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Petrol Company

CHAPTER 6 — The Wavell Show

page 57

The Wavell Show

June1940 brought Italy into the war. That placed in jeopardy the meagre British forces then in North Africa. In his Infantry Brigadier General Kippenberger records: ‘We were doing a night exercise when the singular code message for that event, “Prepare for burial”, was brought in, and we went very happily back to camp. This was a stage nearer the real thing that we were becoming unreasonably impatient for. Each morning now we stood-to an hour before dawn, waiting hopefully for Italian parachutists.’

One Petrol Company driver wrote in a letter home: ‘Jim and I were enjoying a very good concert in the Recreation Tent when it was stopped and we were told about it. We gave three cheers and sang “God Save the King” and went back to camp. Thus a good concert was spoilt. Since then we have been working long hours.’ Another group, playing poker in the NAAFI when the news broke, nonchalantly muttered ‘So what?’ and went on playing.

In advance of the event, HQ 2 NZEF had issued the following instructions to the four NZASC companies:


On receipt of the code word Flit, the full PAD scheme Maadi Camp, will be put into effect at once.


All posts (incl AA LMG posts) will be permanently manned and air sentries posted.


Eye shields and anti-gas ointment will be issued and the dispersion of tents and vehicles put in hand. Trench slits will then be dug.


All troops not already at shorter notice will be at 4 hrs notice to move.


As each successive step mentioned above is completed, it will be reported to this HQ.

On IO June, at 8.50 p.m., Petrol Company duly received the code word flit from Base Headquarters and acted on it. page 58 At 10.30 p.m. the same day the Company received the following signal from HQ NZASC: ‘holster means all officers will carry revolvers and 12 rounds amn at all times. This applies also to WO's in possession of revolvers’. Next day, at 8.30 a.m., the Company got from Divisional Headquarters the signal: ‘flit and holster’. It immediately moved out to its dispersal area between the Marconi wireless station and the railway, alongside the 11th Hussars.

That day a detachment of twenty-six Petrol Company trucks, which had been sent on 7 June to 14 British Infantry Brigade at Helwan to form part of I Composite Section, NZASC, returned to the Company. This detachment comprised Lieutenant Hunter (OC), Sergeant Hopley,1 Corporal Smith,2 twenty-seven Petrol Company drivers and a cook, plus four other ranks from Supply Company. They had taken all equipment, including bedding, cooking and messing gear.

Thus re-concentrated Petrol Company spent 13 June digging first-aid posts and slit trenches. By 15 June the Company's war diary was again able to register ‘Normal Routine’. The brief ‘flap’ was over. With it ended a period of tension in the Mediterranean; the general feeling was one of relief.

Precautionary measures continued. At Maadi the cinema, a concert company (the ‘Blue Pencil’ Revue) and the NAAFIs were closed down; a blackout was ordered throughout the camp; anti-aircraft posts were manned. On 18 June two infantry battalions moved out to the Western Desert to prepare defended position at Garawla, 12 miles south-east of Mersa Matruh. Their main task was the digging of a huge anti-tank ditch along the entire Wadi Naghamish (about 6000 yards) from its head to the sea. The sides of the wadi were scarped to a steep five-foot face, while in some places ditches 12 ft broad and 5 ft deep had to be dug.

On the day these troops marched out, a Petrol Company NCO, fretting at his unit's inactivity, wrote: ‘We are all hoping for a move before long—RMT, Div Sup Col, 18 and page 59 19 Bns have all moved out, in full in most cases, and we hear that Div Amn have gone too. But we are still stuck in Maadi.’ They were not to be stuck for long. On 24 June, forty-two Petrol Company lorries were detached to 4 Brigade (assigned to the defence of Lines of Communication) and from then on convoy work for our drivers became practically continuous. At last the Company was taking a hand in the war; and the term ‘On Active Service’, stamped at the top of their letters home, assumed a real meaning.

The war in North Africa opened lightly but briskly. Within twenty-four hours mobile British troops crossed the border into Libya, taking Italian outposts completely by surprise. They did not even know that war had been declared. On 14 June the 7th and 11th Hussars, with one company of the 60th Rifles, seized the frontier forts of Capuzzo and Maddalena, taking 220 prisoners. ‘Tn this small but lively warfare’, wrote Winston Churchill in Volume II of The Second World War, ‘our troops felt they had the advantage, and soon conceived themselves to be masters of the desert.’

The most forward British defended positions then were at Mersa Matruh, with its railhead, its port, and its good road link to Alexandria. These received some attention from Italian bombers, but the effects were not impressive. The planes, with their motors cut off, would glide in out of the sun, release their bombs at 10,000 feet, then start up their engines and hare back over the border. Any loss of morale resulting from these tactics was certainly not on our side; and one New Zealand unit (Divisional Cavalry) notes in its war diary: ‘The men were anxious to fire at anything, including our own planes, if necessary’. Nevertheless, the Division's first casualty from enemy action occurred in one such raid on 12 July, when an NCO of 4 RMT Company was wounded.

At Matruh the C-in-C Middle East (General Sir Archibald Wavell) decided to await the attack of the main Italian hordes, which numbered about 80,000 concentrated near the Egyptian border, with a further 200,000 in bases and coastal depots between there and Tripoli. Against these, Wavell could muster the British 7 Armoured Division, two-thirds of 4 Indian Division, one-third of the New Zealand Division, plus fourteen page 60 British battalions ungrouped in higher formations and two regiments of field artillery—altogether about 50,000 men.3 The British built a large prisoner-of-war pen at Matruh and waited.

But the expected onslaught did not come. The fearsome Italian dragon, despite its inflation by Axis propaganda, proved most reluctant. Its heads were pained and surprised to learn that they were expected to take the offensive. No such idea had ever occurred to them. ‘Alla possibilitàG di una offensiva’, writes one Italian historian, ‘il Balbo non credeva’. Marshal Balbo, then C-in-C, just did not believe in the feasibility of an offensive.4

Mussolini, however, insisted. It would, he said, be a push- over. On 25 June the Germans were going to invade England; so no more troops, tanks, guns, or munitions, and above all no more aeroplanes, could ever again reach the British in North Africa. On the other hand, a flood of reinforcements would flow in to the Italians through their ports at Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk. Thus cajoled, Balbo wrote in a letter to Rome on 28 June: ‘At the right moment I shall fill in all the wells at Bardia [then his nearest stronghold to Egypt]–the last and only wells. I shall place myself at the head of my armies and march on Alexandria. Only there will our soldiers, if they wish to drink, find water!’

Even Italian historians rate this as melodramatic nonsense (‘Garibaldinismo della peggiore specie’);5 and no doubt Balbo's troops–for whom he showed so much consideration– were relieved to hear that his plane was shot down and the Marshal killed (by Italian naval gunners) on the very day he wrote the letter. His successor, Graziani, was much more to their liking. He stalled successfully for several months, paying lip-service to the theory of an offensive, but demanding first a build-up in tanks, troops, and armoured cars. By September he was still jibbing, and assuring his masters in Rome and Berlin that ‘We move towards a defeat which, in the desert, must inevitably develop into a rapid and total page 61 disaster’. This was noted in the diary of Count Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law, who also observes: ‘Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders’.

But Mussolini would have no more of this. He ordered Graziani to attack or be fired, muttering darkly that one should only give jobs to people who are looking for at least one promotion. Graziani's only anxiety was to remain a Marshal!

Such was the general picture. Into it fitted that part of the New Zealand Division—the First Echelon—then in the Middle East. The Second Echelon reached Britain six days after Italy's declaration of war; the Third was already mobilised and under training in New Zealand. Its fate hung in the balance. British policy, General Freyberg cabled from England, where he had gone to be with the Second Echelon, was favourable to concentrating the New Zealand Division in the Middle East as soon as possible. But it would be no service, the GOC advised, to send the Third Echelon out of the Pacific area unless it were immediately provided with arms and equipment sufficient to allow the troops to complete their training and take the field.

To send more troops to England without such provision, he pointed out, meant adding more mouths to a beleaguered and already hard-pressed country without adding to its military strength. It was even worse to do that in the Middle East, where, with France capitulated and disarmed, Italy was free to threaten Egypt. Better, he held, to send the Thirds to Fiji, where their presence, even if only temporary, would have some effect in the Pacific.

In the upshot, of course, the Third Echelon made Egypt on 29 September 1940, and was joined there five months later by the Seconds; thus General Freyberg's aim of a complete New Zealand Division, ready to fight as such, was finally realised. But both before and after that, the GOC had to battle hard to preserve the integrity of his force, and to prevent its dispersal ‘in penny packets’ at the behest of some higher command.

Meanwhile the First Echelon, and especially the ASC, found plenty of work. While 4 Brigade went on with its defence page 62 preparations at Garawla, Supply and Petrol Companies, their vehicles smeared with oil and sand for camouflage, shuttled the battalions to and from the Western Desert, in temperatures ranging to 115 degrees in the shade and sometimes remaining over the 100 mark until after 8 p.m. Drivers became affected with heat exhaustion and cramp due to loss of salt from their bodies—a condition which the authorities sought to remedy by publishing in routine orders a recipe for a drink containing half-an-ounce of table salt to a gallon of water flavoured with lemon or lime juice.

The trouble later on was to find the gallon of water; meanwhile Petrol Company's OC produced his own special answer to the thirst question. From 20 to 28 July the Company was engaged on secret night operations (detailed further on) in the desert near E1 Alamein. Petrol Company then moved to El Daba, where it camped between the railway station (‘two huts and a roll of wire’) and the sea. With exemplary concern for the welfare of his troops, Major Dickson decided to replenish their body moisture with beer—asserting that in World War I he himself had proved ale to be an antidote for Gippo tummy.

Stoically, the men resolved to take this treatment; so Captain McDonagh was despatched with careful instructions and a 3-ton truck to the Stella breweries at Alex. Supplies reached Petrol Company lines the same day and were placed in charge of the Company's canteen. All hands were entitled to purchase one bottle daily either just before or just after the evening meal.

Previously, orders had been issued by 4 Brigade Headquarters that no vehicles were to travel eastward past the road-barrier at El Daba without permission from Brigade Headquarters—a formality which Major Dickson (preoccupied as he was with the health of his men) had somehow overlooked. But Brigade HQ did not overlook it; and the OC was invited, in Brigadier Puttick's most characteristic manner, to explain just what he meant by this unauthorised act.

Major Dickson pointed to Petrol Company's low incidence of illness—the lowest, he claimed, in the Western Desert—and he repeated his contention that beer would maintain this creditable record. So attractive were these arguments that his transgression was forgiven; and thereafter most units in the Western Desert, page 63 including those of 4 Brigade, sent their beer-wagons regularly to Alex.

From 20 to 28 July Petrol Company joined a composite group comprising the operating sections, a breakdown lorry from Workshops, a detachment of Divisional Supply, and a platoon of infantry. Under command of Major Maxwell,6 of HQ 2 NZEF, this ‘Maxforce’, as it was called, had Major Dickson as column commander. Its task was to establish secret underground dumps of food, fuel, and other warlike stores at a point 23 miles in the desert roughly south from the Alamein station, close to the Qattara Depression, and almost on the Fuka-Cairo track.

The column camped at Burg el Arab. While the men got busy digging slit trenches, establishing cookhouses and planting ‘desert lilies’, Majors Maxwell and Dickson reconnoitred the terrain and took compass bearings. Then, far out in the desert, they drove a peg. This was to be the objective for their nightly convoys, travelling by compass in total blackout. They themselves would take turns at leading the columns.

With Trevor Sims7 driving, Major Dickson led the first expedition. During the day the men had loaded their trucks at Burg el Arab station and received their instructions. They were to cross the railway after dark at El Alamein and proceed in convoy to their destination. There, infantry details travelling with the convoy would dig pits and bury the caches. The column had to complete its job and be on the Matruh-Alexandria road, clear of the Alamein area, by daylight.

Leading off into the ‘blue’ on that first night, the OC stood up in his car with head poked through the open sun-top, taking a bearing. He noted a constellation dead in line and thereafter steered by that–to the consternation of Sims, whose choice now lay between charging down such obstacles as boulders, thickets and wadis, or incurring the OC's wrath for driving off course. By such methods they led that first convoy page 64 to within feet of the marking peg; and on successive nights vehicles had simply to follow the tracks thus made for them in the sand.

Nevertheless, this proved a nerve-racking assignment for drivers unaccustomed to blackout operation in the desert; and on the night of 21-22 July several trucks piled up, causing damage to three vehicles and half-a-dozen men. Two of the load-carriers were repaired in the field; the other was towed back to Maadi by the Company's breakdown unit. Petrol Company's Alec Ness8 and five Supply Column drivers were evacuated to hospital.9

In a report on this incident Staff-Sergeant Barnett noted that the mishap was caused by darkness, dust and bad visibility. He did not consider the drivers were negligent. Column distance, he observed, was 50 yards, in bad going with no lights allowed. He recommended to OC Petrol Company (for transmission to Commander NZASC)10 that for night driving in future a coloured light be attached to the rear member of each truck chassis for the following driver to use as a guide. This light would not be visible from the air. He also recommended that all vehicles operating in the desert be equipped with sand trays or steel netting tracks. All these measures were adopted as desert warfare progressed.

New Zealanders were not the only ones with truck troubles at that time. The frequency of mishaps in which vehicles driven by British troops were involved resulted in a warning in routine orders that disciplinary action would be taken if the driver of the vehicle was at fault. During June and July there were 129 cases involving death or serious injury in the Cairo sub-area alone. It was of the highest importance, the order stated, that personnel and vehicles should not be out of action through avoidable injury, and that a better impression should prevail of the degree of driving skill of British troops.

Egyptian Army and Cypriot drivers were much on the roads then, and a more slap-happy lot it would be hard to imagine. page 65 Their antics in the Western Desert (they were withdrawn when hostilities really began) spread alarm and despondency among our troops and must have caused theirs some grave supply shortages due to the non-arrival of vehicles, or their arrival with only a remnant of their original load, the rest having bounced off in transit. Their lorries, wrecked and abandoned along the desert road, provided a useful source of ‘spares’ for the Company's Workshops Section.

One such vehicle was spotted by Captain McDonagh during the Maxforce business, on the road between Baggush and the Divisional Petrol Company's camp. That night a workshops truck visited the scene and removed the Gippo's engine. It was duly delivered to Workshops HQ, where Captain McDonagh was annoyed to learn that someone had got in first and taken the generator. The sequel came a few evenings later, when officers from a Divisional Ammunition detachment, camped nearby, foregathered with their Petrol Company cronies for a drink.

Ammo's Bob Aitken11 told a sad tale of how a few nights back he had spotted an abandoned truck and removed its generator, deciding to return later on for the engine. But he found when he went back that ‘some thieving B— had stolen it’. When told the identity of the ‘thieving B—’ he generously forgave him and donated the Gippo's generator to Petrol Company.

About this time Harry Barnett found a beautiful Ford station wagon, brand new, left unattended a few miles up the road. A Petrol Company Workshops party soon had the vehicle towed behind some sandhills, for attention later, under cover of darkness. They prayed for a wind, which would restrict visibility and leave their prize undiscovered. But instead of a wind, an Egyptian recovery vehicle arrived and whisked the broken-down wagon away.

Soon, however, authority put a stop to all that, and routine orders announced that ‘the removal of any equipment from abandoned vehicles, or any form of pilfering whatsoever, must cease, otherwise disciplinary action will be taken against offenders’.

page 66

After the Maxforce project Petrol Company returned to Maadi, where its headquarters remained throughout August. On Sunday, 8 September, they moved ‘up the blue’ again, following the now familiar route via Cairo, Mena, the Halfway House at Wadi Natrun; then on to Amiriya and the Western Desert road, with its signposts pointing helpfully to such places as Tobruck, Tobrouk, and Tobruk. One could always get a beer—or at least a mug of ‘chai’—at the Halfway House NAAFI; and it was a poor convoy commander who couldn't work out his schedule of halts to include one there.

After a brief sojourn at Ikingi Maryut, 123 of the Company's Middle East personnel (which now numbered 169) made camp, on 18 September, at El Daba. Those left behind were Second-Lieutenant McCook with 33 other ranks to form a Composite Company with Supply Column men at Maadi, a few in hospital, and five attached to 2/2 MAC.12

‘Our main occupation for some time’, wrote one Petrol Company NCO, ‘was dig, dig, dig. Getting the chaps to sink their funkholes down to sufficient depth was quite a job, until the bombing raids started. After that there was no trouble, and picks and shovels could be heard going at all sorts of odd hours of the day and night.’ Mess and orderly-room tents were sandbagged and dug in–so well, in fact, that one wag suggested dropping supplies in by parachute!

But enemy air activity then was more of a diversion than a threat to life, even though the Italians had begun—on 13 September—their long-awaited advance. With six infantry divisions and eight tank battalions they surged across the border. Their objective? Not the conquest of Egypt, which would give them Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal— strategic prizes of inestimable value. No; their modest target was Sidi Barrani, a tiny outpost not far from the frontier and a hundred miles short of the British positions at Mersa Matruh. There Graziani halted and began to build a ring of forts, the immediate purpose still being defensive, but with the possibility that this zone would be used later on as the springboard for an all-out attack upon Egypt.

New Zealand combatant troops occupied the Baggush Box,
black and white photograph of soldiers sitting beside truck

C Section men in Tobruk, 2 December 1941

black and white photograph of soldiers inside tent

Cookhouse at Fuka, Christmas Day, 1941

black and white photograph of army vehicle

General Freyberg's caravan made by 13 Section, Workshops

black and white photograph of soldiers playing

‘Hori’ Perston breaks away in a rugby match at Fayid, February 1942

black and white photograph of army vehicles on the move

Petrol Compnay on the way to Syria, March 1942

black and white photograph of broken down truck

Workshops' cook truck stuch fast in soft sand in the Sinai Descrt

black and white photograph of river flowing through hills

Syria: the upper reaches of the Orontes River

black and white photograph of civilian carrying water

Water seller

page 67 a defence sector bounded on the north by the Mediterranean, to the south by the escarpment—a steep-faced plateau of lime- stone rising in places to some 500 feet. This ‘box’ lay some miles to the rear of Matruh (then the British front) and about 140 miles from Sollum, on the Libyan border. Stretching inland from Sollum to Siwa was ‘the Wire’, a barbed entanglement erected by the Italians in 1932. Without demolition this barrier could be crossed at only four places, all of which were closely guarded by the Italians.

From the Daba railway station—about 110 miles from Alexandria and some 90 miles from Matruh—vast quantities of materials had to be carted, to New Zealand troops in the Baggush Box and to the Tommies and Indians farther up. So Petrol Company joined Freyberg's ‘Colonial Carrying Company’ and bunged in. One trip took them to Maadi, for a load of gift parcels from New Zealand. But mostly they carried ‘general’ cargoes–RE stores, ammunition, petrol, foodstuffs— and sometimes troops, up the ‘blue’.

By then Italian planes were becoming rather a nuisance over Matruh, and orders decreed that when a red flag (air-raid warning) was hoisted above the fortress all traffic must stop and personnel take cover in dugouts and slit trenches. Petrol Company drivers were quick to note that the smartest at obeying this instruction were the Egyptians who ran the Mersa NAAFI. So, an unattended NAAFI being the answer to an army driver's dream, a system was soon worked out to take advantage of these temporary absences.

Petrol Company spent two and a half months at Daba, and the period passed quite happily. Set times were allotted for work, for vehicle maintenance, and for recreation. With the sea only three miles away, and the season being autumn, bathing was popular for a while. Then interest switched to soccer, since the ground was too hard for rugby. Supplies of beer were adequate, and in the lengthening evenings our men found comfort in that, and in the resultant song.

There was, however, one notable drawback—the flies. ‘All day and every day’, wrote one Petrol Company diarist, ‘they swarm around from daylight to dark and plague our lives out. At mealtimes they are unbearable, and when one tries to sit page 68 down in peace to write or read they delight in pestering one. They get up your nose and in your mouth, and even sit on the nib of the pen. We swat and swat and must have killed millions, but there are billions still left behind.’ Nor were flies the only menace, for the account continues: ‘Bill Davis woke at 3 a.m. yesterday with a 15 inch snake in his bed. We questioned what sort of a snake it was—pink, blue, or spotted. But Bill produced the evidence all right, and skinned it and made a good book-mark out of it.’

On 28 September Captain Ramsden set out with a small Petrol Company convoy taking rations and mail for C Company of I Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps, then camped at Siwa. With him went ten other ranks, one Humber staff car, three 3-ton Bedfords, one 30-cwt Bedford, one Bren gun and one Lewis gun. The party left camp at 7.55 a.m. with five days' rations and 164 gallons of reserve petrol.

Next day, at 5 p.m., they made Siwa, fulfilling various assignments there and en route. On 30 September they rested, bathing—perhaps wistfully—in Cleopatra's Pool, and enjoying the pleasant greenness of the surroundings. On the way back they tried to give a lift to some Senussi refugees. At that time many desert families, accustomed to driving their herds to and fro across the border, were threatened with starvation when hostilities closed the frontier; British convoys had orders to help them whenever possible. This group, however, proved suspicious, and language difficulties made explanations awkward, so they went their own way.

The convoy returned to Petrol Company Headquarters on 2 October, having travelled 560 miles. Its only mishap was one broken spring-leaf.13

By now General Wavell's plan for attacking the Italians was building up. The enemy's stalling had played into Wavell's hands, allowing reinforcements from Britain—including a much-needed armoured brigade—to make the three-month journey round South Africa. At Helwan 6 Australian Division had arrived; New Zealand's Third Echelon was at Maadi.

page 69

In the desert, troops were being moved up by stealth, and on 9 October Lieutenant Davis, with a convoy of twenty-one 3-ton lorries and four 30-cwts, took a battalion of 4 Indian Division from Baggush to a secret destination by night. This mission succeeded after a series of misadventures in which Davis, through stopping to help some Indian drivers held up by soft sand, lost touch with the convoy, was bailed up by an Egyptian sentry armed with a loaded rifle, and ‘pranged’ his car on a tar-drum.

Lieutenant Hunter also had his worries while on an expedition to Maadi that month to uplift base kits for distribution to New Zealand units in the Western Desert. This was to let the men get their winter clothing, underclothes, and woollen scarves and gloves. At the same time serge uniforms and spare boots were withdrawn and returned to Ordnance.

First shock to the lieutenant's system came when one of his drivers was arrested at Maadi. That was on the night of Sunday, 27 October. Next morning at 4 a.m., as the convoy was lined up ready to leave for the Desert again, he found that another driver was AWOL; so the party had to proceed without him.

‘Whilst travelling through the suburb of Maadi’, Hunter reported, ‘I was informed by air-raid wardens that a raid was in progress. I therefore gave instructions for the convoy to proceed without lights and at a reduced speed. Due to this, truck No. L 200941 driven by No. 6006, Dvr Neill, N. M., collided with a native donkey cart. Whilst halted for the morning meal on the Cairo-Alexandria Road at 0700, hours on 28 Oct 40, I was approached by No. 4335, Dvr Mace, H. F.,14 who informed me that he was a stowaway and wished to return to his unit [Petrol Company—in the Western Desert; Mace had been left behind with the Composite Company in Maadi]. I had no option but to bring him into the W.D. He was returned to Maadi on Wednesday, 30 Oct 40.’

Air-raid alarms in Cairo and Maadi were frequent during this period, but no bombs fell until 20 October. On that night a single Italian plane unloaded thirteen ‘eggs’, some of which page 70 exploded near El Abadri, a native village close to Maadi Camp. One native was killed and six injured. Egyptian ack-ack provided extra hazards by showering the area with flak and nose-caps.

This was also the era of the ‘Thermos bomb’, so-called from its likeness in size and shape to an ordinary thermos flask. Italian aircraft scattered these gadgets broadcast in the Western Desert; the impact on landing served to prime them ready for detonation at the slightest touch. So thickly were they sown at one stage that the movement of vehicles by night was curtailed to ‘strictly necessary purposes’. Methods of dealing with the thermos bomb, however, were soon found—they could be detonated by small-arms fire or by wires dragged behind Bren carriers—so this weapon's effectiveness was quickly cancelled. Petrol Company suffered no casualties from it, though two men were injured by Italian hand grenades.

Troops back in Maadi were treated, on 25 October, to yet another ceremonial parade, this time in honour of Britain's Secretary of State for War, the Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden, accompanied by General Wavell, Lieutenant-General Wilson and Major-General Freyberg. During the preceding few days Mr Eden had visited troops of the First Echelon at Maaten Baggush and other points in the Western Desert. After the review at Maadi he conveyed to the men, in a Special Order of the Day, the appreciation of the British Government of the part being played by New Zcalanders in the Empire's cause.

‘I welcomed your First Contingent when they arrived in Egypt’, said this message. ‘I have just seen them fighting fit in the Western Desert; I saw the Second Contingent in England waiting for Hitler's invasion. Today I have seen the Third Contingent, and I cannot tell you how impressed I am by the wonderful physique and bearing of the New Zealand troops.’ He wished them good luck and Godspeed.

November 1940 brought the Petrol Company its first real taste of desert winter. Temperatures dropped, and the nights became very cold. Icy winds pierced the thickest clothing. On the first of the month A Section's sergeant noted in his diary: ‘Here I am with the 19 Bn in a howling dust-storm. My vehicles are scattered to hell, five with the Wellington-West Coast Coy, page 71 five with the Taranakis, and two, plus the AA, with HQ. Fortunately I have good reliable drivers in most cases, and have left good men i/c of each group (Bickers15 with the WWC and Stubbs with TARA, keeping Gilmore with me) so things should be O.K. Have just been over to see how they were doing, but all have gone into the desert on manoeuvres and won't be back until 0030 hours tomorrow.’

Next day he wrote: ‘The worst night I have heard yet in Egypt. I write “heard” because I wasn't out in it but was tucked up in my blankets by 1830 hours and just lay there and listened to the wind piping outside and to intermittent spells of heavy rain. Real rain! ! ! I was feeling very sorry for my chaps with TARA and WWC out in the blue all night, but on inspecting them this morning after they had returned they were all O.K. and had had no trouble in the Desert, thank goodness. Wind and sand is still flying everywhere this morning, making things far from pleasant. All hands here, including Sgts, mess in the open regardless of weather, so one gets used to the taste of sand.’

That month Lieutenant Hunter left Pètrol Company to replace Second-Lieutenant McCook, ex-Composite Company, at Maadi; and on 16 December ‘J.J.’ was marched out attached to 4 RMT Company. Thus Petrol Company lost a popular and efficient officer. December also saw the departure of Charles Graham—first to HQ NZASC, then to OCTU. To OCTU likewise went Ian Macphail (11 November) and Corporal Gilmore (27 December). In November Major Dickson was marched out to hospital with a fractured rib, attributed officially to a stumble in the dark down the orderly-room steps, but by rumour to scrum-practice in the officers' mess.

In December 1940 the war in the desert began to hot up; and Petrol Company took a hand in it. On the 4th16 the Company moved to Qasaba, and from then on its drivers page 72 worked flat out carting petrol, rations, blankets, firewood—and troops. On the 7th it was announced at a conference of officers that the Western Desert Force, of which the Company was part, would ‘carry out a reconnaissance in force, with the object of testing the strength of the Italian defences around Sidi Barrani.’

black and white map of army movement

first libyan campaign opens, 9-11 december 1940

Those defences then consisted of a loosely knit arc of camps stretching from Sidi Barrani on the sea coast to Safai deep in the desert. Between these two lay the strongholds of Tummar East, Tummar West, Nibeiwa and Rabia. There was also an outpost at Maktila, midway between Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani.

This ‘reconnaissance in force’ was, of course, the real thing— the opening gambit in a complicated plan of attack. Few page 73 officers knew the full details, for the success of the plan depended on surprise.

At dawn on 9 December a detachment of 7 Armoured Division attacked Nibeiwa. At the same time Indian troops, ‘planted’ in the desert by New Zealand transport the night before, went in with the bayonet—closely followed (no show without Punch!) by NCOs and drivers of the NZASC, thirsting for Italian blood. So successful was this action that in less than two hours the stronghold had fallen, thirty tanks were captured, and an Italian general (Maletti) killed. Into the bag went his second-in-command and fifty other officers, along with great masses of men and materials.

Tummar West and Tummar East fell in quick succession and by nightfall practically the whole of the area and most of its defenders were in our hands. While this was being accomplished armoured formations had worked round to the west of Sidi Barrani, blocking the garrison's escape. Next day the Coldstream Guards thrust westward from Mersa Matruh in a frontal attack on Sidi Barrani, supported by a heavy naval bombardment. That night the Guards reported having taken more prisoners than they could count; they had, they said, ‘about five acres of officers and 200 acres of other ranks’.

Throughout this action Lieutenant A. L. Lomas, NZMC, medical officer with 4 RMT Company, worked among the wounded in the open under heavy fire from artillery and machine guns. On 10 December he carried on from 1.30 p.m. to 3 a.m. next day without food or rest—an inspiring example of devotion to duty. For this he was awarded the Military Cross, one of the first to be gained in the New Zealand Division during this war. Jack Prichard,17 Lomas's medical orderly, who also went overseas with Petrol Company's first echelon, won the Military Medal for similar stout work.

Now the hunt was on. Westward over the border the victors chased and harried their demoralised foe, inflicting heavy casualties. In London Prime Minister Churchill announced to an electrified House of Commons, and a world still incredulous of British victory: ‘We do not know yet how many Italians were caught in the encirclement, but it would not be surprising page 74 if at least the best part of three Italian divisions, including numerous Blackshirt formations, have been either destroyed or captured.

‘The pursuit to the westward continues with the greatest vigour. The Air Force are now bombing, the Navy shelling, the principal road open to the retreating enemy; and considerable additional captures have already been reported. While it is still too soon to measure the scale of these operations, it is clear that they constitute a victory which, in this African theatre of war, is of the first order.’

Petrol Company joined in the pursuit, all hands working non-stop to supply the fighting troops with food, munitions, petrol; rum, tobacco and mail. Their backloads were prisoners of war and salvage. They travelled now to Barrani, Sollum, Fort Capuzzo, Bardia. Convoys led by Lieutenant Davis and Second-Lieutenant McCook moved 17 Austraian Infantry Brigade from Sidi Haneish to Sollum—the same Aussies whom Petrol Company moved up for the attack on Bardia, and who soon were to storm the Tobruk fortress, singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

The Bardia job followed closely on our Company's first Christmas overseas—a period marked by villainous sandstorms which continued off and on until the end of the month. Most of the Company's ‘Western Desert Branch’ managed to assemble for Christmas dinner, which commenced at 4.30 p.m., with the NCOs serving. Sergeant McNae18 and his helpers turned on a great spread: goose, beef, vegetables, plum-pudding, fruit salad, oranges, nuts, and two bottles of Aussie beer per man, ‘buckshee’.19 By half past five next morning every available Petrol Company driver had been called out and was on the job again in pitch darkness. Thereafter they drove for three solid days with scarcely a stop.

They returned to camp between 6 p.m. and midnight on 28 December and were ordered to be out again by 7 a.m. page 75 next day; so off they went for another three days—tired, unshaven, grubby, but still cheerful, and anxious not to miss a minute of this, their first real ‘show’. By 31 December they were back in camp again, without mishap, and busily drinking the Old Year out and the New Year in. From 5 December to 1 January the Company's desert detachment had travelled 83,685 miles. One of their stock runs, from the DID20 at Matruh to No. 9 FSD21 across the border, was 218 miles each way. Mileage per vehicle, inclusive of all types, averaged 1819 for the period. Fuel consumption totalled 9835 gallons of petrol —roughly 8.5 miles to the gallon—and 109 gallons of oil

The three-tonners, of course, ran up most of this mileage, their percentage of the total being 62.8. Rough going—over the notorious Halfaya Pass—caused much damage to springs and radiators; but sterling work by a depleted Workshops sub-section kept the transport moving. No vehicles were laid up, and all demands on transport were met. Drivers often crossed miles of featureless desert alone, without map or compass, and with only scant directions.22 Yet they never failed to deliver their loads, sometimes thanks to makeshift running repairs requiring much ingenuity. This was the Company's first battle role, and all played their part with great credit.

Not all were angelic, of course. There was, for example, that deplorable business of the keg of Chianti, captured in battle (or thereabouts) by Tim Collins23 and his mates. Suspecting the existence of some such threat to good order and military discipline, Captain Ramsden, who was OC at the time, often sallied forth to seek out and destroy. But his searches of truck and bivvy yielded not one drop. He was forced to admit defeat—until one night, by chance, he saw the miscreants returning from the desert, pleasantly aglow. He was then able to follow their footprints and discover the cache—well planted, as they thought, among the sand-dunes.

page 76

On 8 January our men were forbidden while on duty to wear dress ‘of a pattern not issued by NZ Div’. But that did not deter them from picking up new uniforms from captured Italian dumps, and appearing rigged out like Ruritanian firemen. Italian dugouts, on account of their ‘livestock’, were also banned, while drivers were forbidden to sleep in caves (many of which still remained from Roman times) because they too were mostly infested with ticks and lice.

Carting Italian prisoners also had its moments, as, for example, when one Tommy sergeant, supervising the loading, gave each man a kick in the pants to help him aboard. Our drivers had instructions not to stop while carrying these cargoes, the result being a nice old mess in the trucks and no small pressure on the drivers' bladders. But soon our men used common sense and ignored this order.

A Petrol Company officer was once escorting a truckload of prisoners which got itself stuck in a patch of loose sand. He and his driver hopped out of their vehicle and began to shove the three-tonner—encouraged and applauded by the passengers. But a little of that was more than enough and those near the back of the truck were ordered to get down and lend a hand.

‘No! No! No!’ they protested. ‘Siamo uffizi!’ (‘We are officers’)—an argument which drew a suitably garnished reply.

On 6 January Jim Greig, again acting CSM, was concerned in an incident with PWs. ‘We proceeded through Sollum,’ he reported, ‘which is just a mass of ruins, and on to Fort Capuzzo where we loaded prisoners for Matruh. Left the Fort at 1000 hrs and reached just short of Barrani about 1300 hrs. Stopped for lunch but had no rations for the prisoners, who seemed to be fairly hungry. Unfortunately I had (entirely unawares) stopped near the prisoners’ former area, which they had only recently vacated, and several of them made a dash for it.

‘I yelled at them to stop and the nearest ones did so; but others who did not hear me kept running, so for the first time I used my revolver on Active Service and blazed a few rounds in the air after the runaways. That certainly stopped them, so I searched them all and apparently all the poor blighters had gone for were biscuits which they knew were in the dugouts. One or two were disinclined to go back to the page 77 trucks but a couple of revolver shots settled their doubts for them! ! !’

On 1 January 1941 Staff-Sergeant Barnett marched out to OCTU, followed by Corporal May on the 22nd and Sergeant Lyon24 a month later. On 2 February Petrol Company established a ‘Feeding Point’ at Buq Buq, with Bill Ambrose in charge, to provide hot meals for convoys operating between Matruh and Sollum. This allowed drivers to attend to maintenance on their vehicles while the cooks were preparing a meal.

Following the dissolution of the NZASC Composite Company, Headquarters and other elements of Petrol Company made camp at Helwan. There a routine order of 6 February laid it down that any of the following items of captured Italian equipment held by Divisional Petrol Company personnel were to be returned immediately to the QM store: rifles, pistols, anti-tank guns, mortars, artillery, ammunition of any type, motor-cycles, motor vehicles. If this order aimed at preventing such trifles from being sent home in letters and parcels it was not entirely successful, for one driver claims to have forwarded to his wife, piecemeal, an enemy field-gun and a good supply of ammunition. What use she made of these small tokens is not disclosed.

Some three weeks later another RO forbade the inclusion, in letters and parcels, of animals, birds, reptiles, insects (including the eggs of insects) in their larval, pupal and adult stages, spiders, scorpions, and the eggs of spiders and scorpions. So much for the aspirations of our khaki-clad naturalists— though it is on record that one man did send home a snake (wrapped in newspaper) which ripened en route and rotted all the mail in the bag.

On 19 February 1941 the Buq Buq ‘Rest House’ closed. Next day the desert detachment struck camp at El Daba and moved back to Helwan. A fortnight later Petrol Company (Middle East), which now included a small Third Echelon party, transferred to the British transit camp at Amiriya. There, on 8 March, they were joined by their Second Echelon associates, newly arrived from England. And so, at last, the Company was complete.

1 Sgt H. R. Hopley; born Morrinsville, 17 Apr 1910; public servant; killed in action 21 May 1941.

2 Cpl P. E. Smith; Wellington; born NZ 30 Jan 1909; taxi driver; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

3 Churchill, op. cit., p. 370.

4 General Pietro Maravigna, Come Abbiamo Perduto La Guerra In Africa, p. 199.

5 Op. cit., p. 200.

6 Brig D. T. Maxwell, OBE, m.i.d.; Wellington, born NZ 13 Jun 1898; Regular soldier; AA & QMG 2 NZ Div Oct 1941-Jun 1942; Commander, British Commonwealth Sub-Area, Tokyo, 1946–47; Commander, Central Military District, 1952–53.

7 Sgt T. H. Sims, m.i.d.; Petone; born Hawera, 16 Jan 1911; plate maker; wounded 2 Jun 1944.

8 Sgt A. Ness; Dunedin; born NZ 10 Jan 1916; mercer's assistant.

9 A few weeks later–on 28 Aug 1940—Petrol Company suffered its first fatality, Dvr M. C. Talbot being accidentally killed while on convoy work in the Western Desert.

10 Colonel Crump.

11 Maj R. C. Aitken; born England, 6 Jul 1894; mechanic.

12 Motor Ambulance Convoy.

13 On 27 September Cpl Gilmore, while riding a motor-cycle from Ikingi Maryut to Baggush before dawn, crashed into a boulder and broke some ribs. He was admitted to an Australian field ambulance.

14 Dvr H. F. Mace; Christchurch; born NZ 7 Jul 1912; printer; p.w. 1 Jun 1941; escaped Jun 1941; recaptured Sep 1941.

15 Sgt R. J. Bickers; Porangahau; born NZ 29 Jan 1906; fisherman.

16 On 5 December Cpl Gilmore marched out, with three trucks, for attachment to 7 Armoured Division. Their role was to carry wooden bridging to enable our armour to negotiate tank traps during the advance. The officer who commanded the party during their attachment reported that the work had been carried out in an extremely business-like manner, and that the driving was of a particularly high standard. For this and other sterling work in the Western Desert, Gilmore gained the BEM.

17 Sgt N. J. Prichard, MM; Dunedin; born NZ 10 Nov 1916; law clerk.

18 Sgt K. M. McNae; Midhurst, Taranaki; born NZ 28 Sep 1916; service driver; wounded and p.w. 21 May 1941.

19 The following conversation is reported, between Dvr ‘Jock’ Niven and a Petrol Company cobber:
Jock: ‘Are ye no’ taking your beer, mon?'
Cobber: ‘No. Never touch the stuff.’
Jock (aghast): ‘But mon, it's free! It's free!’

20 Detail Issue Depot.

21 Field Supply Depot.

22 Cpl L. Stubbs recalls that he was once instructed to take four trucks with meat, vegetables, bread, etc., to General Wavell's headquarters. He was given a map reference and a set of compass bearings. But when he asked for a compass, none was available. The detachment reached its destination and returned safely, after several days.

23 Dvr S. M. Collins; Wellington; born NZ 20 Aug 1906; driver.

24 Capt G. W. Lyon, m.i.d.; born NZ 16 Jan 1915; clerk.