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Petrol Company

CHAPTER 3 — ‘The Gorgeous East’

page 25

‘The Gorgeous East’

Keeping fit was the order of the day as the convoy headed for Colombo. Unauthorised items of equipment, e.g., Aussie badges and slouch hats, were called in, and shipboard routine continued as before. On 27 January—a clear, sunny Saturday—Petrol Company held its swimming-pool sports, the main events being contests on the greasy pole and diving for spoons.

That afternoon a race meeting, complete with ‘tote’ and printed programmes, was held for the whole ship on ‘A’ Deck. Six races—five heats and a final—were run for the Z4 Cup, won by Petrol Company with their ‘nag’ Quin's Post. Their jockey, Corporal Gilmore,1 was tipped as a good safe man, straight as a die; and one of his followers, backing solidly on the sixpenny tote, won eighteen shillings—the price of fifty-four canteen beers. The meeting went as briskly as a day at Riccarton or Ellerslie, and sixpences were hazarded with reckless abandon.



Programme of Races
Nominator Horse Jockey
1. Cpl T. G. Clarke's (HQ Coy) Dirty Buttons By Nitwit out of Stupidity Pte Daniels
2. Div Petrol Coy's Blisters By Route March out of Army Boots Pte H. Parkin
3. Hon. K. S. Thompson's(A Coy) Thirst By Route March out of Fremantle Steve Goodmansonpage 26
4. Div Ammunition Coy's Last Shot By Big Gun out of Ammunition Pte H. Brady
5. W. E. Waine's Hauraki By Kia Kaha out of Dirty Dixie Darky Lawson
Nominator Horse Jockey
1. Div Petrol Coy's No Leave By French Leave out of Trentham Sgt L. C. H. Cowen
2. Aga Preston's General Malaise By Vaccination out of Emmo Hector Bevin
3. Div Ammunition Coy's Many Miles By Cripes out of New Zealand Sgt N. F. Chissell
4. Nawab of Anderson's Master Anzac By Enzed out of After Perth Steve Hankin
5. Res Motor Trsp Coy's Tawdry By Badges out of Jewel Packet Sgt Thompson
Nominator Horse Jockey
1. Pte Gumdigger's (C Coy) Glittering By Glen Allen's Pride out of Brasso Ray Gibb
2. Res Motor Trsp Coy's Hope By Rum out of Jar Pte Reynolds
3. Happy Alf Hanscombe's (D Coy) Handle By Barman out of Barrel Tap Wee Angus Mackay
4. Div Petrol Coy's Quin's Post By Hophead out of Barrel Cpl A. A. Gilmore
5. Hon. Simple Simon's (I Reinf) Pukkah Soldier By Detail out of Reinforcement Hector Blundell
Nominator Horse Jockey
1. Major M. Petrie's Pride of Papakura By CO's Orders out of Dormitory Tiny Matheson
2. Lieut-Col S. H. Crump's Scrim By Scram out of Tirau Capt Hood
3. Major J. Peart's Gray Nurse By Colonel Scar out of Sonoma Sonoma Bobpage 27
4. Capt G. H. Whyte's Daze By Changing Orders out of Orderly Room Lieut F. H. Muller
5. Major W. Evans' Sensation By Burst out of Bathing Costume Mo Sutton
Nominator Horse Jockey
1. Div Ammunition Coy's Discipline By Perspiration out of OC Pte F. J. Wells
2. Cpl Bristow's Men's Mess By Stew out of Scrag Pte Harland
3. Res Motor Trsp Coy's Sandy's Fury By Over the Fence out of Trentham Pte Annear
4. Sgt Robinson's(Bn HQ) Carlsberg By Barrel out of Auckland Pte Gentil
5. Div ASC HQ's Hair Cut By Just out of Mt Eden Pte Reid
1. Winner of First Race: Dirty Buttons
2. Winner of Second Race: No Leave
3. Winner of Third Race: Quin's Post
4. Winner of Fourth Race: Pride of Papakura
5. Winner of Fifth Race: Hair Cut
Winner: Quin's Post

By now the Company knew that its destination was the Middle East. The men attended lectures by the MO and others on life and ways in Egypt–that ‘Land of Sin, Sand, and Syphilis’. They listened respectfully and made their own resolutions, though not always on the lines their superiors intended. On 28 January, at 9.55 p.m., the Orion crossed the Equator. Two days later the convoy reached Colombo.

This was for most men their first acquaintance with ‘the gorgeous East’ and they gazed enthralled. The colour, the palm-trees, the sprawling city, the vast conglomeration of shipping—cruisers, liners, tugs; barges and sampans—brewed a potent magic. And like magic, too, appeared a swarm of page 28 dancing small craft, piled high with bananas, oranges, pine- apples, coconuts; cigars and cigarettes; curios. Brisk bargaining followed; and the troops, well-placed for the use of plunging fire, hurled down banter, abuse, orange skins, pineapple tops, and a little small-change. They had just been paid in annas and rupees—another enchanting novelty—but only to the tune of sixteen shillings; so they could not afford to be lavish.

Before going on leave the men had been solemnly adjured to spend the lot, for Ceylon money would not be accepted later by the ship's canteens. They were also warned against (a) the risk of venereal and other diseases then rife in Colombo; and (b) unseemly behaviour, which might lower the prestige of Ceylon's white minority. With these provisos, and to the full extent of their sixteen shillings, the city was theirs until 4.30 p.m.

Petrol Company personnel left the ship by lighter at 11 a.m. and as they approached the shore, Lionel Stubbs2 recalls, they saw a detachment of Aussies converging on the same wharf. It was a toss-up which barge would be the first to make it, and the troops eyed each other. ‘Although we had travelled in the same convoy, these were the first Aussie troops we'd seen, in bulk. We were curious. Both lots remained silent; then, when we were only a stone's throw apart, one big Kiwi burst out: “You ugly-looking pack of B—'s.” Suitable replies were received from the Aussies!’

British residents of Colombo extended hospitality, some on a lavish scale. But white faces were few amid the seething mass of undersized natives—the great unwashed—jostling, jabbering, gesticulating; driving their giant-wheeled bullock-carts through crowded streets; plying various trades upon the side- walks; spitting out streams of scarlet betel juice. The soldiery milled through the squalid warrens of the native quarter, where filthy tenements housed hordes of humans. Petrol Company men roamed the city, frequented bars and eating-places. They watched the snake-charmers, and haggled with natives for knick-knacks to send back home. Some rode in rickshaws, sometimes racing similar vehicles pulled by brawny Aussies, page 29 while petrified coolies—the erstwhile steeds—sat goggle-eyed inside.

Back on board that night the men enjoyed the luxury of sleeping with portholes open and no blackout. Next day HMS Sussex, anchored next to the Orion, invited the latter's sergeants to inspect their ship. About sixty accepted, and moved off to an inevitable accompaniment of jeers and catcalls. A whole boatload of sergeants… what an opportunity!

But no chance arose for anything but wishful thinking; and the party proceeded on a mission that turned out to be no picnic. They spent two gruelling hours mounting and descending companionways, tramping decks, inspecting gun-turrets, engine-rooms, boilers, propeller shafts—all this round midday, close to the Equator, with water, water all around, and not a drop to drink—no beer, anyway. Sussex, they learned, had trailed the Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic, and had been unlucky to miss contact by a mere hundred miles.

No leave from Z4 on this second day, and Divisional Petrol Company struck guard again. Routine orders announced the promotion of Sergeant H. W. Barnett, D (Workshops) Section, to staff-sergeant, this winning general approval as Harry was popular with both officers and men. He also knew his stuff as a mechanist-instructor. Next day (1 February) the convoy left Colombo, escorted by the Ramillies, Sussex and Hobart, and with a new member, the French troopship Athos II, bound for French Somaliland. Another addition to the fleet was the aircraft-carrier Eagle, one of whose planes dived, later on, into the Red Sea.

By now the novelty of shipboard life was beginning to wear thin. The discomforts, and the continual heat, became oppresssive. Some sought to offset these with more work. They formed themselves into volunteer groups for extra practice with the LMGs and the sergeants found their spare-time and their cabins cluttered with tiresome enthusiasts. So all were relieved when the Orion, Rangitata and three Australian transports put into Aden on 8 February to refuel.

By noon next day all ships were at sea again, and by late afternoon land became visible on either side. The convoy was passing through the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. Dhows flitted page 30 by, felucca-rigged. Tankers, and grubby tramp steamers, plied there in the narrows between Arabia and Africa. The first stage of the Company's Odyssey was nearly done. Ahead lay Egypt and the testing-grounds of war; and one driver wrote in a letter home: ‘We shall soon see what the ASC is made of. Hope we turn out all right!’

The church service of Sunday, 11 February, was the last one aboard Transport Z4. Colonel Crump then told the troops that their camp would be at Maadi, about a dozen miles south of Cairo. They would arrive, he said, at Port Tewfik (Suez) the following night, disembark on Tuesday morning, and travel by train through Cairo. Next day the Senior MO gave a last talk on the risks of disease in Egypt, and the need for care over the ‘three F's’—flies, fluids, and food.

Shipboard training ceased, and with it the grousing. All were excited, elated. Ahead lay a new land, a new life. The men went blithely about the business of packing their gear and cleaning ship. Collections were made for stewards and waiters, trophies presented to the winners of contests. There was a final flurry of inspections, farewell concerts, speeches. When dawn broke on Tuesday, 13 February, Z4 lay at Tewfik—and the troops took their first long look at Egypt.

What they saw there did not specially please them. The city of Suez was impressive enough with its large buildings and its broad expanse. No one expected it to be so big. But the people … and their habits… whew! On wharves thick with filth, the sons of the Pharaohs scrabbled and fought one another for baksheesh—cigarettes and small-change tossed down by the soldiers. Some, ragged and dirty, brought boats alongside with fruit and other foods; but little business passed. Even the ‘gully-gully’ men, producing live chickens from impossible places and performing other feats of legerdemain, aroused but a passing flicker of interest.

What our men wanted was to get ashore. But their arrival in Egypt at that particular juncture was a matter of world interest, rating high diplomatic cognisance. Already the BBC had pro- laimed the safe arrival of the New Zealand contingent at its destination. And there to welcome them at Suez was the GOC, Major-General Freyberg. With him came Mr Anthony Eden, page 31 then Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs; the British Ambassador to Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson; General Sir Archibald Wavell, GOC-in-C Middle East; Lieutenant-General H. M. Wilson, GOC-in-C British Troops in Egypt; and Mahmoud Azme Bey, Governor of the Canal Zone, representing the Egyptian Government.3

Addresses of welcome were delivered, and Sir Miles read a message from His Majesty King George VI:

Buckingham Palace,
12th February, 1940.

General Officer Commanding,
2nd New Zealand Division.

I know well that the splendid tradition established by the armed forces of New Zealand will be worthily upheld by you, who have left your homes to fight for the cause that the whole Empire has made its own.

Now that you have entered the field of active service, I send you a very warm welcome, together with my best wishes for your welfare.

George R.I.

General Freyberg replied to the speeches, and asked Mr Eden to convey a message of thanks to the King for his welcome. At noon the ASC, following the infantry, all loaded like camels, filed down the gangways into barges, each of which held 200 men. As these were filled a tug towed them in pairs to the quayside and the men scrambled ashore.

They went straight from the wharves into trains, brushing off importunate Arabs who swarmed around like flies, trying to sell chocolate, cigarettes, eggs, bread and oranges. By 1.30 p.m. Petrol Company was installed in third-class carriages with crude wooden seats, surrounded by a jumble of packs, rifles, water bottles, kitbags. Even there they found no respite from pestering Arabs, who begged and importuned through the open windows. Bolder ones who boarded the train were unceremoniously bundled off. Yet despite this discouragement and the warnings of officers, a few ingenuous Kiwis contrived to get taken down by the money-changers.

Soon the men were staring through the carriage windows at mile upon mile of dun-coloured hummocks, lacking all vestige page 32 of vegetation. So this was the famous desert, stamping ground of Sheiks, of the French Foreign Legion, and all that? Not much romance about this, or about the bleak military camps they saw from time to time. Maadi, they hoped, would turn out rather better!

But even a desert has a beginning and an end. Their train ran on into the irrigated areas of the rich Nile Delta, with its grass, standing crops, and groves of date palms. This was more like it! Gnarled fellaheen toiling near water-races straightened their backs to gaze at the train. The grazing herds and the patient beasts of burden—camels, oxen, asses—scarcely turned a head. They lived and worked as their kind had done for 5000 years in those self-same fields. What was another war to them, one more army, coming or going? Still less did our Soldiers matter to the timeless pyramids, now clearly visible from the carriage windows.

At 5.10 p.m. the First Echelon marched into Maadi Camp with bands playing. General Freyberg took the salute. By six o'clock the men were installed in their unit lines, with Petrol Company occupying four-man tents in the ASC area, along with 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company and the Divisional Ammunition Company. Unit cooks had disembarked on the previous day and gone ahead to Maadi; but Petrol Company's cookhouse, when the men marched in, was not yet a going concern.

The building itself was only half-finished. Stoves were not in working order; no rations had been drawn. To quote Bill Ambrose, who had to cope with all this, ‘it was like moving into an empty house—nobody knew what was what’. All the cooking utensils—dixies, boilers, urns—were still brand-new and smothered in protective grease. So for a day or two the Company fed with a ‘Tommy’ unit, our men travelling to and from mess by truck.

Meanwhile there were more important things to think about, as explained in this extract from the Company's first routine order in Egypt:

(a) Care will be taken that proper compliments are paid by Guards and individuals to the British Ambassador when travelling through
black and white photograph of soldiers

Lionel Stubbs, Jerry Lyon and L. H. Lawton at Qasaba

black and white photograph of soldiers with the queen

Jack Plumtree, an English soldier and Ivan McCullum meet the Queen (now Queen Mother) at the Union Jack Club, London

black and white photograph of army vehicle on the move

In Greece: a motor transport convoy on the road between Elevtherokhorion and Dholikhi

black and white photograph of soldier

New Zealand provost on point duty, Olympus Pass

black and white photograph of soldiers relaxing

Bill Ross, ‘Snowy’ Guy and ‘Hurricane’ Harrison near Elasson, the Company's last organised camp in Greece

black and white photograph of view from the hill

Marathon Beach, where Petrol Company was evacuated

black and white photograph of airplane

A German troop-carrier from which parachutists were dropped over the prison in Crete

black and white photograph of soldiers with guns

At Galatas, 20 May 1941. From left: lance Green, Bill Ross, — Day, M. C. Guy, Erle Stewart, (not identified)

black and white photograph of building

The Gaol, looking towards Galatas—from a German publication, Kreta—Sieg Der Kühnsten

coloured map of north of egypt page 33 Military Camps. The car in which he travels carries a large Union Jack in front.

(b) His Majesty the King of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, has approved as a matter of courtesy to our Egyptian Allies that British soldiers and airmen, in uniform, should salute Egyptian officers, army and air force, when in uniform.

(c) His Majesty the King of Egypt has approved that Egyptian soldiers and airmen should salute British officers when in uniform.


(a) Service dress will be worn on all occasions, except on recreational parades.

(b) Hats, and shirts or singlets, will always be worn. [A bit uncomfortable for sleeping, but there was the order!]


All ranks, before engaging taxis, MUST be in possession of sufficient money to meet the cost of the fares on arrival at destination.

Men must not remove articles such as ‘handles’ from the Canteen, and must go to the canteen properly dressed.


A certain amount of spurious coins are in circulation in Egypt, particularly 20-piastre pieces. All ranks are hereby warned not to accept 20-piastre pieces as change from any shop anywhere in Cairo.

But in case it be thought that service life in Egypt was just one long, lotus-eating business of bilking taxi-drivers, swiping handles from canteens, and saluting ‘our Egyptian allies’, here is the daily regime laid down in that same RO:


Reveille 0530
Roll Call 0545
Breakfast 0630
Ist Parade 0730
Dismiss 1200
Lunch 1230
2nd Parade 1430
Dismiss 1700
Tea 1730
Tattoo 2200
Lights Out 2215
page 34

The order further records:


Marched in from HMNZT Z-4
Off. W.O. Sgts. O/Rs. Total
5 1 5 159 170
Marched in, Advanced Party
CQ MS Broomfield, C. H.
Sgt Macphail, I. C.
Pte Cassin, P. J.

1 12 Lt A. A. Gilmore, BEM; born Glenbrook, 9 Dec 1912; farmer; killed in action May 1941.

2 2Sgt L. H. Stubbs; Auckland; born Oamaru, 20 Oct 1905; cartage contractor; twice wounded.

3 3Because of its stop at Aden the Orion arrived at Port Tewfik after the main part of the convoy, too late to be met by the official party.