4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
And when we drove old Rommel from the Alamein Line
Winnie cabled us and said ‘You're doing fine,’
But Monty said ‘We'll go right on to Tripoli,
‘And the quickest way to get there's by the RMT’.
Another verse to RMT's old ‘Steamboat Bill’ song.
THE hunt was on. Hard after the enemy they swept, through the smoking wreckage of Alamein, past bands of prisoners escorted or carrying white flags, and inland south of the coastal road, where men had yelled not long ago: ‘You're going the wrong way, chum!’ Keen drivers and engines in tip-top condition (Workshops had seen to that before the breakthrough) gave of their best. It was good, this pursuing and hunting at last.
But the breakthrough had taken eleven bloody days. On the night of 23-24 October the New Zealand Division had stormed and won Miteiriya Ridge. All along the front Eighth Army's infantry had advanced about four miles, but the Axis defences had sprawled deeper than this. British armour still had been unable to break out to the west. For a week Eighth Army had bored in, dug in, held on. Four nights after seizing Miteiriya Ridge the New Zealand Division had been withdrawn. The RMT men, some under stray fire, had collected the battalions and watched, fascinated, ant-like recovery units dragging back crippled tanks in the night. With no breakthrough at Miteiriya, an immense push two to three miles further north had been planned. This attack, controlled by New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, had been called Operation SUPERCHARGE. Four British Brigades—151 and 152 Infantry Brigades, 9 and 23 Armoured Brigades—and the indomitable Maori Battalion, supported by an even heavier artillery barrage, had determinedly pushed forward on 2 November, while along the entire front the enemy had fired back page 221 about 500 tons of ammunition. A tank battle at Tell el Aqqaqir was decisive, and next day, 3 November, despite the Fuehrer's orders to hold on,1 the enemy withdrawal had begun.
By the afternoon of 4 November the New Zealand Division, steel-tipped with armour, was after him, every driver fully extended for most of the ensuing night. The afternoon and the night boiled with traffic. Every 700 yards MPs marked the trail with petrol tins, each with a diamond cut from a side and a storm lantern placed within. These signs, replaced from Bardia onwards by ready-made diamond-shaped signs fastened to an iron stake, would be ripped up and planted again, time after time, along the 1400 miles from Alamein to Tripoli. Past the first signs of this tremendous trail rolled the RMT's three-tonners, the riflemen packed behind.2
On they went, 4 RMT pulling up with 5 Brigade after midnight, having covered about 20 miles to bring them south of a Daba aflame with demolitions and the Desert Air Force's poundings. Rough travelling over the inland desert had strung out the brigade. As it reformed in the dark an enemy party in trucks struck at the New Zealand vehicles towards the rear. Right in the way were 1 and 4 Platoons of 4 RMT. Sergeant-Major Jack Calvin3 saw tracer rip a canopy, and heard an angry driver cry out to his infantry passengers behind: ‘You know you jokers aren't allowed to fix bayonets under a canopy!’ Out jumped the infantry to help beat off the hour-long attack. In the brisk engagement Driver Ashton4 was fatally wounded and Lance-Sergeant Ford showed great coolness in bringing the dead driver back under heavy fire. Driver Roddick5 received a shrapnel wound over an eye. Corporal Riordan,6 page 222 page 223 driving the truck, went off for medical aid. An ammunition truck caught fire and lit up the area. No. 4 Platoon's 23 Battalion passengers suffered the most, with six riflemen killed and 19 wounded. Two RMT men, Drivers Paris7 and Chamberlain,8 were captured for a few hours, and a couple of riddled lorries were temporarily abandoned, the other belonging to Drivers Dave Jefcoate9 and Norman East.10 Eight tires were punctured, a serious business because the platoon had only seven spares. Luckily a search among derelict vehicles gathered enough replacements.
Some twenty-four hours later 6 RMT also saw action when an enemy column plunged towards 6 Brigade. No. 2 Platoon had a grandstand view of 26 Battalion's two-pounders in action. Some 600 prisoners were rounded up.
Before dawn on 5 November Charlie Lee11 and Reg Wolfe were ordered to find and salvage valuable radio equipment from a 10-ton wireless control vehicle which had broken down. In an all-day hunt over a hundred miles Charlie, helped by Mr Blair,12 of the Church Army, found the vehicle at last. Reg, out of the picture, remained looking after the Church Army's faulty vehicle which was being towed along in the general advance.
Zigzagging over the desert to find the precious truck, Charlie and Mr Blair kept running into little groups of stranded and bewildered enemy troops. Some, still full of fight, opened fire on the three-tonner. Charlie drove his best this day, especially when an anti-tank gun got him in its sights. Later he turned the tables. A party of about 130 Italians spotted the New Zealand truck, but their flight ended when the RMT man circled them and threatened them with a spandau. They surrendered and, after searching them for hidden weapons, page 224 Lee ordered them off towards British vehicles on the horizon. ‘As a parting gesture I tossed a tin of bully beef among them and you should have seen them head off for the home stakes. They thought it was going to explode.’
Finding the truck, which had been salvaged already, the two bedded down for Guy Fawkes’ Night,13 which the RMT workshops and other NZASC units, camped past the Alamein station, celebrated with carefree flares and tracer until enemy bombers arrived. Just before dawn a shadowy figure began prowling round the lonely truck. Waking with a start Lee bailed up a German paratrooper, ‘aged 21, a shifty-eyed rooster’, who had escaped from Daba. This captive was handed over later to MPs and, 131 prisoners to his credit, Lee rejoined 5 Brigade, now past Fuka and struggling with the Division through rain and mud over 22 laborious miles to Baggush.14
This rain, falling over two days and halting practically all Eighth Army transport, probably saved the Axis forces from annihilation. Where shells and mines had failed, the rain succeeded. While British wheels bogged down in the desert quagmires, German and Italian forces sped west over the bitumen road by the coast to a refuge beyond the border.
The Division, supposed to move on to Minqar Qaim, stayed put, cursing the mud and the storm clouds. But there was another side to the story. The 6th RMT drivers found their petrol tanks practically empty; their three battalions of 6 Brigade were stranded. The 4th RMT, holding enough petrol for another hundred miles, was in a better position. It had been on the job longer. The earlier experience was paying off now.
Fortunately the mud and the petrol shortage coincided. The Division had left Alamein carrying eight days’ water and rations and enough (in theory) oil and petrol for 200 miles, three-quarters of the way to the frontier. Once again the lesson of page 225 November 1941 was repeated. Slow movement over bad going, plus leakages from the detested flimsy petrol containers, had devoured the petrol ration to within just half that distance. A 200-vehicle column carrying water, petrol, oil, and supplies was on its way up from Alamein, but this group too had been delayed by mud and rain. Now in another role, further RMT men were coming to the Division's aid.
These men, with their three-tonners, had been withdrawn from the battalions before the breakthrough at Alamein. Spare RMT trucks had been caused by battalion casualties, few infantry reinforcements, and by battalions (especially the Maori Battalion) gradually picking up or ‘acquiring’ vehicles of their own. Through this, 30 surplus three-tonners from 4 RMT had been released from the battalions and were organised into a composite platoon under Captain Burt. A similar platoon had been formed in 6 RMT. Sometimes they carried ammunition, sometimes petrol.15 Loaded with petrol, the party under Burt left Alamein, struggled through slush past Alam el Halif, reached Baggush on 8 November, and joined the Petrol Company in issuing 50,652 gallons to the Division's parched motors. The 6 RMT Composite Platoon carried prisoners of war to Daba, where it loaded petrol and went forward to the Petrol Company. While petrol was being distributed among the Division, 4 Platoon 6 RMT, still with the Supply Company, helped issue water.
The advance now under way had enormously extended Eighth Army's supply services.
‘…. any advance would be into a desert, completely barren of any kind of resources beyond some rather indifferent water, and all supplies would have to come still from the same base,’ wrote General Alexander in his despatch of 5 February 1948. ‘This would mean that very large quantities of motor transport would be needed. In previous campaigns there had page 226 never been sufficient third-line transport to support a strong advance over a long distance. We were better off now and by August 1942 Eighth Army was provided with the equivalent of 46 General Transport Companies to carry stores, ammunition, petrol and water, and six tank transporter companies; seven more General Transport companies were held in reserve.16
…. in spite of all difficulties of geography and enemy demolitions, the provisions made were so ample and the problems so well appreciated that the rate of development of ports, roads, railways and pipeline nearly always exceeded estimates and we were never obliged to pause longer than had been calculated for lack of supplies, equipment or reinforcements.
… At that time the ports of the Middle East were handling 466,000 tons of military stores per month; 300,000 troops and half a million civilians were employed in all rear services and contracted labour represented about 1,500,000 more.’
While awaiting petrol at Baggush, men scraped off mud and dried out blankets and clothes soaked in the downpour over the last two days. Moving again, at first through mud which troubled two-wheel-drive vehicles particularly, drivers bivouacked south of a crumbling Matruh. On the way they glimpsed the old Minqar Qaim battlefield, and the talk went back to the other breakthrough, not led by armour and barrage but by highly vulnerable trucks. Then over the BBC came reports of American landings in French North Africa.
The 4th RMT drivers got in a good burst of 70 miles next day, 9 November, when they reached and pressed along the page 227 main road towards Sidi Barrani, while ahead and well inland British armoured cars entered Libya. The German Air Force, in one of its remarkably few sallies during the advance, struck briefly at part of the convoy in the afternoon. Driver Rountree17 was wounded and evacuated to hospital, to join other drivers (about a dozen) who on the way up had been knocked out by jaundice. Driver Rolfe, sprinting for cover, ran into three Germans, surrendered, changed his mind and, although threatened with a revolver, ran back to his truck, grabbed his rifle, and rounded up the trio.
No longer driving west, 6 RMT carried 6 Brigade's three battalions in to garrison Mersa Matruh. The switch was made because maintenance further on would be difficult. Mersa Matruh had been left in a filthy state by retreating Italians who seemed to have had not the remotest idea of hygiene. The 6th RMT drivers, compensated a little for insanitary conditions by masses of abandoned wines, food, and sweets, also saw with satisfaction ships bringing petrol and oil into the port.
Three hours after midnight 5 Brigade (by darkness compact in column of route, by daylight dispersed in desert formation) moved off towards the last of the resistance in Egypt. No. 3 Platoon broke away from the convoy in the morning of 10 November, carrying 21 Battalion to flush the small coastal town of Sidi Barrani. And flush it they did, 40 prisoners yielding without a fight. The riflemen returned to the lorries and to the brigade, except for one company which stayed behind on a three-day job clearing litter and booby traps and guarding an airfield. Ten drivers, with their vehicles, stayed with this company, lending a hand with pickets and tidying up.18
The rest of 21 Battalion drove forward, unaware of the ‘brilliant and important’ success it would score before next day's dawn. Crossing the desert south of Sidi Barrani, 4 RMT's old hands became reminiscent again. They had caught sight of the remains of the old Tummar camps, occupied by the Italians in 1940. Traffic was now streaming west, interfering page 228 seriously with the convoy's pace. No. 3 Platoon found ‘fast progress impossible’, while behind it 4 Platoon reported ‘convoy conditions very bad, speed excessive … four front springs broken’. Everyone knew the convoy was now hard on the heels of the enemy. The road and the roadside were littered with burning and burnt-out vehicles. Sometimes drivers had to swing their three-tonners off the road to avoid still-glowing wreckage. Ahead, to Tobruk and beyond, Desert Air Force planes seared the roadside with yet more destruction.
On until past midnight drove the 4 RMT sections, covering up to 81 miles, 3 Platoon, carrying 21 Battalion, pulling up six miles short of Halfaya Pass. Other units were strung out for miles along the road to the east. In no time drivers were sound asleep, but within three hours 3 Platoon was shaken awake and told to get moving smartly. A surprise attack on Halfaya Pass, six miles away, had to be rushed through before dawn. Within 15 minutes eight three-tonners were off, drivers wondering how the mere 110 men they were carrying could storm a pass which had held out successfully all day. The shadowy lorries passed through the sleeping army to the foot of the pass and unloaded the two 21 Battalion companies. The riflemen, greatcoats dumped, climbed out grasping sticky bombs, rifles and light machine guns. Without artillery, without mortars, without anti-tank guns, the slender force began to climb. ‘Good luck, boys. Kia Ora.’ And Halfaya Pass was cleared.
Some 5000 vehicles were in the vicinity, all waiting for the go-ahead on the one passable road up Halfaya, for Sollum Pass was well and truly blocked by demolitions. Halfaya Pass became chock-a-block. Painfully, with many a halt and with many a rueful glance at mines on the edge of the road, the brigade ground through and passed into Libya at last. It was 11 November—just one year after the Division had begun to leave Baggush for the second Libyan campaign. On the way drivers picked up the victors of the pass—108 now, for one rifleman had been killed and one wounded, astonishingly low casualties. The men were angry. Drivers heard how a treacherous party of prisoners had regained weapons and opened fire on the backs of the New Zealanders. Yet with only page 229 two casualties the night attackers had killed about seventy and captured 612. The enemy's divisional motto was ‘I am valiant unto death’.
Fifth Brigade camped and remained south of Bardia to rest and refit. Here it was joined on 22 November by 6 Brigade, freed from unloading work on shipping at Smugglers’ Cove and Matruh and also on trains, the first of which puffed through from Alexandria on 14 November.
On the day 5 Brigade crossed Halfaya Pass its vehicles received another 31,000-odd gallons of petrol. The two RMT composite platoons, along with Petrol Company, camping the night at the foot of the hopelessly congested pass, moved on with 34,020 gallons of petrol, considered enough to refuel the brigade on 12 November.
Egypt was free. Prisoners captured totalled 30,000, including nine generals. ‘There is some good hunting to be had further to the west … this time, having reached Benghazi and beyond, we shall not come back,’ said General Montgomery.
And throughout Britain the church bells rang.
They were very happy. They wouldn't have called the King their uncle, this detachment from 2 Platoon 4 RMT. They'd liberated a splendid supply of Italian plonk, and being back in old Libya again called for celebration. By tea-time the party was in magnificent form. Captain Burt, vexed, swept down and destroyed all he could see of the swag. But after dark the RMT men rushed up strategically concealed reinforcements, and the adventures of Samuel Hall and Poor Little Angeline were honoured in quavering song far into the night.
It was quite a different story a few miles away for most of 2 Platoon, attached to 22 Battalion at Sollum. Small flights of two or three planes had been coming in from the sea to straddle transport along the road. A stick of bombs falling in the platoon area injured Drivers Nielsen19 and Jaspers.20 Nielsen had to be evacuated to hospital, but Jaspers, after treatment, returned to duty. Then drivers turned east, Maadi-bound, page 230 taking their last trip with 22 Battalion, which was about to be reorganised into a motorised unit. The platoon returned with reinforcements—and two truckloads of mutton birds for the Maoris.
Yes, morale was good, with or without captured vino. In fact, ‘The field security section considered that relations between New Zealand troops and civilians encountered during the advance were amicable,’ writes one narrator. ‘As it happened, the troops met very few civilians….’
Once again 4 RMT ordered its Christmas dinner, five days earlier than last time, and this time with a great deal more assurance. When the BBC reported on 21 November the landing of a well-equipped New Zealand force in New Caledonia, 6th Reinforcement drivers, veterans of Samambula and Momi Bay, explained Pacific tactics and prospects.
Until the end of the month the company's job was carting petrol, landed by barge at Bardia, up to an even more battered (and insanitary) Tobruk, a trip of about seven and a hal hours each way, and helping NZASC units distribute petrol and water to the resting Division. The 6th RMT turned up from Matruh among 6 Brigade's 2700 men and 502 vehicles. They had covered about 170 miles in three days, and they camped at night not far from well remembered Conference Cairn. The composite platoons, which had put in good work at a critical time, were disbanded and the stray three-tonners attached to the medical units came back to the fold. Winter clothing and leather jerkins were issued, and between jobs drivers got busy on clearing away scrub and levelling patches of likely desert for football grounds. Soon the old familiar thud of bouncing and punted footballs began and the divisional Rugby competition got under way. The Maoris flattened 6 RMT's A team 15—o, but the B team triumphed 11—o over 26 Battalion. After a hard, exciting game 4 RMT beat 41 Anti-Aircraft Battery 9—o. The 4 RMT Association football team (from 4 Platoon, except for Sergeant Richards of 3 Platoon) beat 4 Field Regiment by one goal to nil in a hard, even game. The happy opening of the season—‘with the jerseys and the barracking mob you almost thought you were back home’— was rounded off by an issue of two bottles apiece of ‘Black page 231 Horse’, superb Canadian beer, in the evening. Later two travesties of teams, ‘Bardia Belles’ and ‘Halfaya Haughties’, scrambled happily about the field. Before the competition was interrupted (General Freyberg made it quite clear the finals would be played in Tripoli, and the sports gear would be carried along too), 4 RMT decisively licked 25 Battalion 14—3, and 6 RMT drew 3—3 with 4 Field Ambulance.
On the last day of the month a big transport job came up, sending an impressive host of 163 three-tonners (73 from 4 RMT, 90 from 6 RMT) to gather up 1 Royal Greek Brigade arriving by road and rail at Matruh. After a good deal of milling around and strange cries, 926 Greeks with their 95 tons of baggage were tucked aboard and taken to their destination near the New Zealand Division.
Now news circulated of a quick move coming up. Rommel had sped back 800 miles from Alamein to his old lair, the ‘impregnable’ salt marshes and soft sands at El Agheila, beyond which no British forces had yet passed. Once again the two RMT companies were shuffled,21 all surplus three-tonners going mainly to strengthen the Petrol Company. This time there would be no hold-up through petrol running out. Still, supply headaches were by no means over. Until Benghazi port was working properly, most of Eighth Army's necessities had to be carried forward 300 miles to the El Agheila front by truck from the railhead and from Tobruk. The railhead opened at Capuzzo on 20 November and reached Tobruk on 1 December. The first ships entered Tobruk and Benghazi four days after capture.
The whips were cracking on 4 December. With rations for five days plus petrol for 200 miles stowed away, drivers took their seats, switched on, revved up, and started off on the 350-mile advance over trackless, dull desert to El Haseiat, a barren reference point within striking distance of the enemy at El Agheila. Once gathered at El Haseiat, the Division would sweep further inland to play a secretive and key part in the capture of the El Agheila positions.page 232
New Zealand vehicles streamed far beyond the horizon. Along the trail blazed with diamond signs drove 6 Brigade, followed next day by 5 Brigade. This time each brigade travelled in three columns 150 yards apart, 15 vehicles to the mile, swaying along at a speed of ten miles in the hour. Both brigades got off promptly, for everyone knew that if any vehicle failed to start its driver, NCO, or officer would be on charge. This time if a vehicle broke down on the way it would return to its old position only when the convoy had halted—racing back into position was banned. And a good thing, too, for sometimes other trucks would tag helplessly and hopefully on to a truck hell-bent for its old position. This could cause an irritating knot of confusion right in the heart-of a convoy. Drivers were also told to keep their daytime positions at night, and not to close up in case bombers came over in the darkness.
Speed was very slow the first day. The trail was rough for most of the 69-mile journey along Trigh Capuzzo to the old battlefield areas. Trucks halted for the night near El Adem, where RMT detachments helped hand out petrol and supplies. The going improved next day, the lorries taking comfortably many flat, smooth wadis. Plenty of aircraft, RAF and American, dotted El Adem aerodrome. Wrecked tanks and other debris of defeat lay about Bir Hacheim, lost in action during the collapse in mid-1942. A good stretch of 111 miles (20 up on the previous day) brought drivers to the south of Msus, where the convoy turned southwards with the next sunrise. For a while it was very cold and raw, a wasted mist hanging over the desert. Near Saunnu vehicles formed column of route to cross small surrounding hills and gullies. In the afternoon, the day's mileage up to 69, the men rested, 340 miles covered from Capuzzo. Next day, 9 December, 5 Brigade joined 6 Brigade, eleven miles ahead, and the Division halted.22
Again RMT was called in to meet a petrol emergency.
This was the reason. Once under way the Division, completely isolated, would have to look after itself for about 300 miles. This called for enormous stocks of petrol. Helping the page 233 Petrol Company out of a jam, 100 troop-carrying vehicles briefly left their brigades, loaded from British stocks near Agedabia, came back to swell the Petrol Company's pool by 60,000 gallons, and returned to their riflemen. By the evening of 12 December everything on wheels in the New Zealand Division had enough petrol for 300 miles. In case this was not enough, the Petrol Company was to follow on with sufficient to carry the Division another 150 miles. The company finally left loaded with over 83,000 gallons.
Cookhouse at Burg el Arab, before Alamein
Parade at Alamein for General Montgomery
Watching the Alamein barrage by moonlight
Muddy going and a rainbow, south-west of Fuka
Bogged south of Daba
Over the top of Halfaya Pass
On the left hook south of El Agheila
Crossing the Sangro
The New Zealanders, 11,000-strong,23 were now in position, the approach march over, ready for the swing at the ‘impregnable’ El Agheila line. Full use was made of camouflage. The strict radio silence continued. And in the night drivers pricked up their ears at the solemn, faint grumble of artillery fire. The front was within 50 miles.
Swelling the force to about 3000 vehicles, 4 British Light Armoured Brigade, including the Royal Scots Greys with Sherman tanks, joined the Division, and on 13 December, just after dawn, the ‘left hook’ round the El Agheila positions began in strictest secrecy. Far to the south they would go, hoping not to be seen. The sands south of the line had been found passable after all. This was the hush-hush report of the Long Range Desert Group and a British armoured car patrol. Defying capture, the LRDG adventurers all the time during the Alamein battle were not only roving impudently south of the foe at El Agheila, but day by day were counting the enemy as he passed by on the road near Marble Arch.24 The armoured page 234 car patrol's favourable report, saying all would be well if bulldozers cleared certain bad sand drifts, had sent the Division from El Haseiat to sweep round this strongest natural fortress in all Libya.
All went well on 13 December. Rain, not too heavy, had laid the tell-tale dust, and low cloud helped the secrecy of the move. RMT vehicles, mostly in second and third gear, covered up to 93 miles, crossing on the way a spooky spot, an ideal Hollywood setting for a desert tragedy of enormous proportions: a barren sea of sand absolutely devoid of vegetation. It was just made for heaps of bleached bones. Parts of it were wet and spongy after the rain. Sometimes deep drifts lay in front and, despite the work of the bulldozing engineers, the going was hard for the RMT men. Hundreds of wheels carved deeper and deeper ruts in the fine sand. Here the three-tonners revved and lurched crazily, but drivers got through, using all their skill, patience, and hard-won experience. This time the rain had helped in parts by packing down and partly hardening some of the sand. Several RMT lorries foundered but were towed out without much difficulty.page 235
One spot in particular—Chrystal's Rift, named after the British armoured car patrol officer who had discovered this obstacle—was expected to give a great deal of trouble. Six miles broad, with steep to precipitous sides, the rift lay across the first day's route. The explorers had found no satisfactory way round this broad wadi. Approaching the rift the Division pulled into three columns, safely crossed at a narrow spot prepared by bulldozers, and with relief fanned out again in desert formation.
At night tired drivers learned they had taken the Division south of the enemy at last. With the moon appearing, the convoy reached the low limestone hills, some 15 miles of broken country. Travelling on firmer ground was less difficult and the three columns of vehicles swayed along a well-lit track. Toiling behind came the petrol-carrying trucks, hampered by freshly churned ruts and channels. The rougher the trail the more precious grew their loads, for the RMT troop-carriers this day averaged just under four miles to the gallon. Oil consumption, too, was very heavy.
Gradually a heavy fog peeled back next morning above a division spread out over perhaps as much as 60 miles. The day was interrupted by several halts. One reason behind this was the difficult business of issuing petrol for a further 100 miles. The New Zealand petrol trucks away behind at the rear had to push up through the Division to establish a petrol point towards the front. While they were doing this the Division also would be moving on a few miles further. The first of the petrol trucks, the detached 1 Platoon from 4 RMT, got through and began issuing petrol in the late afternoon, greatly to the relief of the Greys, whose tanks, impatiently awaiting petrol from their own delayed trucks, were stranded. Within 30 minutes the platoon had disposed of its 27,800 gallons (5 Infantry Brigade Group alone needed 17,000 gallons). Usually a three-tonner on a petrol job carried a load of about 620 gallons.
Later a platoon from the Petrol Company and the attached platoon from 6 RMT arrived to issue 18,300 gallons and 1000 gallons apiece. This brought the day's issue up to 47,100 gallons. The advance resumed until about midnight, 80 to 90 page 236 miles covered. On the way a petrol wagon caught fire, sending grotesque shadows leaping over the desert and lighting up the area like a beacon. As luck would have it the Divisional Administration Group (including Petrol and Supply Companies), now under Major Ian Stock, halted for 15 interminable minutes beside the furious blaze. Any aircraft about would have wreaked carnage among the supply trucks, packed and jammed nose-to-tail.
The ‘hook’ was now well and truly accomplished. The final move on 15 December took drivers to the coastal belt behind El Agheila. The plan was to seize the hilly ground overlooking the coastal road near Marble Arch, some 35 miles west of El Agheila, and to play hob with the enemy, trapping him or at least forcing him to abandon heavy equipment. But already the wily Rommel, his front under strong British attack, was abandoning the El Agheila position and hustling back for his next stand at Nofilia. The Afrika Korps alone remained holding the Marble Arch area.
Drivers headed towards Marble Arch. Many springs had broken, and after approaches to Brigade LAD and Ordnance and Field Park had drawn a blank, drivers had to carry on as best they could without replacements. A derelict Ford turned up; drivers and mechanics passing by pounced on it. The canopy bars went to a 4 Platoon truck in the free-for-all. Within 15 minutes even a locust would not have given the truck a second thought.
Finding the Marble Arch approaches strongly held, the New Zealand Division, still bent on outflanking, moved further west in the afternoon to a little beyond Bir el Merduma, just a jump ahead of an enemy force coming up to the same place. After dark General Freyberg ordered 6 Brigade north to cut the road while the rest of the Division held the inland flank. The administration group, including RMT drivers on petrol-carrying vehicles, was to get back well out of the way; and back it went, 20 miles in all, leaving the area clear. For now, in theory, the whole of the Afrika Korps was cut off.
Taking up positions on rough, quite unknown country in the dark was tremendously difficult. Sixth Brigade had a particularly hard time and, looking back next day, 6 RMT drivers page 237 with the battalions wondered how they had done it. The land became more and more rough and exasperating. Grinding up rocky inclines, troop-carriers jerked down into wadis where the going was soft, damp, and treacherous. Eyes strained to avoid crashes in the failing light under a watery moon. Grunting and groaning, trucks hauled their heavy loads in a manner which astonished and deeply impressed most outsiders. Painfully the brigade ground on, advancing in jerks of a mile at a time until it had covered about seven miles. Then the infantry debussed within a couple of miles of the road, and drivers bedded down behind the battalions.
The RMT's job was over. They had delivered the goods. Over more than 300 miles of trackless desert they had nursed their three-tonners, with the fitters, the mechanics, the workshops men all playing their part in keeping vehicles in good condition, in keeping engines going. The rest was up to the men behind the guns. But in front in the night, after all this, Germans of go Light Division stubbornly stopped the infantry from getting on to the road. The enemy transport withdrew along the road below, practically without interference. Minute by minute the Afrika Korps slipped past a checked 6 Brigade, whose guns, unable to register on the road in the dark, were virtually useless.
Fifth Brigade found settling into positions on the inland flank no picnic, either, and soon a disturbing discovery was made. In the darkness on the rough, unknown ground the brigades had settled down about six miles apart. A broad passage ran clean through the divided Division. And through this gap ran the Merduma-Nofilia track.
After dawn drivers heard our artillery open up and the enemy reply. Then through the six-mile gap, over scrub and rock skirting the Nofilia track, sped the enemy fleet, the last of the defenders, 15 Panzer Division from Merduma, composed and compact in a fighting withdrawal. The gap and the breakthrough were appreciated fully by drivers when tank and antitank shells came uncomfortably close to their vehicles. One 6 RMT driver, of 1 Platoon, was wounded. Within a couple of hours the panzer rearguard had escaped for the loss of one or two tanks and a few trucks.page 238
The left hook, as a hook, was fine. There was just one thing wrong. The hook had no barb. As one letter home said: ‘After all our work in getting here and the time and thought besides keeping the plans so secret! Gosh honey it would make a Saint swear, and as you know I am no Saint.’
Christmas. At last. ‘Surrounding AA and Arty Units ushered in Christmas Day with several salvoes in the early morning and the day broke fine,’ runs that day's entry in the war diary of 2 Platoon 4 RMT.
Wherever possible drivers came back to their company headquarters, to listen to Padre Jamieson's church service and to greet and yarn with comrades. To quote the 4 RMT war diary:
‘Commencing 1300 hrs Coy HQ personnel queued up for their Xmas dinner. Various items of the menu were served by Major Stock, Padre Jamieson, and the Sgts. Order of issue: pork, seasoning, apple sauce, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, beans, peas and gravy. The digestion of this course was aided by the consumption of 1 bottle of beer per man. After a reasonable time, men were ready for the second course—fruit salad, Xmas pudding and sauce. There was an abundance of food, and armed with issue of 50 cigarettes, men made their way to their various couches to relax and prepare their appetites for the meals to follow. At 1600 hours cakes and tea were served, after which Colonel Crump addressed the officers and men, passing on messages of good will and appreciation from the GOC. At 1730 hours a further excellent meal—sausage rolls, salad of carrots, beans and mayonnaise, followed by jellied fruit and blancmange, the appetiser for this feast being a double issue of rum. The splendid efforts of the cooks were very much appreciated by all ranks, special enthusiasm being displayed as this is the first occasion since the inception of 4 NZ Res MT Coy on which Xmas dinner has been able to be served.
Heavy with food, 1 Platoon enjoyed an impromptu sports meeting in the afternoon. Driver Smith had his time cut out as a bookie, and Driver Townsend made a witty judge. Results:
Artillery barrage (25-pounder)—putting the shot:page 239
Montgomery Challenge Cup of 220 yards: Driver Arkinstall.
[Deleted by Censor] Fryburg Steaks of 100 yards:
Fanny Hunt's Handicap of 50 yards:
Rommel's Mistake—long jump: Driver Arkinstall.
Tug-of-war: No. 5 Section.
No. 3 Platoon shared a substantial dinner with the Maori Battalion which, just in case, earlier in the month had devoured an enormous Christmas dinner of mutton bird, dried kumeras, pork preserved in fat, and pauas, and went to the church service, in Maori, at night.
And with 4 Platoon: ‘1 OR remained 23 NZ Bn RAP for med observation.’
Christmas passed away happily enough at Nofilia, about 45 miles westward from where 15 Panzer Division had slipped between the two brigades on 16 December. The intervening nine-day period had seen its moments. Giving the enemy no rest and stretching petrol supplies to the limit, the Division, still isolated, had set out after him early on the 17th, after awakening, in the words of one platoon, to ‘an amazing scene, 100 or more fires brilliantly dispelling the darkness as company, platoon and section cooks prepared breakfast in complete disregard of possible air or land attack. Brush and wood set the flames leaping. Brigade had approved this extraordinary display of confidence, yet the majority had eaten in awe and watchfulness.’ Maori Battalion had wistfully compared the brigade area with ‘a little town in peacetime, with all fires as lights’.
The Division had aimed beyond Nofilia, which had been held in strength. Once again a ‘hook’—a baby one—had been attempted to outflank the village. While armour engaged German tanks to the south, 5 and 6 Brigades had moved off under uncomfortably brisk shellfire. Fifth Brigade had been given the job of cutting the road west of Nofilia. Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons’ page 240 troop-carriers had soon been in the thick of it as their battalions went forward. Moving towards the coast, drivers had run into a pocket of enemy supported by Mark IV tanks and artillery. The tailboards had gone down to a hail of tank and shell fire. No. 4 Platoon, leading the way with 23 Battalion, had been forced down a mile short of the road, shells bursting among vehicles and wounding Driver Cox.28 No. 2 Platoon drivers (with 21 Battalion), crawling for cover and taking ‘a damned sour view of the situation’, had managed to avoid casualties. Corporal Phillips’29 truck had been struck by a tank shell which had ripped up the tray and reduced his bedroll to a rat's nest of ribbons. Despite continual shelling of the wadi and strong crossfire, the platoon carriers had not been sent back until daylight next morning. Several 3 Platoon vehicles had had near misses but no direct hits. Their men, 28 Battalion, had taken up positions with less trouble, for 23 Battalion, on higher ground to the west, had drawn most of the fire. Meantime 6 RMT drivers, the hectic trip of a couple of nights earlier still fresh in their minds, had been glad the day was 5 Brigade's.
In the night riflemen and engineers had got through to cut and mine the road, but once again the prize had vanished. The Germans had escaped before dawn.
Outside a Nofilia stiff with mines, the travel-stained Division now camped in peace. The success of the Division's moves, said General Freyberg, had been due to the drivers and the men who had maintained the vehicles. He asked brigadiers to see that these men were told of his appreciation and given full credit. Passing on the General's message, Colonel Crump pointed out that while the Division had advanced 600 to 700 miles, petrol trucks had had to cover twice that distance—1400 miles—to keep the Division going.
While the Division quietly occupied the Nofilia area, the attached 1 Platoon from 4 RMT, back with the petrol trucks, was striking a heap of trouble. These drivers were a good way page 241 off the petrol point east of El Agheila, some 120 miles distant.30 The enemy had gone but danger remained. A lot of antipersonnel mines were about. Onto one of these mines drove Drivers Harrison31 and Gilbert.32 Going to help the wounded drivers Captain Burt and Corporal Bruning (attached from 3 Platoon) set off another mine, luckily without any more damage. After the two wounded men had been attended to, more drivers gathering to help, two other mines went off, wounding Captain Burt, Corporal Bruning, Drivers Brewer,33 Lutze,34 Harvey,35 Corporal Wilson36 and Lance-Corporal Baker.37 The injured were taken to a dressing station and the petrol gathering work went on. Four days later, in 6 RMT, an S-mine killed Driver Coombe,38 and hope was given up page 242 for Drivers Dewe39 and Kimmins,40 taken prisoner a week before.
Soon hastily painted notices would be going up. For example, on a smoke-blackened building: ‘This building is full of boobytraps—you have been warned.’ A card on a shattered truck: ‘I was too close to the truck ahead of me—are you?’ Or: ‘One bomb, one truck: keep your bloody distance.’
At isolated Nofilia several 6 RMT drivers doubly appreciated regular food parcels from a First World War man at Maadi Camp. He was Private George Tolhurst41 (possibly the only New Zealand soldier to wear a beard for a few days in Trentham). These ‘adopted’ drivers received few parcels from home. ‘I got lots of parcels,’ said George.
Just before Christmas drivers helped bring up parcels and mail, including the 7 December issue of NZEF Times. One front-page item quickly went from mouth to mouth. It read
1 ‘…. In your present situation nothing else can be thought of but to hold on, not to yield a step, and to throw every weapon and every warrior who can be spared into the fight…. You can show your troops no other road but that to victory or death.’
2 4 RMT Coy: 1 Pl carrying 28 Bn; 2 Pl, 22 Bn; 3 Pl, 21 Bn; 4 Pl, 23 Bn. 6 RMT Coy: 1 Pl, 25 Bn; 2 Pl, 26 Bn; 3 Pl, 24 Bn; 4 Pl, water.
13 On Guy Fawkes’ Night 3 Pl 4 RMT camped uncomfortably but safely in an area sprinkled with butterfly bombs, an aircraft-dropped gadget designed along the lines of a sycamore seed. Further odds and ends reported about this time included a water bottle which exploded when the cork was withdrawn, and an innocent-looking can, marked ‘SPEED WELL Motor Oil—Engine Running made easy’, with a picture of a tiger chasing a man.
14 Capt Ellingham's Dodge gave trouble: a broken piston rod and two valve stems bent. With few tools the LAD men, Dvrs West and Lector, by 2 p.m. had the worst of the job done. They worked on the move and at halts up to 10.30 p.m. to get the engine running again, ‘a fine piece of work typical of the LAD’.
15 Besides this several RMT lorries, issued with Red Cross signs, were loaned to work as ambulances with NZ medical units. One group joined 5 Fd Amb after the opening barrage at Alamein and ‘gave great assistance’, working continuously evacuating walking wounded and stretcher cases, for within 24 hours 838 patients (504 of them New Zealanders) went through this dressing station. After the breakthrough four 4 RMT trucks with 6 Fd Amb ran into a skirmish on 6 Nov. ‘Visibility was poor,’ said L-Cpl Telford, ‘and the convoy nearly collided with some “Long Toms”. “You can't run over my guns, you know,” said the colonel.’
16 ‘Theoretically one General Transport company can maintain one division 50 miles from railhead or a port, i.e., for every 50 miles of an advance you need one extra company per division. This rule of thumb calculation is based on working seven days a week and ten hours a day, over good roads; in the desert it needs modification and on one occasion it took six companies to do the work of one.’
On the other side of the picture: ‘An adequate supply system and stocks of weapons, petrol and ammunition are essential conditions for any army to be able successfully to stand the strain of battle. Before the fighting proper, the battle is fought and decided by the Quartermasters. The bravest man can do nothing without guns, the guns nothing without plenty of ammunition and guns and ammunition are of little use in mobile warfare unless they can be transported by vehicles supplied with sufficient petrol. Supply must approximate in quantity to that which is available to the enemy and not only in quantity but also in quality…. None of the conditions to which I have referred were in any way fulfilled and we had to suffer the consequences.’–Rommel on Alamein, quoted in Rommel, by Desmond Young (Collins).
18 Bringing the cleaning-up party back to 5 Bde on unlucky 13 Nov, these RMT drivers struck ‘the father of all traffic jambs’ at Sollum Pass. ‘We thought we'd never make it. It took us nine hours to climb the pass so dense was the traffic.’
21 4 RMT Coy (with 5 Bde): 1 Pl (complete) to Pet Coy; 2 Pl, 15 trucks to 21 Bn, 15 to Pet and Amn Companies; 3 Pl, 25 trucks to 28 Bn, 6 to Pet Coy; 4 Pl, 18 trucks to 23 Bn, 9 to Amn Coy. 6 RMT Coy (with 6 Bde): 1 Pl to 25 Bn, 2 Pl to 26 Bn, 3 Pl to Pet Coy, 4 Pl to Sup Coy, still carrying water. A 6 RMT Composite Pl, under Lt Todd, was attached to 24 Bn.
22 In 2 Pl 4 RMT Lt T. M. Battersby was sent to Maadi on promotion, Capt Ellingham and Sgt Jim Mulligan, sick, were evacuated, and Sgt Chapman (‘The Divepecker’) took over transport attached to 21 Bn until 2 Lt Jack Rich arrived.
23 4 RMT Coy: 10 officers, 373 other ranks (one officer, 58 other ranks short); 6 RMT Coy: 11 officers, 383 other ranks (48 other ranks short).
24 Marble Arch (Arch Philaenorum), a tall, narrow arch straddling the Via Balbia, was built by Mussolini at the spot where, in the fourth century BC, the unfortunate Philaeni brothers had been buried alive to settle a frontier dispute between Carthage and Cyrene. The late Philaeni brothers, stories say, competed in the frontier marathon against two runners from Cyrene, who slacked on the job. Meeting where Marble Arch is now, the uneasy Cyrene couple accused the brothers of getting off to a flying start. They suggested the brothers allow them on a few miles west, where they, the Cyrenians, would be buried. The Philaeni brothers, a good victory up, refused, choosing burial on the spot in honour of Carthage. Recording his impression, one RMT driver wrote: ‘A strange sight, this monument in marble. Its two legs, striding the road, stretch perhaps 60 ft towards the sky with a recumbent nude figure of a warrior athwart it. Bizarre, theatrical, yet strangely vital: Mussolini's monument to a man's futility.’
30 This 100-lorry convoy, containing 1 Pl 4 RMT, had to pick up 60,000 gallons of petrol, for the Division had halted at Nofilia with only enough petrol for 50 miles. This petrol the RMT men helped pick up near El Agheila was part of a river of supplies flowing from the east. Piled with petrol, supplies, ammunition and so on, British trucks were racing up from liberated Benghazi port (which was handling 3000 tons a day by early January until a three-day storm played havoc among the ships) and from Tobruk. From this river the Division drew its quota, RMT men helping other NZASC units. On 20 Dec the petrol lorries issued 50,860 gallons to the Division, enough for 100 miles at five miles a gallon. The build-up went on until the Division had enough petrol for 350 miles and rations and water for 11 days. As for water, 4 Pl 6 RMT (with the Div Sup Coy) helped draw water in cans and drums near Marble Arch area. In turn this water was being carted up from Tobruk about 350 miles back. The 6 RMT platoon ferried water from Marble Arch area until engineers had wells at Nofilia cleared, cleaned, and working again. Not only petrol, supplies, and ammunition were coming from the east. Along this route also came the Division's Christmas mail (over 60,000 parcels) and the precious beer ration for Christmas and New Year's Day. Incidentally, it took two tons of petrol to bring three tons of beer from Cairo to the thirsty throats at Nofilia.