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Divisional Cavalry

CHAPTER 4 — The Regiment United

page 44

The Regiment United

Helwan camp was on the same plateau as Maadi Camp, on the east side of the Nile and about ten miles farther south, that is about twenty miles from Cairo. When the troops arrived there back from the desert they raised their favourite grouse about being the unfortunates who always had to break in the new camps for others to enjoy. But all the same they were well pleased to be there and looked forward to a period in a base camp with its prospects of leave at nights, its more regular routine, the inevitable reunions, and a hundred and one other pleasures that had been denied them for six months.

No man could hide his pleasure when he saw the quarters that were waiting for him. For the first time in the regiment's experience the men were accommodated in wooden huts. At first, as their huts had not been completed, the officers were in tents but they moved in as their quarters became available.

Then came another pleasure: the issue of battledress and berets. It seems strange now to realise that well over a year of the war had passed before some of the troops actually saw battledress. The issue was welcome to the men, who had worn nothing but khaki drill with jerseys right through the cold part of the year. The first occasion on which the regiment wore battledress was for church parade on 18 January. The berets were issued not as official headgear, but with instructions that they were only to be worn to keep grease and dust out of the hair during maintenance or whilst driving in the desert. But it was a foregone conclusion that they were soon to become the headgear of the Div Cav, and indeed its distinguishing mark in the Division. Nostalgia over the old slouch hats was gone for ever.

Within a day or so a training syllabus was drawn up. Leave into Cairo was once again a daily feature. Men were allowed to draw their cameras, base kits were issued, and once again routine settled down to that of a base camp.

During December the Reinforcement Depot had been split up. Part of this had been formed into the Composite Training Battalion which carried reinforcements and training cadres for the Div Cav, Engineers and Signals. Major H. G. Carruth had page 45 been seconded as its OC. The regiment sent down a cadre of some fifteen other ranks and, in their places, the first members of the regiment to come back from the LRDG were marched in.

At the same time there came happy news from the LRDG. It had fought the action at Ain Dua and two of the Div Cav men in the unit had been decorated: Lieutenant J. H. Sutherland, MC, and Trooper L. A. Willcox, MM.1 These men earned the first decorations in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. But with this news also came some of a sterner kind. There had been losses. In the attack on Kufra Corporal Beech2 had been killed, Lance-Corporals Roderick3 and Adams4 taken prisoner, and Trooper Moore5 reported missing, believed killed in action. He was later reported safe when, great optimist that he is, he was picked up marching steadily towards Tekro, some 300 miles away. The whole regiment was delighted to hear that he was granted the DCM for this feat.

Much of the training in the six weeks before what turned out to be the Greek campaign was designed in such a way as to draw the maximum enthusiasm from the men. The regimental sports were held on 23 January. Apart from the usual field events, there were driving competitions which turned the day into quite an exciting gymkhana and which contributed handsomely towards increasing the drivers' skill in handling their vehicles.

As the war in the Western Desert now appeared to be over, training tended more towards operations in European conditions. With this type of warfare in view it was necessary to train troops, especially those who would not be able to rely on heavy bridging equipment, to cross rivers. Such exercises, in the joint interests of security and recreation, were disguised as competitions and proved to be full of fun. They were conducted both by day and by night. A backwater of the Nile was chosen which had a high bank that made an excellent grandstand and a list of races was drawn up. The small ‘recce’ boats that were used for canoe races supplied thrills for both competitors and page 46 onlookers alike, since they were inclined to be treacherous when being boarded. There were furious races in the big pontoons, and the men were practised in embarking their AFVs and paddling them across. Other units were doing the same thing and, as a climax, a divisional regatta was held in which the regiment competed with a certain amount of distinction.

The Divisional Cavalry also went out on an exercise in the El Saff area. This time they were to act, in conjunction with 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, as an enemy for 6 Infantry Brigade. The exercise served also to train them in rapid night movement across the desert, and in delaying action against superior but less mobile forces. All this entailed much movement and work and little sleep. The war diary of 30 January reads: ‘… all vehicles experienced great difficulty in climbing out of Wadi Hai as the sand was very soft and, as the enemy were getting close, a lot of hard work was crammed into a short time….’ But the wheeled vehicles did not have all the difficulties for the diary goes on: ‘… it was a hectic night…. the A.F.V. crews also found many obstacles some of which they charged through and some of which they fell into.’ That, the writer thinks, refers to an Arab graveyard; but perhaps the less said about it the better.

By the middle of February it could be guessed that something was afoot for the New Zealand Division. It was at last preparing to go into action. The regiment's establishment, less C Squadron, was made up to full strength on 19 February with a large intake from the Composite Training Battalion. The next week the regiment received advice that instead of its establishment of light tanks it was to be issued with armoured cars, and the following day a number of Marmon-Herrington cars was available for delivery, together with enough Bren carriers to complete the establishment.

The old training tanks, of which eight, mirabile dictu, were still in going order, were driven down to Maadi and handed over to the Composite Battalion, and work was begun preparing the new vehicles for action. Weapons and wireless sets had to be fitted, and as each crew was to be self supporting, there were many problems concerning the stowing of bedding and rations whilst not impairing the fighting efficiency of the vehicles. Some of the senior officers paid a visit to the headquarters of 11 Hussars at Abbassia, who were equipped with armoured cars and who helped considerably with suggestions from their own experience in action.

page 47

At the RAC6 School at Abbassia several films were shown to members of the regiment. The nature of these might have given some indication of the intended destination of the Division, but nobody guessed. There were films on ‘The Infantry Company in a Defensive Position’, ‘How Prisoners of War are Questioned’, and ‘Methods of Extracting a Bogged Vehicle’. A very appropriate day was chosen to show this last film, for during the previous night there had been an exceptionally heavy fall of rain which had tried the roofs of the huts to well past their limits, and the scenes inside the huts had been reminiscent of Ngaruawahia days when everybody kept a groundsheet handy.

It would perhaps be wise at this juncture to outline the establishment of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. It consisted of three fighting squadrons, each of some 110 men, and a Headquarters squadron of about 140, all under a Regimental Headquarters.

Up until now the Divisional Cavalry had formed and trained as two separate entities, but C Squadron after nearly eighteen months had finally arrived. Until that day the only man who knew the whole of the regiment well, indeed, who did not regard C Squadron as some sort of a myth, was the General himself. So 5 March, the day that C Squadron turned up at Helwan, was a red-letter day—the regiment was at last united under one command.

Naturally it took some time for the men to get to know each other and to make new friendships, and many a tale was told and retold. The ‘Desert Languishers’, who up to this time had not actually seen an enemy, learned with envy how the ‘Cook's Tourists’, even if they had not been actually engaged, had at least smelt powder; while they on their part, who had spent all this time under the temperate skies of England, were now only too eager to take up and wear ‘the shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun’ of Africa. All were now tingling with excitement and anticipation that, at long last, they were all going into the real thing—and going in together.

When C Squadron turned up it had some difficulty in getting its equipment unloaded before the regiment moved to the assembly area at Amiriya and Major Nicoll had to make a fast trip to Suez on 12 March to hurry things along.

The Divisional Cavalry was due to sail to Greece (although they did not then know their destination) with the fourth page 48 flight, so by the time all the new equipment had been issued and the regiment was ready to move from Helwan, many units were already there. The regiment left Helwan on the morning of 13 March, the carriers with crews going by rail from Helwan station and the balance by road convoy.

The Western Desert, at any time notoriously temperamental, seemed to have worked up a full-sized hate at this persistent intrusion of its domains from which, only a couple of months earlier, it had staged a punishing and painful send-off. Once again the desert turned on a sandstorm such as happily is seldom found outside these regions. The dry, scorching wind swept in vicious gusts of incredible violence to carry enormous quantities of sand which permeated everything. Visibility was reduced to nil and everything had to stop. There were, in fact, instances of men actually getting lost in moving from one vehicle to another. Once again the DRs had to suffer most of all and only twelve of them managed to arrive with the main party. The remainder practically all experienced the same breakdown: sand forced itself into the carburettor slides, jamming them, and the machines had to be picked up by the LAD. At the height of the storm the water cart ran off the road and capsized, injuring one man who had to be sent to hospital.

Another wretched trick the sandstorm played was on the armoured cars. The myriads of bone-dry particles of sand, so our scientists told us, constantly bombarding the steel sides of the vehicles gradually built up within them an extremely high electric charge. The cars, insulated from the ground by their rubber tyres, acted as huge condensers and stored this charge. The crews inside were of course unaffected, but there was a case where one man walked up and touched a car, which immediately released its charge, knocking him flat on his back. This storm persisted continuously for two days and only abated by the time the vehicles began to marshal for loading on board ships.

At Amiriya there was a Naafi tent next door to the RHQ area. These establishments were staffed by members of the local population especially selected for their intelligence and integrity. This Naafi did enormous trade for a while, but during the evening of 15 March it caught fire. This was neither the first nor the only time a Naafi tent was burned down. By coincidence other Naafis have suffered the same fate; and by coincidence, this usually happened while troops were moving out of the area; and, strongest coincidence of all, they were always de- page 49 stroyed whilst holding much money. It is a consoling thought, however, that the staff, sleeping right against the seat of the fire, always managed to save themselves and every stitch of their personal gear. But the cash was invariably destroyed. The nearest unit would be blamed and there the matter would rest. But what will you? C'est la guerre!

At this stage nobody was interested enough to ponder over the destruction of a mere tent. In everybody's minds and on their lips was speculation on where they were bound. Rumours from the most authentic and ‘confidential’ sources followed one another in rapid sequence of complete contradiction, though, as usual, the correct one was the last and outlived all others.

The vehicles were loaded by 16 March and the personnel of the regiment were warned to be on the train at Ikingi Maryut by 2 a.m. on the 18th. They arrived in the Alexandria docks at 4.30 a.m. and embarked on the Greek ship Ionia, which was also carrying the Australian 2/1 Battalion. By 3.30 p.m. they were at sea.

Once on the water, sealed orders were opened and a message was read from the General to all ranks. This message confirmed the last of the rumours. The regiment was on its way to Greece.

The principal appointments were as follows:

Commanding Officer Lt-Col H. G. Carruth
Second-in-Command Maj A. J. Nicoll
Adjutant Capt W. R. Pigou
OC A Squadron Maj J. F. Potter
Second-in-Command Capt J. R. S. Sealy
OC B Squadron Maj J. T. Russell
Second-in-Command Capt F. W. Horton
OC C Squadron Maj E. R. Harford
Second-in-Command Capt I. L. Bonifant
OC HQ Squadron Capt T. C. Wallace
Medical Officer Lt E. Stevenson-Wright, NZMC
Padre Rev. H. G. Taylor, CF

* * * * *

The Divisional Cavalry left behind it one broken heart. It was now, with its owner, back in New Zealand. Lieutenant- Colonel C. J. Pierce, MC, was a dying man and his beloved regiment was going to battle without him.

He must have known of his illness for a long time and kept it concealed. It is now obvious that, during the latter half of page 50 1940, he was in constant pain and this must have been aggravated because his malady prevented him from eating much of the hard rations that were issued at the time. All this he suffered stoically and silently. His ‘boys’, noting his frequent visits to Alexandria, used to declare silently that he had some attraction there. He had—the treatment that he was secretly taking. In those desert days, too, he found constant excuse to be off towards the fighting. He was looking for a job for his regiment so that perhaps he could get the chance to end his days the way he wanted: as a fighting man.

Charlie Pierce moulded his command with his own strong character. After his day, many men passed into the ranks of the Div Cav. They all knew the atmosphere of the regiment. Many wondered what it was: it was the spirit of Charlie Pierce. A later medical report on the regiment—part of the MO's routine—says in one place: ‘There has never been any question as to the morale of the 2 NZ Div Cav Regiment. A lengthy story could be told of those who have carried on in the field with wounds, injuries, and diseases ordinarily justifying evacuation.’ A man is like his master. Every trooper lived in constant dread of the humiliation of ‘going back to Base’. That dread they inherited from their first CO.

But time betrayed the man. His ailment became outwardly manifest. He was sent to hospital, and two days later the stunned regiment received the news that he was seriously ill and would be flown back to New Zealand.

There were few of the men who stood on parade listening to such bleak news whose minds did not travel back to his first parade in Ngaruawahia and remember the startled surprise with which they heard the rough, invisible voice—for Charlie was a short man—which roared in one breath: ‘Regiment-will- advance-in-col'mn-o'-route-from-the-right-Headquarters-Squadron leading-QUICK-MARCH!’

His envious and almost tearful farewell to the trooper whom he met in the streets of Helwan on the day of his departure— the very day that his regiment was up to full strength for the first time—typified the spirit which he instilled in it for all its life:

‘I'll be back, boy. I'll be back even if they'll only give me the YMCA car to drive.’

Such was Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Pierce: God rest his soul.

1 Sgt L. A. Willcox, MM; Wanganui; born Hawera, 25 Aug 1918; sawmill hand; wounded 19 Sep 1942.

2 Cpl F. R. Beech, m.i.d.; born Picton, 24 Jul 1908; radio engineer; killed in action 31 Jan 1941.

3 L-Cpl L. Roderick; born Gisborne, 19 Feb 1913; linesman; p.w. 31 Jan 1941; killed in action, Italy, 6 Apr 1944.

4 L-Cpl W. R. Adams; Whangarei; born Auckland, 1 Aug 1918; salesman; p.w. 31 Jan 1941.

5 Sgt R. J. Moore, DCM, m.i.d.; Morrinsville; born Te Aroha, 10 Sep 1915; farmhand; twice wounded.