Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Problems of 2 NZEF

CHAPTER 2 — The First Year Overseas

page 18

The First Year Overseas

IN the middle of February 1940 the First Echelon arrived in Maadi Camp, and for the first time the troops, together with brigade and divisional staffs, were assembled in one spot and could take stock. It was the first time that the divisional staff had been together. The staff officers knew each other, as they were all drawn from the regular forces; but their peacetime training had never included divisional staff-work by an integrated staff. Moreover, as indicated in Chapter 1, it was only in the two or three years before the war that any life had come back into the army after the almost moribund period from 1931 onwards. The staff were thus inexperienced and had to learn their duties like anyone else, and that at the same time as the troops they were supposed to train.

Moreover, the staff did not know their commander nor he them. It is not unfair to say that at that time the GOC was still thinking of the British regular army, and despite the time that he had spent in New Zealand did not truly understand the New Zealand way of looking at things. For a month or so the routine prescribed was more that to be expected from British regular units. Commander and staff went through an awkward period of neither understanding the other. To some extent work suffered accordingly; but salvation lay in the common desire to work hard and give of one's best. By the middle of May commander and staff were coming to understand each other, and the influence of the GOC was beginning to produce that feeling of unity which, as much as anything, led to the triumphs of the years that followed; but it must be repeated that there was an awkward period at first.

Everyone took himself seriously, which was no doubt right and proper. The result was that a lot of effort went into things that in retrospect seem trivial – small points of dress and protocol, for instance. We had not learnt the judgment of what really matters that can only come with experience in the field.

Those first few months in Maadi can only be described as frenzied, certainly from the administrative standpoint. A group of partially-trained units was under the care of an inexperienced staff. Every form of administrative instruction had to be thought out and promulgated; every service had to disseminate a knowledge of its routine; every sort of deficiency had at least to be recorded; and while all the internal turmoil was going on in Maadi there was a page 19 steady series of cable discussions taking place with Army Headquarters in New Zealand. Divisional routine was new to both staff and units and had to be established by trial and error. Units had to learn the importance of such apparently dull things as Second Echelon records. The staff had to listen to an unending wail about the lack of this and that, and how the war was to all intents and purposes lost already unless some unit received some particular item of stores at once. There was a shortage of nearly everything. Transport deficiencies were for the moment the most important, for we now realised that there were really not going to be any horses as in the First World War, and that motor transport of some sort was the only way of getting about, even for individuals – which explains the appearance among units of odd vehicles purchased on the Cairo second-hand market.

At an early date Headquarters discovered one unexpected deficiency – shorthand-typists. We had not realised how much shorthand-typing had become a woman's job, and how few men are fully qualified. Even if suitable clerks could be found, it generally transpired that the one thing they did not want to do in the army was clerical work. To the headquarters staff this was more than a joke, for it meant that all memoranda and instructions had to be written out in longhand, and then took longer to type than normal because some of the clerks were only one-finger typists. At this stage in the formation of the force this was a real drag on progress. The clerks we had worked manfully, but were woefully few in number.

Maadi Camp was far from finished, alike in accommodation, water supply, lighting or roading, Luckily the weather was pleasant, and at that stage we were prepared to put up with anything, so great was our keenness.

To the civilian Egyptian contractor we were little lambs asking to be shorn. Even in one or two contracts affecting the whole camp, and effected with the assistance of the more experienced British authorities, we were badly sold, one example being the cinema contract for Maadi and Helwan camps, and another the laundry contract. One can understand the wails of administrative officers when confronted with so-called ‘contractors’ who had not the slightest intention of adhering to their side of the contract, and who were past masters at the art of getting things so mixed up that they won out in the end by the sheer exhaustion of the other side. There were cases of contractors who agreed to terms apparently favourable to us for the sole purpose of getting a foot in the camp, and thereafter living on the pickings – the odd bits and pieces that could be scavenged from around the camp, the odd deal in cigarettes or more harmful items on the sideline, the odd item stolen from stores and so on. The fact that the staff officers concerned were page 20 incorruptible was incomprehensible to the Egyptian contractor, who was prepared if pressed to ‘come across’ with anything up to a motor car.

In the original plans drawn up by British headquarters, accommodation for the headquarters of the NZEF had been earmarked either in Cairo or in Maadi, the ‘garden township’ located just on the Cairo side of Maadi Camp. To the surprise of the British headquarters, the GOC said that he intended to make his headquarters, both office space and living room, within Maadi Camp. The plans were therefore amended to include a number of office hutments, placed where there happened to be a slightly higher level in the camp. The site was soon known as ‘the hill’, generally with an epithet of some sort. Working conditions were not as good as they would have been outside the camp; but the GOC's decision was a wise one, and the first step had been taken to weld staff and troops together. The consciousness that ‘Div HQ’ was living in the same camp, with the same difficulties of indifferent accommodation and lighting, went far to stop the idea growing up of a gilded staff.

In the early stages the office hutments were merely four walls and a roof, with open spaces where windows should have been. Tables and chairs were few in number, and lighting came from pressure paraffin lamps, of which there were also too few. It is perhaps small wonder that an appeal was made by one or two offices whose work was mainly indoors, of which Second Echelon (i.e., Records) was an example, to be allowed to move into proper office accommodation in Maadi or Cairo. There they would find all the amenities of peacetime, including proper furniture and lighting. To refuse an application merely because it is thought that people should be uncomfortable in wartime would be silly; but in this case there was more in it than that, and supported by the GOC's decision about headquarters, we were firm that everyone should stay in the camp. With one exception all the administrative machinery of 2 NZEF in Egypt remained in Maadi Camp throughout, cheek by jowl with the troops they were maintaining. The only exception was the Chief Post Office, which after a year or so moved into warehouse accommodation in Cairo because it was clear that the handling of mails would be improved thereby.

Life in Cairo, including in this the life of the British troops in Egypt, was still very much on a peacetime basis, and it was often hard to realise that we were preparing to take our part in a great war. Everyone was kind to us, invitations came thick and fast, until the hospitality became embarrassing, and the more senior officers had to give serious thought to where they were heading. An unending round of parties was pleasant; but we had not come to Egypt for that.

page 21

With Maadi township our relations were inevitably close. It was controlled by the Maadi Land Company, a private company with a franchise from the Egyptian Government to develop what was basically a desert area, and very well it did it. The township was a garden city, thanks to water from the Nile – and it was here that our first contacts came, as Maadi-Camp drew its water initially through the company's pumping stations. We had other official contacts; but the best-known contact was an unofficial one coming from a welfare institute started by the residents within a few days of the arrival of our troops. This was the famous ‘Maadi Tent’ which started in that form on a site at the camp end of the township. It will be referred to again when we come to deal with welfare.

Our internal problems provided the greater part of our work during 1940; but at the same time we had to learn the British methods of command and administration, and to find our way through the mass of orders and instructions issued not only by Headquarters, British Troops in Egypt (HQ BTE), but also by the comparatively new authority, General Headquarters, Middle East Forces (GHQ MEF). We were in almost every way dependent on the help of what was already a sorely-tried British staff. That help was freely and generously given. Some of our officers took to the association with the British units a bit too kindly. Officers of more than one unit were found wearing the ‘caps, coloured’ that belonged to the corresponding British corps, instead of the peaked hat or cap that alone were the head-dress of 2 NZEF. One or two of our service heads became so closely linked up with their seniors in the British service as to allude to the latter as their ‘commanding officers’. We had to tell them that they had only one commanding officer, namely the GOC. Without realising it, we were in fact taking some halting steps towards making the Expeditionary Force an entity.

By the end of March 1940 we had taken stock and had some idea where we were – not that our whereabouts, so to speak, was entirely satisfactory, particularly in manpower. The First Echelon had consisted in the main of one-third of a division, organised into units or recognised fractions of units. The only items in the echelon not forming part of a division were a base pay office, base records, both small in numbers, a party of twelve nurses, three YMCA staff, and a unit entitled a ‘Base Depot’. The purpose of the first four of the above items was obvious. The Base Depot had been included by Army Headquarters because it was sure that we would in due course want some sort of base, and this particular unit was the only one with a suitable name that it could find in British war establishments. The idea was sound; but the unit numbered only 4 officers and 26 other ranks, and in itself was of little use. Further personnel for the page 22 unit were scheduled to travel with the Second and Third Echelons, due in May and September respectively; but it was soon clear that this one unit with the comprehensive title was not going to be the answer, and that we could not wait until September to form some stable base organisation. In the meantime the service units of the Division – signals, ASC, and medical – had to adapt themselves to the running of the camp, which meant that to some degree they were hampered in their proper training.

With each of the Second and Third Echelons it was intended to send a general hospital, and one or two other medical units were scheduled for future despatch; but with this exception the extent to which 2 NZEF would be self-contained behind the Division had never been thought out. We had to set to work and make some sort of a plan; but the trouble was that we had no spare men, and none were due to arrive for many months. Each unit at the moment had a party of extra men with it entitled ‘first reinforcements’; but sometimes it appeared that these had only a theoretical existence, as no one could separate them from the body of the unit. Even if they could be discovered, normal wastage in the unit soon absorbed them; and, in any case, they were intended as reinforcements to the unit and not as a pool for general purposes.

Even after only a month in Maadi it was clear that in due course we would want holding or training depots for reinforcements, unless we were to be dependent on British establishments. At this moment (March 1940) we were exactly in that position for we did not have even a hospital of our own, and our nurses worked in a British hospital. It would be waste of time to labour the point, for it was obvious that we would have to form our own depots, etc., even if only for the reason that New Zealanders would not be happy in British depots, and that our ideas of training did not necessarily coincide with those of the United Kingdom. We must also have a depot to look after men who were waiting to go back to New Zealand. Our pay, records, and postal units all needed setting up in a sound and substantial form in order to allow for expansion in the future.

The medical position was the immediate problem, as neither New Zealand staff nor New Zealand patients were happy in a British hospital. So we had to organise a hospital of our own from what can only be called bits and pieces. Our only field ambulance had to part with some of its personnel, and others were drawn from all over the echelon. So was formed our first hospital in the Grand Hotel in Helwan, a site that with some ups and downs and changes of title we retained to the last.

Negotiations to take over the hotel, discussions with the British authorities about costs, and the large amount of constructional work page 23 to be done took some months, and it was not until July that the hospital was ready to take patients. The question of costs was clouded for the reason that at the time we were not sure how the British authorities were to be reimbursed, always on the assumption that somehow or other New Zealand would bear the whole cost.

The first new unit to be formed officially by 2 NZEF overseas was ‘HQ 2 NZEF Base’, which appeared in orders on 4 April 1940. The ‘Base Depot’ was disbanded, and small separate sections were formed for Legal, Pay, Postal and other administrative duties, all to be the parents of some lusty children in the years to come. ‘HQ Base’ later became ‘HQ Maadi Camp’.

Already we had had cause to be thankful for the extensive powers granted to the GOC, for we were able to disband units and form new ones and establish fresh administrative machinery without having to refer to New Zealand. Not for the only time during the war, the various British headquarters were envious of us.

On 30 March there was held a memorial service for the late Prime Minister, Mr Savage. Owing to a misunderstanding on our part, the service was first arranged for the Anglican cathedral; and it was only after a hurried cable to New Zealand that a last-minute change was made, and the service transferred to a Roman Catholic church in Cairo.

During April we held a series of conferences with COs and heads of corps to wrestle with a few problems that had arisen and which seemed urgent. Examples are extra-duty pay, hat badges, shoulder titles, and patches and head-dress. With extra-duty pay we were trying to rationalise a regulation which gave the pay to several tradesmen who did not figure in the force at all, and denied it to many hundreds who did. The point is dealt with in detail in Chapter 8. Suffice it to say now that not only did we not find a good answer in 1940, but we never did at any stage.

The other items mentioned above concerned dress and engendered the outburst of emotion that always seems to arise over military insignia. The points are discussed further in Chapter 17; but it may be said that here we had greater success, and did find an answer, which with some grumbling was accepted. To be fair, some of the points had officially been settled in New Zealand before the echelon sailed, and the revival of them was due to naughtiness in some units – or in all, for all shared in it to some degree.

As an example of taking things too seriously there may be mentioned the case of secrecy of paybooks. Soon after our arrival there was published an order in British General Orders to the effect that in a man's paybook there was to appear no reference to his unit, i.e., to the name and number of his battalion, field regiment, etc., the idea being to prevent the enemy from finding out from captured page 24 paybooks what British formations were figuring in the order of battle. Our paybooks offended against this order to the extent that they disclosed that the holder was a member of a New Zealand unit. After discussions with British Headquarters we agreed that our paybooks would have to be altered, and, with the Government's approval, went to the trouble of having thousands of new books printed in Egypt omitting any offending reference to New Zealand. It was a case of an absurdly strict adherence to the letter of the order, for of course nothing could prevent a New Zealand soldier from acknowledging his nation if captured; and, moreover, the addresses of next-of-kin were retained in the books, most of course being in New Zealand. The attempts that were made later in the war to disguise New Zealanders were quite ineffective, for there was always something that differentiated them from English, Scotch, Welsh or Irish. The action we took was then without justification and arose from our keen desire at the time to do everything that was right. Had the same point arisen a year or more later we would have ignored it.

In April 1940 we had our first application to return to New Zealand for compassionate reasons. The cases were difficult to handle as we were dependent on the aspects as put forward by the men; but after inquiries from other officers who might know the men and their circumstances we made the decision ourselves. Compassionate leave is discussed further in Chapter 15.

The realisation that we were going to want men to form our base establishments, combined with the normal need for reinforcements – or ‘replacements’, which is a better word – for the Division, turned our attention to the size of future drafts from New Zealand. Strictly speaking, this was primarily the task of Army Headquarters and not ours; but naturally we were interested to know what we might receive, and there was a lot to be said for the two headquarters acting together. Reinforcement drafts are normally based on the losses to be expected among the troops in the theatre of war, and for this purpose there were compiled a series of ‘wastage tables’, which gave in the form of monthly percentages the losses that might be expected in the various arms of the service under varying conditions of combat. We took it on ourselves to obtain from the New Zealand Army Liaison Officer in London the latest War Office figures for the wastage tables, and then proceeded to work out what we thought we ought to get. At the same time Army Headquarters in New Zealand was working on the same task. At first the two sets of calculations did not agree. At one stage we were so confused ourselves that we had recourse to an actuary to do the calculations. In the end we came to agreement with New Zealand for the figures that were to apply to the first genuine reinforcement draft, the page 25 ‘Fourth Reinforcements’ so called, by which was meant the fourth contingent to leave New Zealand. The question of reinforcement drafts is dealt with further in Chapter 13.

At an early stage (March 1940) the proposal was made from Australia that in due course an Anzac Corps should be formed, comprising two Australian divisions and the New Zealand division. In principle the proposal was approved by New Zealand and there for the moment the matter rested. It served to make us give some thought to the supply of corps troops, in which we would undoubtedly have to share – another unknown quantity in the future expansion of 2 NZEF.

In the latter part of April, ending on Anzac Day, there was held the first full-scale exercise, in which the whole of the First Echelon took part. During the exercise the divisional staff, especially the administrative staff, found themselves in a dual role. On the one side were their duties as staff of the Division, necessitating their constant attention to movements in the field and to the immediate needs of the fighting troops. On the other side were all the general administrative matters piling up in Maadi, nothing to do with the exercise, but needing immediate attention. An example was the plan for the reception and location of the Second Echelon, an event which among other things would involve fresh construction at Helwan Camp and the transfer of part of the First Echelon from Maadi to Helwan. All the time there were arriving from New Zealand a stream of cables, many requiring a speedy answer. There were many knotty expeditionary force problems, for it must be said that we were in the process of establishing a body of ‘case law’ for domestic issues of a most varied nature. During the exercise some of the staff spent a lot of time tearing backwards and forwards between the exercise area and their offices in Maadi. It was not a very satisfactory situation.

By the end of April a mock embargo was placed on the use of the word ‘essential’ at Divisional Headquarters; for day after day commanding officers and service heads came into Headquarters and declared vigorously that their need of the moment was ‘absolutely essential’, and that their activities would come to a dead stop unless they received the item at once. We used to maintain that true essentials were surprisingly few. Many months later, when we were taking the first steps to form a mobile bath unit, the staff officer concerned, in a memorandum on the subject to the chief administrative officer, said: ‘In this case I think you will agree that for the proper functioning of the unit, a supply of water is highly desirable if not essential’. He had the last word.

So far welfare had not caused us any concern. The number of troops was not great and did not for the moment strain the amenities page 26 provided by various welfare organisations in Cairo and Maadi, and by the YMCA and NAAFI institutes in Maadi Camp. Egypt was a new land to the New Zealander, and its marked difference from anything most of the men had ever seen before generated a curiosity and interest which in themselves helped to pass the time when off duty. The equally marked irritations of Egypt arose later on.

The cinema contract in Maadi Camp has already been mentioned as one of the matters we had not handled too well. The troops showed their opinion on one occasion by pushing over the end of the building, not a difficult thing to do as it was flimsy. We tried to put pressure on the contractor to show better films, and while as time went on there was an improvement and a second contractor was allowed into the camp, the cinema arrangements were among our poorer efforts.

We were aware that there was in New Zealand a National Patriotic Fund, but up to this time (March and April 1940) we knew nothing about its administration, nor for what it could be used. We then discovered that a Commissioner would be leaving with the Second Echelon, and that in the meantime the senior YMCA secretary was acting in his place. In a first discussion with the secretary it transpired that his instructions left him a free hand to determine whether or not to spend money on any special welfare feature, and that in fact he had power to decide what was or was not desirable. There seemed to us to be dangers in this authority, which would take away from the GOC the right to make what he thought were the most suitable arrangements for the welfare of his troops. Our opinion was passed on to New Zealand; but the course of events eclipsed this particular problem for the time being. Our immediate needs, which were small, were met by a grant from the acting Commissioner.

By May 1940 certain weaknesses in officers had become apparent, in a few cases in comparatively senior ones. For the first time we heard the appeal that appointments should be found for these officers with units outside the Division – reasonable enough at first sight, but with some potential dangers, for which see Chapter 12.

In the middle of May Divisional Headquarters made an attempt to get some order into the mass of instructions that had been issued since we arrived. A series of what were called ‘special circulars’ were issued, containing in summarised form all the major matters that had formed the subject of any orders to date. In effect they formed Administrative Standing Orders while in Egypt. The circulars summarised orders on (inter alia) accounting for stores, pay and regimental funds, postal, records, relations with Egyptians, maintenance of mechanical transport, leave, dress and clothing, supplies, courts martial, and matters especially affecting officers – a mixed bag. The page 27 idea was a noble one, and the problem tackled in this way – the dissemination of orders in an easy way – was one of the most intractable throughout the war. It is discussed further in Chapter 17.

During May the course of the war had for the first time influenced the action taken by units. The collapse of France and the possible entry of Italy into the war brought us a bit closer to reality. We practised dispersal of tents and transport to minimise loss from bombing; and one or two units were under orders for internal security duties in Cairo, in particular in areas where Italian property existed. We were quite thrilled.

The Second Echelon sailed at the beginning of May; but on the 15th we were told by cable from London that the convoy including our contingent was being diverted to Capetown en route to the United Kingdom. Some degree of turmoil followed. Part of the First Echelon had already moved to Helwan Camp to make room for the Second in Maadi, and we were caught in mid-air. Any further moves were cancelled. Then for a while we waited to see what was going to happen to the Second Echelon, and in particular how long it was likely to remain in England.

At the beginning of June Italy entered the war, and such small operational moves as had been arranged for us were put into effect. Among other action, we had to adopt a blackout in Maadi Camp, arranged in hutments by a combination of shutters and exterior curtains. Many of the hutments were still without electric light and were using paraffin lamps. With all doors and windows shut, and in increasingly hot weather, the temperature inside became wellnigh insupportable. There was a second appeal from the Records staff to be allowed to move into Cairo; but we were adamant.

By the first week in June it became clear that the stay of the Second Echelon in England, after its arrival later in the month, would be longer than at first thought. The impending collapse of France would leave England open to invasion, and the echelon might well find itself engaged in active operations before its normal training could be completed. The GOC decided therefore first, that certain staff and service officers should go to England to assist the echelon, and then that he should go himself. The First Echelon had had over three months’ training in Egypt and could well be left with a reduced staff to control it, especially as the chance of active operations was then remote. The Second Echelon was comparatively untrained. It was in any case desirable that both echelons should come under the same guidance. In the long run, moreover, it was now by no means certain where the final concentration of 2 NZEF would take place. It was possible that the First Echelon would join the Second instead of the other way about, although it must be said page 28 that the United Kingdom Government was definite throughout that the Second Echelon would ultimately come to Egypt.

The GOC left for England on 17 June. During this month an Australian division was moved from Palestine and accommodated in Helwan Camp, and the First Echelon was again concentrated in Maadi. The difficulties of cable communication and the fact that the GOC was for some time immersed in detailed control in England meant that to some degree the First Echelon went its own way, and we found later on that the two echelons had amassed somewhat different volumes of ‘case law’. It was an example of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of running a force in two equal portions in two widely separated theatres of war. Headquarters in Egypt was still cabling New Zealand almost daily about some still-unsettled point. Once or twice we found that a similar cable had gone from England on the same point. Altogether it was a confusing time, only supportable because after a month or so the probability of the Second Echelon coming to Egypt increased and the separation was seen to be of limited duration.

In July 2 NZEF in Egypt helped to form what was first called the Long Range Patrol, but better known by its later name of Long Range Desert Group. In the beginning we were supposed merely to be lending men from the Divisional Cavalry, 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment so that they could get experience and later come back to their units. It soon became obvious that the training of the patrol would take a long time, and that at the end of the training the men would be highly skilled in a specialised type of operation. A request later on for the return of the men created a minor crisis, as will appear later in this chapter.

We were asked in July to make some thousands of dummy tanks and lorries – or trucks, as we were beginning to call the vehicles. The dummies were to be made out of scrim and light battens, roughly painted with designs which would deceive observers from a distance and particularly from the air. They were to be placed in the front areas in the Western Desert, a term which now began to assume some importance. Our engineers who supervised the task gave a fine example of mass production. It took four days to make the plans, and thereafter gangs of men worked all round the clock and the job was finished within the time of seven days that had been prescribed.

By August the Government in New Zealand was becoming restive about the equipment of the force; but the fact was that we were doing better than United Kingdom units in the area, the British authorities concerned being, as always, most generous to the troops from the Commonwealth. At this time our issues of equipment had to be handled in a manner almost the same as in peacetime, i.e., they page 29 had to be checked and signed for, the arrangement with the United Kingdom Government being that our initial issues were to be paid for at actual value. The issues would have gone smoothly if the enemy had not intervened and started operations before we had finished. As it happened, units were moving away from Maadi while issues were still going on, and altogether it was not the nice, clean transaction we would have wished for.

During August and September most of the First Echelon moved out on to the lines of communication in the Western Desert from just outside Alexandria for two hundred miles westwards. Meanwhile, back at Maadi Camp we were preparing to receive the Third Echelon; and owing to signs of advance on the part of the Italian troops in North Africa, the balance of importance, as far as 2 NZEF was concerned, was swinging over from England and the Second Echelon to North Africa and the combined First and Third Echelons.

In September it was decided to form an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) of our own. A suitable officer was chosen as OC and a site arranged within Maadi Camp. At that point British Headquarters in Egypt heard of our proposals and put forward a plea that we should make use of its facilities, attaching some New Zealand staff if we wished. We accepted this offer; and thereafter for some years our cadets went to British OCTUs. The pros and cons of this action are discussed further in Chapter 13.

In the middle of September the GOC arrived back from England. Towards the end of the month the Third Echelon arrived from New Zealand and was accommodated in Maadi Camp, the First Echelon being away in the Western Desert. The Second Echelon was now scheduled to arrive in Egypt towards the end of the year, so that the concentration of the Division was becoming-something more than an academic point.

It was a matter for satisfaction that the GOC and his staff were again in one place instead of in two; but now a major problem had to be faced, namely the administrative control of the Expeditionary Force as a whole. The arrival with the Third Echelon of the first of a series of non-divisional units, the steady increase in base requirements if not in base units, the likelihood that before long the Division would move away into a theatre of war, and the need to have some one fixed point from which to keep in touch with New Zealand – all these indicated that the staff of the Division could not at the same time look after the administration of the whole force. Towards the end of September, therefore, the AA & QMG at the time removed himself with a small staff from Divisional Headquarters and formed a separate ‘Headquarters 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ which was so entitled. With effect from 1 October 1940 the separation became official. Head- page 30 quarters New Zealand Division remained responsible for all matters affecting operations of the Division and for the administration of the Division in the field. Headquarters 2 NZEF became responsible for the training and organisation of the force as a whole, for base establishments and line-of-communication units, including the non-divisional engineers, for the domestic administration of the force – promotions, pay, welfare, publicity, legal affairs and so on – and for communicating with New Zealand. Many heads of services became part of the new headquarters – medical, chaplains, legal, pay, among others. The administrative head was entitled ‘Officer in Charge of Administration’ or ‘OICA’ for short. The newly-formed ‘HQ Base’ became directly responsible for Maadi Camp.

The Third Echelon had been greeted with a flood of orders and circulars, embodying everything that the First Echelon had absorbed during its six months in Egypt. It had to be brought into the picture, and we did our best to cushion the stunning effect of such a mass of words by explanatory talks; but one way and another we probably overdid it, for when later on the Second Echelon arrived, there was no time to tell it anything before it went off to Greece, and it must be admitted that it seemed to get on very well. This question of the distribution of orders is mentioned again in Chapter 17.

With the Third Echelon arrived a Broadcasting Unit, the first ‘organ of publicity’ that we had received. So far we had no proper war correspondent and had been forced to make a temporary appointment from among our own personnel. The Government had decided to keep the appointment of correspondents under its own control, and not to allow direct representatives of the press. Naturally this decision had caused some heart-burning in New Zealand, one of the results being a long delay before any appointment was made at all. It will be seen later that it was the middle of 1941 before this was straightened out.

Towards the end of October HQ 2 NZEF moved into a new block of offices, which turned out to be over a hornet's nest. For some days the staff, including OICA, were slaying hornets, much to the delight of the troops at large. It was not a very auspicious start for the new headquarters, although it may have been prophetic.

The Division now started to concentrate at Helwan Camp, the Australians having moved out into the Western Desert. The Third Echelon was intact; but in recent months the First Echelon, as already mentioned, had been employed on duties that had absorbed it almost entirely. Quite naturally the GOC now wanted to concentrate the two echelons in preparation for the arrival of the Second Echelon from England. Advanced parties of this echelon were already arriving.

page 31

There were great troubles in getting back our detached units. At one stage it nearly became a matter between Governments, as the GOC felt compelled to inform our own Government of the troubles he was having, and to ask for its support. In the end GHQ released the troops; but the affair left some irritation in both British and New Zealand headquarters. It was not the last time that this sort of trouble was to occur. The problem is discussed at greater length in Chapter 11. It will be enough to say here that while one's sympathies must go to the sorely-tried British headquarters which was wrestling with problems of a magnitude that we did not perhaps appreciate, this concentration of our troops, the first we had had, was essential in the true meaning of the word.

By this time we had received a few real reinforcements and were able to go on with the formation of base units. We were also able to form the Long Range Patrol as a separate unit with its own establishment instead of looking on it as a detached part of the Divisional Cavalry. It was the first non-divisional unit we formed overseas, and in many ways the most notable.

At the end of October, partly as a result of the controversy over the return of our detached troops, the GOC issued an instruction that was to have far-reaching effects, namely that the primary role of our reinforcements must be to keep the Division up to full establishment, and that until this was done no troops would be available for duties outside the Expeditionary Force. It thus transpired that in the years to come the New Zealand Division was more often than not nearer to full establishment than any other Allied division, and its value as a fighting formation was much increased thereby. There were times when we did not have enough men to fill the gaps – late 1942 was an instance – and there were times also when we felt compelled to help GHQ to our own detriment; but on the whole the principle was adhered to throughout. British Headquarters had to find men for a myriad administrative duties – duties which were of advantage to the New Zealand Division among others – and many times it cast envious eyes on our pool of reinforcements at Maadi, especially as on occasion the men would be in depots for weeks or months at a time waiting to go forward when required. Further attention is given to this point in Chapter 11.

While the Australians were at Helwan our attention had been drawn to a photographic identity card which their troops carried in the back of their paybooks. We gave some thought to adopting this idea ourselves, particularly as there had already been many cases of theft of paybooks in Egypt, the suspicion being that they would later be used by spies as proof of their identity. The Australians were most co-operative, and even offered to lend us their personnel to carry out the work. However, we decided against it, one of our page 32 reasons being that we thought the war had already gone on for a long time, and that there would be too much work involved in making up the leeway. The decision may have been right, but the reason was weak. Our war diary says that various difficulties precluded the adoption of the system ‘at this late stage’ – November 1940!

In November the GOC felt it right to offer a word of caution to the Government about the increasing number of non-divisional engineer units, for we had just been advised of the formation of two additional companies. It appeared to us that the Government was overdoing it in this field, and that the manpower of the country would be unduly strained thereby. At the time, moreover, the Division had not been in action, and no one knew what the future would bring forth.

With the exception of some service troops, including signals and ASC, no New Zealanders took part in the first Libyan campaign in December 1940 and later; but the enemy was captured in such unexpectedly large numbers that the pre-campaign arrangements to guard prisoners broke down, and we had to come to the help of GHQ and supply men for guards. Some scores of reinforcements found themselves attached to prisoner-of-war camps at various points in the desert near Cairo. The duty lasted for a few months until the prisoners could be moved out of Egypt to England, Canada, and elsewhere. The incident is of no great importance in itself; but it serves to show that when it came to the point, despite brave words, we had to help in what may be called the communal duties of the army at large.

Following on the brief campaign in France in May–June 1940, a committee had been set up in England to report on the campaign and to make recommendations for alterations in tactics, arms, equipment, and organisation. In December the report came into our hands in Egypt, and the GOC decided that we should adopt some of the proposals. Headquarters had a short but intensive series of discussions with senior officers of the various arms and services in 2 NZEF, followed by calculations on manpower and the preparation of detailed proposals for New Zealand; for while the GOC had the powers to make what alterations he thought desirable, we had to get the men from the homeland and had to give New Zealand notice when it was proposed to make any marked changes in the numbers of the various arms. As it happened the work was abortive, for the Division moved to Greece before finality had been reached; and when the Greece and Crete campaigns were over the picture had changed and the GOC had his own ideas about the future. It was not to be the last time that planning for future reorganisation was to go for nothing.

page 33

Towards the end of 1940 and early in 1941 there were several small additions to the administrative machinery of 2 NZEF. An archivist was appointed in the hope that our historical records would be in good order at the end of the war, and in the hope also that regimental war diaries would be of more use than after the First World War. An official artist was provisionally appointed, pending further discussions with New Zealand. A concert party was formed, soon to be known as the ‘Kiwis’ and to achieve a notable reputation. A club with a comprehensive range of activities was opened in Cairo for the use of all ranks.

Throughout our time in Egypt, after what may be called the ‘honeymoon’ period of the first few months, there had been complaints from the troops about the service given by the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes (the NAAFI) which at that time were our only fully-stocked army canteens. The Australians ran their own canteen service, as had been seen during the time the Australian division had been in Helwan Camp in August and September 1940. Human nature being what it is, our troops decided at once that the Australian system was better than ours; but even without this belief, there were sufficient grounds for an inquiry into the two systems. A special committee was appointed, therefore, to investigate the Australian system. After a visit to the Australian camps in Palestine, the committee recommended that 2 NZEF should, with certain reservations, continue to use NAAFI, and should not set up its own organisation. This investigation is discussed further in Chapter 16; but it may be said here that the decision, while correct in principle, did not take enough account of the fondness of the New Zealander for his home products, and to that extent was short-sighted. As will be seen, in the end we did have our own organisation.

One somewhat thorny problem was finally settled in the beginning of 1941, namely the number and denominations of chaplains. The Senior Chaplain had travelled to England with the Second Echelon and did not arrive in Egypt until late in 1940, which will explain the delay. Both numbers and denominations of chaplains were settled without much difficulty; and while numbers increased as the war went on, the basic principle covering the denominations stood the test. Details are given in Chapter 8.

In December 1940 and January 1941 we received our first full reinforcement draft – the first and second sections of the 4th Reinforcements – and the manpower situation was good. The third and last section of the 4th Reinforcements did not arrive until March, and included several more non-divisional units. With it travelled the third of our hospitals, so completing our medical arrangements for the time being.

page 34

The steady stream of arrivals and departures at Suez led us at the end of 1940 to form a Port Detachment of our own there to speed up transit through the port, or at the least to act as a New Zealand liaison mission with the British movement staff.

In February the units of the Second Echelon started arriving in Egypt from England, having been delayed about two months beyond our earlier expectations. The echelon went to Helwan Camp, where now the whole Division was assembled. It appeared that before long great events would happen.

At this point attention is drawn to Appendix I, which gives the Order of Battle of 2 NZEF as at 17 April 1941, but in effect as it was in early March, when the Division was on its way to Greece.

Serial numbers 1 to 15 show the various ‘organs’ of 2 NZEF as a whole that existed at the time. The ‘2 Echelon’ is of course the expanded Records Office.

Serial numbers 21 to 114 call for no comment in this volume. They comprise the units of a normal division at the time, with one or two small additions.

Serial numbers 123 to 147 show the somewhat extensive number of non-divisional units. Most of these had been formed in New Zealand at the request of the United Kingdom Government. They included three forestry companies, which had gone to England, were still serving there, and were unlikely to have any closer association with 2 NZEF in the Mediterranean. The patrols of the Long Range Desert Group and the Mobile Surgical Unit and Mobile Dental Section had been formed overseas by 2 NZEF.

Serials 151 to 205 constituted our base organisation, most of the units being in Maadi Camp – obvious exceptions being the hospitals. It looks an impressive tail to have collected in a year, and like all similar tails must be prepared to stand up to criticism. Further attention is given to this in Chapter 9. For the present it will be enough to say that the general idea of our forming a self-contained base camp was never in any doubt. It met with the approval of all members of the force – a conscious approval from formation and unit commanders, and an unconscious one from junior officers and other ranks who, it is certain, would have been aghast if forced to make use of a camp staffed by other than New Zealanders.

Most of the units of the Division were organised according to British war establishments, although a number had small additions, perhaps only a man or two, to strengthen some aspect to which New Zealanders paid extra attention. The same applied to non-divisional units. All the rest, without exception, had war establishments drawn up by HQ 2 NZEF. After a brief attempt to make use of copies of the printed British war establishments in such cases where they were applicable, Headquarters decided that it would be just as page 35 easy to issue our own throughout, as in any case there were never enough copies of the British publication. The task of compiling and amending war establishments, and later reproducing and distributing them, was one of the most onerous in the work of Headquarters.

The organisation of the base layout had been the task of HQ 2 NZEF, which had thus justified its existence by leaving the divisional staff free to concentrate on matters affecting the operations of the Division.

And so by the middle of March 1941, 2 NZEF was already organised almost as a small separate army, and the Division was ready to take the field.