, and almost nightly there were raids, but warning was given by a corps of highly-paid scouts (‘OK, boys. Wrap her up. Officer of the picket.’) and arrests were uncommon.

Everything went smoothly for about a month—too smoothly, for by then most of the suckers in Helwan had no money left and those who still had a few pounds were patronising the tables that offered the biggest bonuses and provided the most free beer and cigarettes. Overheads bounded as profits dwindled, and only the hermit crabs, drawing on their vast resources, were able to continue in business. The small men withdrew hurriedly, licking their financial wounds. A few of our drivers—those who had not lingered too long—had done well, and others had made money as punters, but the majority had gained nothing but experience.

The craze passed, or at least abated considerably, and remittances arrived from New Zealand to restore our finances and enable us to take advantage of the fortnight's leave due to us.

page 114

Most of us spent at least a week of it in the Holy Land. Jerusalem we found impressive but puzzling. An atmosphere of sorrow undoubtedly pervaded the place—the very stones, massive and brooding, seemed to exhale it—but an atmosphere of sanctity was not always perceptible. Money-changers were abroad in the temple, and a brisk traffic in German and Japanese hardware was being carried on in the Via Dolorosa, which was cluttered with squalid shops. The organised tours, too, though cheap and instructive, were placed so solidly on a commercial basis and the guides rattled through them with so much glibness and cheapjack assurance that it was really inevitable that an Australian soldier, a little the worse for drink, should interrupt the lay brother who was lecturing a party of us in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem (possibly the most sacred spot in Christendom) by tapping him smartly on the shoulder and remarking, obviously with no wish to offend: ‘You're all to hell, George. Where's them bloody bulrushes?’

Tel Aviv was different. Here there was no need for reverence, real or assumed. All you were expected to do was indulge your appetites as often and as expensively as possible. Every taste was catered for and a little unorthodoxy was not frowned on.

For our second week's leave most of us went no farther than Cairo, choosing to spend a restful holiday at the New Royal or at one of the other pensions established for British troops. In these it was possible—indeed, you were expected and encouraged—to lie at ease in bed during the greater part of the morning and drink American canned beer. Nothing we did or left undone could surprise the Achmeds and Mahomets. Their cynical and amused tolerance (which, we should have said, was our attitude towards them) was proof against everything.

Thus the end of May and the first weeks of June.

Naturally we had little time in which to concern ourselves with the march of events, and perhaps it was as well, for a full knowledge of their course might have caused us to break out in a cold sweat. On a June weekend the Axis gained a decisive victory in a tank battle in the Sollum area and after that Egypt lay wide open. But for our still holding Tobruk, in which more than a division page 115 was bottled up, Rommel would probably have followed up this success. As it was, his dislike of a threatened flank stood us in good stead, though Tobruk (like Malta) was living from hand to mouth and holding only from day to day.

Not that there was nothing, or even little, on the credit side. A brilliant campaign in Abyssinia had ended in the surrender of the Duke of Aosta and his army at Amba Alagi, and in Syria (if there is anything creditable to anyone in fratricide) the struggle between French on the one hand and French and British on the other was being brought to a successful conclusion. Best of all tanks, guns, and aircraft had begun to arrive from Britain in a steady stream.

But no one could dispute that Germany held most of the cards or that it was her play. Trumps were still panzers and she could be relied on to lead trumps. On 22 June she attacked Russia.

Our first reaction towards this stupendous event was probably the common one: Britain had not so much gained an ally as lost a potential foe. It was the end of a nightmare and once again the old simple solution that had appealed to so many of us at the time of Munich seemed a possibility: let the two serpents swallow each other's tails. But the red serpent, said the military experts, was incapable of swallowing anything. They doubted if she could hold out for more than a few months. Hitler gave her a few weeks and for a while his optimism seemed justified. No matter—we had been reprieved.

Late in June we moved to the Mahfouz area, the hottest and sandisest place in Helwan. Formerly we had been on high ground; now we were in a kind of basin to which no breath of wind ever penetrated.

The move to the new area marked the division between a life of comparative indulgence and a more rigorous ordering of our days. Well, that suited us. We had enjoyed our leave and we had spent our money. Now was the moment for the hermit crabs to take their bulging pocket-books to Tel Aviv and for us to look forward. For a while there had been a tendency in our unit—it may not have been so in others—to speak of the Division as though it were finished as a fighting force and of ourselves as battered page 116 knights who would never again enter the lists. (‘The old Div, Dig, she's been cut to pieces.’) That was all done with now and we were as keen as ever.

The violent catharsis effected by Tel Aviv, Cairo, and the Helwan NAAFIs had left us a trifle flabby physically and spiritually, but that was changed, too, and it was not long before Major McGuire was able to march us from Helwan to Maadi in record time. We rose at dawn for a period of physical training and until midday we were busy with infantry drill, weapon training, and route marches, after which it was too hot to do anything except lie sweating on one's bed.

It was not a programme of absorbing interest and anything that presaged action—the arrival, for instance, of forty-eight reinforcements—was welcomed eagerly. ‘When will we get our new vehicles?’ was the most canvassed question. Most of us had not touched a steering wheel since our arrival at Helwan and we were pining to get our hands greasy again.

The lorries arrived early in August. We collected them from Abbassia and we sang as we drove them home. They were new four-wheel drive Chevrolets and they were as good as the Bedfords —better in some ways. They were easy to handle in soft sand, their cabs gave good vision, and they were well equipped with tools. We stood round them and discussed their points.

From then on we were unable to take the slightest interest in route marches and training programmes. Drivers to whom vehicles had been allotted were distinguishable from the rest by their habit of strolling through the vehicle park at odd hours as a farmer strolls down to the paddock to inspect his new Jerseys. The unlucky ones—whenever the unit was at full strength we had plenty of spare men—were hard put to it to conceal their disappointment. ‘A loader's job'll do me, boy. You can have your stinking trucks. But I don't know what come over old “Dad” giving one to what's-his-name.’

A chance to test the new Chevrolets came later in the month, when first C Section, then A Section, then B Section, took part in a 36-hour desert exercise in the Mena-Fayoum area. These were only short trips but it was like old times to pull out of camp at 50-yard intervals, nod to the transport sergeant as he waved you past, and know that your tanks were full of petrol and your tucker page 117 box of rations and that your bedroll was bouncing around in the back. The lorries fulfilled all our expectations but it was not until the end of August, when A Section returned after ten days at Suez, that we realised how good they were. The section had been delivering troops and supplies to camps in the Canal zone and had covered over 33,000 miles. Complaints: one faulty generator.

September came and soon we were preparing for a move. The attendance at the morning sick parades dropped sharply and drivers who had been nursing desert sores with the assiduity of professional beggars began to pester ‘Doc’ Turner1 for more effective unguents. No one wanted to stay in Helwan. We had had enough, and more than enough, of Cairo, Crown and Anchor, check parades, zibbib, and all the other ingredients of Base life. We thought nostalgically of long drives over desert tracks, meals round the cooks’ lorries, bathes in the Mediterranean, evenings round our new wireless sets, cool desert nights.

We had it all worked out—a season in the desert, a race to Tripoli, back to Cairo with money in our pockets, a week's leave, and then—why not?—New Zealand. The Wehrmacht had slowed down in Russia and even the old oil story had taken on a new lease of life. If the opinion of the Oxford Institute of Statistics was worth anything the Germans would do well to go very steadily with those tanks and trucks.

On 16 September, after collecting our second-line holding of ammunition and filling our lorries with enough petrol for a satisfyingly long journey, we left Helwan. Two days later we were at Fuka, half-way between El Daba and Mersa Matruh.2

The new area was ideal. Headquarters and Workshops were on the beach—the drivers could jump straight out of bed into the Mediterranean—and the sections were parked near the main road. As it seemed likely that we should be there for some time we set to work to make ourselves comfortable. Those who had no lorries to live in built dugouts and each section established a wet canteen, Workshops contriving a charming little tavern at the end of the untidy straggle of dugouts and bivouacs that was, so to speak, our page 118 main street—our seafront. It looked out across the Mediterranean and in many ways it resembled those tiny taprooms that are to be found on the coasts of Devonshire and Dorset. Many were the pleasant evenings spent there by the Workshops' drivers and their visitors, and the rafters (it had rafters—yes, and settles too, cut in the sand) rang to many a good song. In units such as ours, sections, like people, come suddenly into social prominence and have their hour. The time at Fuka belonged to the Workshops' drivers. It was, you might say, their coming out. We realised all of a sudden their tremendous capacity for squeezing the last drop of enjoyment out of Army life. When there was work to be done they worked hard and to the business of enjoying themselves they brought the same keenness. Theirs were the merriest parties, the happiest homes, the liveliest adventures. At Fuka, for instance, they built themselves a raft—a crazy, delightful contraption with an old canvas bivouac for a sail—and from this they fished and bathed morning, noon, and night.

But it was not all holidav for Workshops—nor for the rest of us. We worked for the New Zealand brigades and we played our part in building up the desert supply dumps for the coming offensive. No one had told us, of course, that an offensive was in preparation, but we could read the signs: hundreds of square miles covered with stacks of ammunition, petrol, and food: camps springing up everywhere: convoys of guns and lorries. The desert railway was being pushed forward as well and we had a finger in that pie. For over seven weeks the drivers of No. 1 sub-section carted sleepers and rails for the New Zealand Railway Construction Companies, earning praise for their work.

The Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica were not indifferent to all this activity but there was little they could do about it. The desert allows unlimited room for dispersal and the Royal Air Force of autumn 1941 was a very different proposition from that of autumn 1940. Where we had seen old Bombays and biplane Gladiators we now saw Hurricanes, Blenheims, Wellingtons, and Beaufighters, and the American Marylands, Tomahawks, Bostons, Brewsters, and Kittyhawks.

Our drivers saw little of the Luftwaffe except on one memorable occasion when an ammunition train in the Fuka railway yards was hit. Sand trickled from dugout walls and the ground quivered page 119 under us—it was as though the revolving globe had run a ‘big end.’

It was our only excitement at Fuka and we made the most of it.

The autumn days slipped past pleasantly and quietly and soon we were well into November. The desert was cold at night now and the Mediterranean was cooling too, though it was still speckled with bathers on sunny afternoons and Workshops' crazy raft still flopped up and down on it.

There had been very few changes. Major McGuire had left us for Headquarters Base NZASC and his place had been taken by Major P. E. Coutts3 whom B Section had known as a lieutenant.4 There had been a fuss in Company headquarters over some lost binoculars, our unit number had been changed from 24 to 69, and eight picked NCOs had been sent to OCTU.

What else had occurred? Nothing much—only a few slow processes. During the past six weeks our lorries had been run in completely and the same could be said of our unit. After the campaign in Greece new parts had been needed and old ones had required patching. Naturally there had been friction at first, but now the machine was running smoothly again and you had to have a good ear to hear a squeak or a groan. Our drivers of the 4th and 5th Reinforcements were no longer ‘those new jokers’: they were Dave and ‘Old Baldy’ and sometimes—not often—‘that bastard what's-his-name’. With the unit, as with the lorries, most of the running in had been done at Fuka. A wink in the bar of the page 120 New Zealand Forces Club or a nod across the tables in the Sweet Melody, a shared grumble on a route march and then home again to your respective tents and friends—that got you somewhere. But sharing the same wave in the Mediterranean or a tin of oysters in the back of the same lorry, or driving for long hours in the same cab—that got you further.

We still cursed and grumbled, blackguarding our officers and any NCOs who were outstandingly conscientious, but we did it almost without malice and almost without meaning to. Of the squeaks of genuine distress, the hammering of round pegs in square holes, the chafing of loose parts, there remained only that irreducible minimum one finds even in hand-made machines and in hand-picked companies, and our lorries were certainly not the one nor was our unit the other. In short, we were run in. So something had happened—something quite important.

The autumn days slipped by and past our area moved new guns, new tanks, new troops, new lorries. We watched them and we knew the hour was at hand. Well, it had been a long time, but doubtless that time had been well spent. Evidently this new army they were talking about—and this new commander, General Auchinleck5—intended to make a bird of it. And a good thing too. Old Jerry certainly had it coming to him.

We watched the new tanks—Valentines, Crusaders, and American General Stuarts—going past in the golden dust.

‘Valentines, eh? Two-pounder gun?’

‘Valentines me —-. Matildas! Look at the armour.’

‘Well anyway, lend us your bike, “Broady”, to go down to “Cocky's”.’

‘Mind old Percy doesn't see you.’

During the second week of November we were told to prepare our vehicles for large-scale desert manœuvres. ‘Manœuvres me —-!’ we said, echoing ‘Broady’ on the subject of Valentines. We knew better.

At 2.20 p.m., 13 November, we pulled on to the main road, heading west.

page break
colour map of Cyrenaica and Egypt


1 Cpl C. R. Turner, m.i.d.; storeman; Otahuhu; born Ti Tree Point, Hawke's Bay, 7 Jun 1900.

2 Not all of us, though. C Section was attached to the 5th Brigade Group at this time and did not join us at Fuka until early in October, when the brigade moved to Baggush.

3 Maj P. E. Coutts, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; salesman; Auckland; born Auckland, 4 Dec 1903; OC 1 Amn Coy 4 Oct 1941-26 Jan 1943 and 2 Feb-6 Oct 1945; OC 18 Tk Tptr Coy Jan 1943-31 Mar 1944.

4 The chief appointments on 9 November were: Company headquarters, Maj Coutts (posted 3 Oct 41), Capt S. A. Sampson (second-in-command), 2 Lt K. E. May (posted 28 Jun 41), Capt H. S. Jones (artillery officer attached), 2 Lt O. W. Hill (attached 24 Nov 41), WO II Dillon; A Section, Capt R. C. Gibson, 2 Lt J. M. Fitzgerald (posted 3 Sep 41); B Section, Capt D. C. Ward (posted 3 Sep 41), 2 Lt A. M. W. West-Watson (posted 18 Oct 41); C Section,* 2 Lt (T-Capt) F. G. Butt (posted 31 Mar 41), 2 Lt W. S. Duke (posted 1 Nov 41); Workshops, 2 Lt (T-Capt) A. G. Morris (posted 10 Sep 41).

The following had left us: Maj McGuire (posted to HQ Base NZASC, 3 Sep 41), Capt Moon (posted to Supply Column, 26 Aug 41), Capt Torbet (posted to Petrol Company, 25 Jun 41), Lt Aitken (posted to Base Training Depot, 28 Oct 41) and 2 Lt Toogood (posted to HQ NZASC, 3 Sep 41).

* Lt Fenton was detached from the unit at this time and on 14 November he was posted to the newly-formed 6th Reserve MT Company.

5 General Sir Claude Auchinleck had succeeded General Wavell as C-in-C MEF on 5 July, and on 26 September the Eighth Army, which consisted of two main groups (30th Corps and 13th Corps), had been formed under Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham. The New Zealand Division had come under the command of 13th Corps a fortnight earlier.