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4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies



WELLINGTON. The new battledress being worn in N.Z. overcomes the difficulty of the close fitting collar for summer wear. The new jackets have lapels and the men are permitted to wear collars and ties, irrespective of rank.

‘Just like the Army to stop us opening our battledress where it is stinking hot,’ protested one letter writer. ‘No, Sir! We have to have it done up around the neck and have our neck sawn off into the bargain.’

Home mail and newspapers also had some interesting angles:

Old Alf crossed one enormous boot over the other. He turned a page and read mincingly: ‘ “Cupid in Kaikohe. Felicitations aplenty shower Myrtle, vivacious raven-haired daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ned Mump, and fiancé Private First Class Wilbur K. Platz, Junior, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa”.’ Shortie half-opened an eye. ‘Let's all back the attack—in the sack,’ he mumbled drowsily.

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Somebody should have filmed faces as the mail was handed out. The boyish delight of the huge driver, built like a draught-horse, as his enormous red and hairy hands closed on the letters with the little, delicate writing of his fiancée. His disappointment when none arrived….

For by now many long-service men were becoming thoroughly ‘browned off’. They wished for a lot of missed things, and they wished a lot of things were missing: the now too-familiar laugh or joke from the same old faces, the damned dead desert, the dirt and grime and grinding routine (mentally too), the same old food sloshed up and the same coarse battle dress, greasy at neck and wrists. They missed faces and figures, the home garden, just being alone, the favourite corner in the pub, the radio by the fireside, a carpet on the floor and flowers in a vase.

‘The only man I really hated in the war,’ writes one driver, ‘was the person who used to say with truly horrible regularity, “The happiest hours I spent in my life, were spent in the arms of another man's wife—my mother,” and then, looking as wise as Bernard Shaw, roar with laughter,” Another driver says: ‘This fairly old bloke was a holy terror to tell longwinded yarns and as he got going (nothing could stop him) he'd carefully roll a cigarette and lick the paper across and back again. This double-licking wasn't too good, but after it came the part that got me. Looking you dead in the eye and still talking away, the old joker would put the smoke between the palms of his long hands and slowly roll and rock the cigarette backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, until I nearly yelled, “For Christ's sake, smoke it!” It got that I used to watch and wait for this rolling-between-hands business, and it always came and I always felt mad—half hypnotised too.’

Christmas went and the New Year came with a wave of optimism. A news flash from Radio Moscow reported that the enemy at Stalingrad had been wiped out ‘with 95,000 dead and 72,000 prisoners of war.’42 Russia had won her Alamein in probably the decisive battle of the war. On the other side of the world the sprawling Japanese armies had been halted, and Allied offensives were warming up in the islands and in Burma.

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So on to Tripoli, the last colonial city in the crumbling Italian empire. ‘We shall go by the desert,’ said General Freyberg. ‘The road will be mined and smashed.’

Before three-tonners nosed out again along the diamond trail supplies had to be built up. Except for 30 6 RMT lorries—these were held for carting some riflemen to build an aerodrome—all troop-carrying three-tonners left their battalions and the day after Christmas switched to the old task of building up advanced dumps. These 120 lorries (60 from 4 RMT, 30 from 6 RMT, and 30 British), commanded by Captain Coleman, plied between dumps near El Agheila and Marble Arch, and carried the power behind the next thrust—hundreds of tons of petrol, oil and grease—on to new dumps rising west of Nofilia. They met with heavy rain and clouds of Allied traffic. But these were by no means the only hindrances. Back towards El Agheila many bridges had been blown up, and the roads, roadsides, and tracks were sown with mines, many of them still dangerous, as Lance-Sergeant Bennett and Driver Cooper,43 wounded in a sudden explosion near Marble Arch, found to their cost. Where mines had been removed potholes gaped, and these were hard on springs and axles. Such convoy work kept up the pressure on LAD men and on workshops. The 4th RMT Workshops, fitting 15 new motors, reconditioning many more, and replacing 141 spring assemblies and main leaves, had worked through a hard month. The staff, in common with 6 RMT Workshops, was worried by shortages, especially tires, and often worked far into the night.

The dumps piled up. The preparations for the next move drew to a close. Rumours thickened. Before the RMT fleet under Captain Coleman broke up to return to the riflemen,44 and before the travelling storehouse, Divisional Administration Group, formed up again, Coleman led his lorries about 80 miles page 245 into the west to Wadi Tamet, to dump more petrol for the Division to pick up on the advance. On the way back they ran into a vicious sandstorm which blotted the sun from the sky and brought in a stinging, suffocating twilight. All landmarks disappeared. The last 50 miles had to be covered by dead reckoning. Muffled drivers, coughing and cursing, bound for King Solomon's mines for all they knew, ground nose-to-tail through dust clouds. Each stuffy cab was a world apart.

At such times a driver might think of the co-driver close alongside him. He either thanked his lucky stars his companion was a good sort, a fine joker, a cobber, or silently swore at fate for bottling him up with a crashing bore, a crank, an ill-tempered know-all, or an unnecessarily over-dirty lout. For life in an RMT truck consisted of spending about 18 out of every 24 hours with the same man. ‘This gypsy caravan existence’, some called it: shoulder to shoulder by day; by night together under the truck canopy, or jammed in a little brown bivvy under the shelter of the truck. (Wandering trucks in the night discouraged camping in open desert.) With the trouble light burning brightly, and every possible chink stuffed with paper to preserve a total blackout, a man would look gratefully at his companion simply because he wiped his feet daily with a damp rag. The cloth usually came from the packing round parcels. A few, getting few parcels, also dried their mess gear with the foot cloth. It paid not to be too squeamish.

Drivers had a golden rule: ‘Remember the bloke on your left has a bloke on his right.’ Remembered, that rule could make life pleasant enough; forgotten, life could be a little hell. Every platoon had a lone eagle, a man who for various reasons could not—or would not—team up. Often he drove alone.

In a 6 RMT truck in this sandstorm a driver, face expressionless, grinned deep inside himself. He'd recently returned from hospital in Egypt to find his cobber gone, replaced by a lone eagle. That day he'd quietly put one across the lone eagle.

It all started through the lone eagle's billy, a dirty billy. The driver bit his lower lip, remembering how the petrol flames curled round the black sides, and how flakes of dust, oil scum and grease would float on the already not-so-clean page 246 issue of water. So the driver suggested making another billy. The lone eagle was up in arms. ‘Be damned. It's my good luck billy. Had it since I joined five months ago, I have. If you don't like it, you know what to do.’

The driver knew what to do. He'd just had a few months in hospital. He'd had doctors and nurses for friends in civvy life. Once he had sold insurance. For three days he edged conversation round to the ills that rack mankind—haemophilia, myocarditis, anthrax, amoebic dysentery, and a host more. What he didn't know he filled in.

That day, during a spell just before the sandstorm broke, he'd seen the lone eagle hammering away at a seven-pound marmalade tin.

‘What's up with the old billy?’ asked the driver, so very casually.

‘Got a hole in it,’ said the lone eagle.

Old drivers called this ‘the process of being educated’. It was always going on.

The Division got down to business again near El Machina where 5 Brigade, its RMT lorries busy with petrol-carrying, had gone on, partly on foot, partly by lumping any trucks of its own into an impromptu passenger service. At El Machina 5 Brigade, between air raids, had cleared an aerodrome for the Desert Air Force, while most of 6 Brigade stayed in the Nofilia area.

It was just about a Cook's Tour, that eleven-day, 250-mile trip which began on 12 January and landed the Division in Tripoli on the 23rd. Drivers, expecting constant challenge from the Luftwaffe, disappeared beneath camouflage nets at bivouac areas, energetically dug slitties while anti-aircraft units kept constantly on the alert, remained well spaced, dodged dusty and well-worn tracks where possible, and at every halt turned vehicles north to reduce reflection from windscreens. But dun-coloured fighters of the Desert Air Force gave enemy dive-bombers few good opportunities. The New Zealanders travelled inland and north-west, leaving other Eighth Army units to deal with Axis forces holding the coast past Buerat. Anyhow, really strong defences were not being developed, for most Axis men and material were going to Tunisia.

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While 51 (Highland) Division chased the enemy along the coastal road through Misurata and Homs, the New Zealand Division, with 7 Armoured Division on its right, the two more or less side by side, advanced inland through Sedada and Beni Ulid where, in a happily temporary flurry, the New Zealand Division began travelling in two directions at once, and past Tarhuna.

The only opposition the New Zealanders brushed against were mobile forces guarding the inland flank, and these obligingly withdrew when guns and infantry deployed. Nos. 1, 2, and Composite Platoons of 6 RMT were held up for a while on 15 January. Ahead British armour, backed by artillery, carried out a brilliant attack, and the enemy left in the night.

In the dark a driver, off course with a broken-down truck due for workshops treatment, sought fresh directions from a tank. Nobody answered. He climbed on to the turret and peered down to see a few inches away the upturned face of a corpse. For a few weeks afterwards he was absurdly careful.

Striking the main road 28 miles south of Tripoli on 22 January, 3 Platoon 4 RMT (carrying the Maori Battalion and claiming at 1.40 p.m. next day to be the first NZASC transport to enter Tripoli) ran into enemy fire and dispersed in soft sand; later, eight miles on, it met fire again. No. 2 Platoon (21 Battalion up) met similar alarms. Several shells landed near the cooks’ vehicle. No damage was done and supper was served with a steady hand. A puzzled 4 Platoon (with 23 Battalion) tasted the tail end of the shelling and promptly scrubbed stories of peaceful, occupied land ahead.

North-westwards they had travelled during the last week, where never such a fleet had driven before, by way of dead and dry Wadi Zemzem to life at Beni Ulid, an oasis and Italian colonial outpost inhabited almost entirely by semi-nomadic Arabs; to the rocky, twisted Gebel Garian range, dividing desert plateau from coastal plain; through Tazzoli (an Italian colony near Tarhuna) and past Azizia, where 5 Brigade engaged the last German rearguard. Grimy bulldozers had torn tracks. It had been a driver's show, crossing many miles of bad going, sometimes in the dark or under a moon murky with dust clouds, winding along precipitous page 248 canyon-like wadis, frequently mined, bobbing over wavy and pitted desert, and toiling painfully across the rocky escarpments and defiles of the final range.

A 6 RMT man, Corporal Pat Ward, who was petrol-carrying, saw it like this:

… riding over going where a sensible man might have hesitated to lead a packhorse, a little like walking over that crazy platform at the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. Water was scarce. The few wells had been blown in, or made undrinkable by the fleeing enemy.

The Arabs in this part of the world must have had queer thoughts in their heads; their mode of existence is pitiable—a world almost denuded of vegetation, and destitute of water. Their emaciated figures, flapping rags, and the queer things they call tents tell their own stories. For hundreds of years they have been undisturbed save for a passing camel or the birds of the air—suddenly the few desert tracks are busier than the busiest streets in the world, and the air is never still with the drone of planes.

Gradually the desert changes—little bushes appear; a wadi covered in flowers, blue or yellow predominating; an oasis with its straggling palms; patches of miserable barley; donkeys, goats, camels and the weird things they call sheep.

Over the top of a hill one comes across the first Italian colony [Tazzoli]; from then onwards everything is sharply etched— ordered rows of olive trees; avenues of slim cypresses, bluegums, pines, almond trees—a mass of blossom; hardly a blade of grass, but many crops coming up, for this is spring. The soil is all red sand, everything has to be forced; vegetable plots—dozens of square white houses at ordered distances, which would no doubt have pleased the NZ Minister of Housing, so monotonously alike were they. Wells everywhere—a ‘Digest’ says that between here and the next town there are more than a quarter of a million—the purest and sweetest water we have tasted in Africa. The slow clank clank of countless windmills; the road a ribbon of purest bitumen, like a smooth dream after the desert; everything immature—a Colonial experiment just bearing fruit.

The date palm country; the trees incredibly tall and incredibly straight; east, north, south and west they stretch endlessly and close together. The road runs for mile after mile in their shadow….

On one of the houses I saw scribbled in large black charcoaled letters: Mussolini Don't Live Here Any More, He Useta.

An ancient Turkish castle perched on a granite hill; the ruins of a Roman city in a valley. The Italians had placed several statues, a little shattered by the centuries, on pedestals by the road- page 249 side. A driver, pointing them out, said sententiously: ‘There's a good example of how much these Wogs hate the Italians, they even smash their statues.’

Here and there a colonist, braver than his comrades, flies a white flag from his farmhouse and carries on. But in the main the houses are stripped and deserted. Gradually the peasant folk are drifting back. It makes one realise a little of the ugliness of all that must be happening in Europe. But it's only an inkling—for we treat them with kindness and a kind of rough courtesy … the penalty for looting is two years.45

Tripoli—the pride of II Duce's African Empire, the dream of hundreds of Italian architects all working independently. In its way beautiful—shattered a bit, of course. A motion-picture magnate, undecided which picture to start first, orders that the settings for French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, and Egyptian pictures be all plonked down on the Californian desert. Somebody mixes them hopelessly. A magician tosses a few thousand trees on the scene, the ocean creeps up to one edge of it, a hurricane comes along to mess it up a bit. The actors and actresses dressed in all manner of costume wander lost through it all. The result would not be unlike Tripoli; the last, lone and loveliest of them all.

Once upon a time, in a place called Piazza Castello, which is the main square of Tripoli, Mussolini sat on a horse. He had just presented himself with a sword and a brand new title: Protector of Islam. He told the parade on 18 March 1937:

‘Moslems of Tripoli and Libya, young Arabs of the Fascist Empire ! My august and mighty Sovereign, His Majesty Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy and Emperor of Abyssinia, after 11 years has sent me once more to this land where the tricolour flutters in the wind, to learn your needs and to meet your legitimate wishes.

‘A new epoch in the history of Libya has begun… Within a short time Rome will prove to you by her legislation how much she is interested in improving your future.46

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‘Moslems of Tripoli and Libya!

‘Spread my word through all the houses of your city and your country, and to the distant tents of your shepherds. You know that I am a man sparing of promises, but when I make them I keep them.’

And while uniformed lackeys cheered and the great man sat with his chin thrust towards the photographers, a pretty fountain, held up by rearing horses, played nearby. Now all those brave uniforms had gone away. Hobnailed boots scraped and scrunched over the Piazza Castello. Khaki and webb lolled against the white walls of the square and under the ornamental olive trees, and voices of another language spoke of beer in Dundee and in Dunedin. And on top of the fountain stood something new: two bits of tin, two black diamond signs marking the latest end of the New Zealand trail.

Eighth Army paraded in Tripoli, and the New Zealanders paraded in lovely country, which some thought looked like home, outside the city. Mr Churchill came from Britain, and he said:

‘All are filled with pride for the Desert Army; all are full of gratitude to the people of New Zealand who have sent this splendid Division to win fame and honour across the oceans. By an important victory, the Battle of Egypt, the Axis Powers who had fondly hoped and loudly boasted they would take Egypt and the Nile Valley, found their armies broken and shattered, and since then, by a march unexampled in history for speed and for the force of its advance, you have driven the enemy before you, until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia. These events will live long in the annals of war and will be studied minutely by other generations than our own. These feats of arms entitle the army of the desert to feel a deep-founded sense of comfort and pride, based on valiant duty faithfully done.’

Then, to drum and bagpipe, the Division, in its pride, marched past the Prime Minister, and then, uplifting hearts with sound and power, came the engines which had conquered the desert: the tanks, the slanting guns and joggling limbers, those busybodies the Bren carriers, and snub-nosed trucks.

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With Mr Churchill were General Brooke, General Alexander, General Montgomery, General Freyberg, and other senior officers of Eighth Army.

And they too were not indifferent to the photographers.

The soldiers went back to their bivvies in the soft soil under the olives and the blossoming almond trees. They were happy with so many flowers, so many fresh vegetables, and so much fresh and sweet water. They parked their vehicles between rows of trees and a little snow of petals fell on to the hard, cracked canopies. People came to sell eggs. Little food remained in the city and drivers were content with a few visits to the marine parade and the ruined port.

February slipped by. RMT convoys carried petrol, rations, and rum to as far as Ben Gardane, 180 miles to the west. They appeared with their loads two days after the settlement had fallen. They claimed, apart from the Long Range Desert Group, to be the first New Zealand vehicles to enter Tunisia.

And the Maori Battalion won the football competition.

Orders came through on 1 March. The same night 4 RMT Company was on the move, away from the olives and the almonds and into the west.

The last of the blossom fell and the tiny fruit buds formed. The bivouacs fell in and nobody leaned against white buildings to remember the taste of Dunedin beer.

And, when nobody was looking, the two black diamond signs proudly planted on top of the fountain in the Piazza Castello quietly disappeared, for ever.

42 A little premature. German resistance ended at Stalingrad on 2 Feb 1943.

43 Dvr J. W. Cooper; Christchurch; born England, 4 Nov 1908; chauffeur; wounded 30 Dec 1942.

44 4 RMT Coy: 1 Pl with Div Pet Coy; 2 Pl, 16 lorries to 21 Bn, remainder to Pet and Amn Coys; 3 Pl, 27 lorries to 28 Bn, 4 to 23 Bn; 4 Pl, 19 lorries to 23 Bn, 9 to Amn Coy. 6 RMT Coy: 1 Pl to 25 Bn; 2 Pl, 19 lorries to 26 Bn; Composite Pl (8 from 1 Pl and 10 from 2 Pl, under Lt A. E. Irving) to 24 Bn; 4 Pl with Div Sup Coy carrying water.

45 The military occupation of Tripoli was strictly enforced. A 4 RMT corporal who threatened a stationmaster and a bus driver with a pistol and entered a house was reduced to the ranks and sentenced to 90 days’ field punishment.

46 Libya has an Arab population of 1,085,000 … and of that number only 16—yes, 16—have had a college education…. Perhaps 250,000 Libyans can write their own names, but it is believed that not more than 60,000 of those are sufficiently literate to go beyond that. More than 750,000 Libyans, if faced with a document to sign, use their thumbprints. Of all the backward countries of North Africa, Libya is the most backward.’—Joseph Wechsberg, in The New Yorker, 10 Nov 1951.