Problems of 2 NZEF
CHAPTER 3 — The First Three Campaigns
The First Three Campaigns
DISCUSSIONS about the despatch of the Division to Greece commenced on the inter-governmental level towards the end of February 1941, and concurrently had formed the subject of many interviews and conferences between the GOC and GHQ. The strictest secrecy was imposed on all who were concerned in the proposals, a more stringent secrecy even than the normal to be expected prior to important operations. Such cables as passed between the GOC and the New Zealand Government were handled at Divisional Headquarters, and the contents were not made known to HQ 2 NZEF.
The Officer in Charge of Administration and heads of services were frequent visitors to Divisional Headquarters at Helwan and were aware that a move was in the air; but they were not given any details, and for quite a while were not aware of the destination. It must be remembered that this was the first operation to be undertaken by the Division, and was moreover an unusual one, involving the final stages of a concentration in Egypt, a sea journey, a landing, albeit an unopposed one and in a friendly country, and an advance through mountainous terrain to a defensive position. It is small wonder if neither the GOC nor the staff of Divisional Headquarters had time to think about what moves, if any, should take place among base and line-of-communication troops, although the obvious need for medical attention did lead to one hospital being included in the troops to move. The divisional staff was working at high pressure to complete arrangements for the move, not made any easier by the late arrival of units of the Second Echelon, many of which did not reach Helwan until the move to Greece had started.
On the part of HQ 2 NZEF, it must be said that OICA had not fully appreciated the position nor fully grasped his duties, and was content to be largely a passive onlooker. Headquarters had not realised that if the fighting portion of our little army took the field, there must be some effect on all portions of the force responsible in any way for maintenance in the broadest meaning of the term. The move had started before Headquarters woke up to its responsibilities and made some small administrative arrangements for moving certain advanced offices to Greece.page 37
As it turned out the Greek campaign was over so quickly that the breakdown in support was not noticed. However, the lesson was learnt, and thereafter HQ 2 NZEF was alive to its responsibilities.
The details of the move to Greece included the move of Divisional Headquarters at an early stage. It was a difficult position for it. Obviously the sooner the staff were complete in the new theatre of operations the better, as reconnaissance in its broadest sense was urgently required; but behind them in Egypt the units of the Second Echelon would still be arriving, and the bulk of the Division would still be waiting to move. Normally the arrangement would be to divide headquarters into an advanced and a rear element, the latter remaining at the starting point or the despatching end; and this was done on many occasions in the future. In this case it was decided that Divisional Headquarters must move as a complete unit; and as a solution, or at least a partial solution, it was arranged for HQ 2 NZEF, such as it was at the time, to move to Helwan and act as Rear Divisional Headquarters. Unfortunately HQ 2 NZEF consisted only of OICA and one officer, Headquarters had no transport of its own, and OICA had not even a car. Moreover, Divisional Headquarters moved out lock, stock and barrel, leaving not so much as a sheet of paper. Orders for the move of units to Greece were coming in often at intervals of an hour or so; orders for the move from Suez to Helwan of Second Echelon units were arriving concurrently, and to cap it all part of the 4th Reinforcements arrived from New Zealand during the same period. All these moves were under the control of the British movement staff, that being one aspect of military administration over which 2 NZEF had at that time no control. The movement staff was unaffected by the confusion caused to 2 NZEF with all these moves going on at one time, and we had to sort it out as best we could. Luckily, Headquarters Maadi Camp was now functioning to some effect and was able to take over a lot of the burden; and somehow or other the various moves took place without a mix-up. It was a difficult period.
As soon as this turmoll was over, we began to think what would have to be done about the New Zealand line of communication. As a first measure, the Officer Commanding Maadi Camp, the Deputy Director (i.e., the head) of our Medical Services, and OICA went over to Greece by air under somewhat uncomfortable conditions. The air as a means of transport was still in its infancy, and the passage was arranged with some difficulty, partly due to the lack of understanding shown by GHQ of the separate identity of 2 NZEF. In Athens the party found a liaison officer, left there by Divisional Headquarters, and not far away a camp containing those personnel who had been ‘left out of battle’ as a reserve for eventualities. As soon as transport could be arranged – and this was page 38 difficult, for no one had any spare vehicles – the party went forward to Divisional Headquarters, which was then in front of Mount Olympus.
The arrival of the party coincided with the first warnings of the later collapse of the front farther to the west, and nobody from the GOC downwards was in a position to talk about what might or should happen in Athens or farther back; and, moreover, at that moment did not much care. Operations near at hand took precedence. After staying one night, it became clear that the best service the party could render was to get out of the road and go back again, at least as far as Athens. On the way back the party spent a day with our hospital, which appeared to be sited too far forward, even if the front was stable. It was fast getting into a dangerous position, and in the end had to be abandoned after all patients had been evacuated.
On return to Athens the party carried out a reconnaissance of the surrounding countryside, with a view to finding sites for hospitals, depots, etc. – in fact, for the camp that at later stages we called our Advanced Base – but the reconnaissance was conducted with the feeling, which became stronger almost hourly, that the fate of the Greek campaign was already decided, and that no more troops would be put into Greece. Then there came news of the enemy advance towards Egypt and the investment of Tobruk, and activities in North Africa began to take precedence over anything the party could do in Greece. Some experience had been gained for future campaigns, so with a few notes to show for its visit, the party went back to Egypt after a total stay of about a week.
Towards the end of April, the Greek campaign being over, 6 Infantry Brigade arrived back in Egypt together with other smaller units. The remainder of the Division moved from Greece to Crete. It was clear from the very first that for some time at least Crete was going to be no place for any line-of-communication units, even a hospital, and there was never any question of our setting up any sort of 2 NZEF establishment there.
Early in May the Adjutant-General arrived from New Zealand for discussions with HQ 2 NZEF. About the same time there arrived from England a small military mission, headed by General Sir Guy Williams, and entrusted with the task of visiting all Dominions and consulting with them on their war effort. On reaching Cairo the mission heard of the imminent arrival of the Prime Minister of New Zealand and so decided to wait and see him before going farther.
The Prime Minister arrived in the middle of May, at a moment when the German attack on Crete was imminent. He wished to go to Crete at once, but was dissuaded if not definitely stopped by a combination of the British Ambassador to Egypt, the Commander- page 39 in-Chief, and the Air Officer Commanding. While waiting to see the outcome of the fighting, the Prime Minister started a series of talks with General Williams and with HQ 2 NZEF. There were many matters to discuss, and the presence of the Prime Minister, keyed up as he was by the intensity of the war situation, helped to settle on the spot many things that might otherwise have dragged on for months. The long delay about war correspondents was ended on the spot, the Prime Minister remarking that they did not appear to have been handling it at all well in New Zealand, and authorising certain appointments at once. Other points were referred to New Zealand, with his recommendation for immediate approval.
As a basis for discussion with the Dominions, General Williams had brought with him copies of an exhaustive long-term plan for the future organisation of the armies of the Commonwealth, known as Field Force Committee Organisation Plan 36 – short title FFC 36. Part 12 of this plan applied to the New Zealand Forces. It was most detailed; but it is sufficient to say that it proposed that New Zealand should form first an Army Tank Brigade and ancillaries (workshops, field ambulance, etc.), secondly a number of corps units, with the intention that the Division would join with the Australian divisions to form an Anzac Corps, and thirdly a number of line-of-communication and base units to help take some of the burden off the United Kingdom. In sum, it meant an addition to the strength of the Expeditionary Force of roughly 6000 men.
The Adjutant-General and OICA first examined the suggestions, which raised many problems, not least that of manpower. They were then discussed with the Prime Minister and General Williams. The evacuation from Crete was completed by the first days of June, and the GOC then joined in the discussions. The losses on Crete, and in Greece too, had been heavy, which complicated the long-term plans for manpower. While the discussions were going on, the Division concentrated again in Helwan.
In general the Prime Minister was favourable to the proposals; but in this case official approval had to wait until his return to New Zealand. His visit was both helpful and fruitful, coming as it did just after the two trying campaigns in Greece and Crete.
The campaigns had caused many internal problems. To start with, unit records had either been lost or were inadequate, which meant that it was some time before casualties could be given in exact detail. Second Echelon (i.e., Records) was powerless in itself, and had to depend on information given by units. The degree of reliance that could be placed on unit reports varied. Some units took great care, and even held what amounted to courts of inquiry before reporting a man as killed or prisoner of war. Others were not so careful; but it was impossible to be insistent with units that had page 40 just undergone a shattering experience and had possibly lost part or the whole of their administrative staff. Sometimes the reports showed such a degree of improbability that Second Echelon had to query them; and indeed as time went on Second Echelon waited for a double check before advising New Zealand. It was thus most unfortunate that the air mail to New Zealand made it possible for next-of-kin to receive letters of condolence from members of a unit before the cable from Second Echelon had even reached Base Records in Wellington. This was even more unfortunate in cases where it later transpired that the casualty was not as given in the letter. Men believed killed either turned up again or were found to be prisoners of war, and so on. The distress caused can be imagined, and led to criticism of Base Records and Second Echelon. The criticism was undeserved; but the problem was a difficult one to solve. We subsequently laid it down in orders that no one was to write a letter of condolence until fourteen days after the casualty had been reported to Second Echelon, and at a later date until the casualty had appeared in the NZEF Times; but it is doubtful if the order was ever observed. As it happened we never again had losses that caused such administrative disorganisation in units, so that the accuracy of unit reports to Second Echelon was higher. After the entry of Japan into the war the airmail service either stopped or was limited in volume for some time. The difficulty will always remain, however, now that air mails have come to stay.
The loss of unit records meant that it was some time before promotions could be satisfactorily arranged, which meant in turn that for some time pay could be given only for the ranks held before the campaigns.
Other ranks are clothed entirely from army issues and replacement of clothing and necessaries presented no difficulties, although sometimes there was a delay owing to shortage of stocks. Officers were almost entirely responsible for their own clothing, for which purpose they drew an annual upkeep grant in cash. Losses due to enemy action, however, were replaceable by special grants, and were considered as over and above normal wear and tear. In average circumstances, claims for losses in action were not numerous, as they arose from individual incidents. In the Greece and Crete campaigns, however, nearly all officers had lost something, and many had lost everything except what they were wearing. Human nature being what it is, we had to have some sort of itemised claim and had to be sure that the loss was due to enemy action and not to negligence. A small screening committee of three was set up, the president and one of the members being officers who had served in the campaigns. The investigations took some weeks; but interim payments were made at once, and were adjusted when the claim had page 41 been cleared by the committee. The Prime Minister had told us to be generous, and full replacement value was paid for losses. It is too much to claim that everyone was satisfied, but the task was handled as sympathetically as was possible.
Our pool of reinforcements was large enough to make units up to establishment again; but the numbers then remaining in depots were on the low side. However, the flow from New Zealand was steady, for one draft arrived in the middle of May and another in July. Provided our next casualties were delayed for a while, or were not as abnormal as the recent ones had been, all would be well.
The Commissioner of the National Patriotic Fund had arrived from England with the later units of the Second Echelon; but it was only in May, when the crisis in Crete was at its height, that the question of responsibility for welfare was tackled. The difference of opinion that arose, and the various aspects of the question, are discussed in Chapter 16. In the end an authoritative welfare committee was set up to advise the GOC, the Commissioner being a member; and while each side adhered to its own opinion, the committee was effective and the results were satisfactory to the troops, which after all is what really mattered. There were irritating incidents in the years that followed, but nothing that could not either be ignored or dealt with.
In June 1941 there was started a newspaper for 2 NZEF, entitled NZEF Times. It was issued free to the troops and continued until the very end of 1945. From the first it was a ‘news’ paper only and its columns were not open to correspondents, nor after a while were there any leading articles. While perhaps the results were not as ‘snappy’ as the contents of other army papers, we did avoid a lot of heart-burning and a lot of the difficult, semi-disciplinary problems that arose when papers published letters from contributors.
The campaigns in Greece and Crete established a sentimental attachment between Greece and New Zealand. The GOC therefore offered to find a team from 2 NZEF to train what Greek forces were still available in Egypt or the Levant. It was at first a welcome task to undertake to help a gallant ally; but owing to the Greek national pastime of politics, 2 NZEF lived to regret the action it had taken. The results were frustrating, and a political crisis always seemed to be just round the corner. We carried on with this task until late in 1943.
Towards the end of June 1941 the impersonal title of ‘HQ 2 NZEF Base’ was officially changed to ‘HQ Maadi Camp’. Then in August General Headquarters laid it down that in future all Dominion units were to carry an indication of their country as part of the unit title. It was understandable that with Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian forces in the area in addition to page 42 United Kingdom forces, there was bound to be some duplication of unit and formation numbers, and there had in fact been cases of confusion over the identity of units. Thereafter, all New Zealand units had ‘NZ’ after the number if one existed, or in front of the title otherwise, e.g., 4 NZ Field Regiment, 18 NZ Battalion, NZ Maadi Camp. It should be remembered that at this time the Division was known as ‘the NZ Division’ without any number. The change to ‘2 NZ Division’ came in 1942, as will be recounted in its place.
In the year or more that had elapsed since our arrival in Egypt, certain weaknesses had emerged in the postal set-up. So important did we consider this service that we asked for a senior officer of the Post and Telegraph Department to be sent out from New Zealand to investigate and report. This officer arrived in the middle of August, spent two months in North Africa, and recommended certain changes, which were duly made.
In August and September 1941 official approval came from New Zealand for the formation of the Army Tank Brigade and most of the corps and line-of-communication units. Headquarters 2 NZEF had then to set to work, in constant cable communication with Army Headquarters, to settle war establishments, arrange who was to command the new units and what proportion of officers was to be found by New Zealand and by 2 NZEF, select officers to return to New Zealand to help in the formation of the units, establish in consultation with GHQ the order of priority of the corps and line-of-communication units, and discuss each unit with the appropriate head of the arm or service in 2 NZEF. Some of these aspects of the work conflicted with others. General Headquarters’ ideas on order of priority often did not coincide with the wishes of the 2 NZEF officers at the head of the branch affected, many of whom, being human, wanted their own particular unit or units raised in the order. There was a constant struggle to prevent the absurd position arising that all were equal and all should be formed at the same time. Once or twice all past work had to be scrapped and a fresh start made. Most senior officers in 2 NZEF wanted all the officers to come from the force; but quite rightly Army Headquarters maintained that with new units such as these, which were to be formed in New Zealand, Army Headquarters itself was the controlling authority and must leave some vacancies for officers in New Zealand who had not yet served overseas. Analysis of the United Kingdom war establishments led us to make some changes as the result of our own experience; and this in turn meant that fresh establishments had to be made out and promulgated. It was a busy time.
In mid-September the Division, after refitting and training at Helwan and up to establishment again, moved out into the Western Desert. This time close contact was maintained from the outset page 43 between the Division and base establishments, and between Divisional Headquarters and HQ 2 NZEF. In fact this contact was never lost again throughout the war. Admittedly this time the line of communication was by road, without the break of a sea journey, and contact was easy to maintain. Up to the beginning of the Libyan campaign in mid-November it took only some six to eight hours to travel by road from Maadi to Divisional Headquarters at Baggush.
During September and October 1941 the New Zealand Government showed considerable interest in the operations proposed for the near future, including in this considerable anxiety over the support, both mechanised and in the air, likely to be given to the Division. After all, the Division had just taken part in two reverses. The Government made inquiries from both the GOC and the United Kingdom Government. The position of the former, faced with a request to comment on the plan produced by his military superiors, was a difficult one; but before sending his reply to New Zealand, he submitted it to the Commander-in-Chief, and with good will on both sides a satisfactory wording was found – one which while answering the queries made from New Zealand did not violate secrecy. One of the cables from the United Kingdom Government on the subject, after giving figures of the strength of certain arms – aircraft, tanks, and guns – goes on to say: ‘All the above is of fateful secrecy. War Cabinet here have declined to be informed of the date of the offensive.’
The adjective ‘fateful’ carries the mark of a well-known hand. The intimation about the War Cabinet was a delicate way of stopping any insistence from the New Zealand Government.
We had been warned some months earlier that there would be a General Election in New Zealand during 1941, the existing parliament ending its statutory period towards the end of the year. In the middle of October two senior civil servants arrived from New Zealand to make the arrangements for voting among the troops; but two days after they arrived, advice was received from New Zealand that the election was postponed, as the life of parliament had been extended by arrangement between the parties. The civil servants went on to make some investigations and formulated plans which were of value two years later when the election did take place.
Towards the end of Chapter 2 above it was stated that three forestry companies were serving in the United Kingdom, and that their association with 2 NZEF in the Mediterranean could only be slight. In October 1941 official approval was given from New Zealand to a state of affairs already in existence, and the companies were removed from 2 NZEF and placed under the New Zealand Military Liaison Officer in London. The liaison officer was visiting page 44 2 NZEF about this time, in company with the High Commissioner in London, and was able to settle personally the details of the change in control.
During October the first party of women's services arrived from New Zealand and was posted to the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo for welfare duties.
About this time we had the first marriage between members of the Expeditionary Force, in this case an officer and a nurse. There followed a long discussion whether or not the lady should be sent back to New Zealand after the marriage. The GOC for once referred the problem to the Government. It then apparently caused much argument in New Zealand, and finally had to be taken to War Cabinet. In the end, but not until after many months, we were told that married nurses were to be allowed to continue with their service.
At the point when in late November the Division took the field again the replacement position was excellent. During the year we had received fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh reinforcements, some 28,000 all ranks. The net losses in Greece and Crete were some 5800. There had been, in addition, losses for sickness and compassionate leave amounting in the aggregate to many thousands; but the result was to leave us with sufficient reinforcements for a year's wastage at the rates prevailing at the time – always assuming that losses in prisoners of war would be normal and not as in Greece and Crete. We had been told that the 8th Reinforcements would be leaving New Zealand in December. We felt that we must play fair, and when the campaign started were seriously considering telling New Zealand that we could do without one draft, probably the 9th Reinforcements, the composition of which had already been settled between us. The men intended for the draft could then have been used for capital expenditure, i.e., could be used for some of the new units then being formed under FFC 36.
But the enemy – a new enemy this time – again played a part. Japan entered the war in December, and we received no more reinforcements until January 1943. Moreover, this alarming addition to our enemies stopped the formation of any corps and line-of-communication units; and while the formation of the Army Tank Brigade continued, the brigade was now intended very firmly for home defence and was retained in New Zealand. To all intents and purposes the work of the previous months on FFC 36 had gone for nothing. We could only shrug our shoulders and look on it as a pleasant exercise.
In the general collapse of plans there disappeared the last attempt to form an Anzac Corps. The idea had been alive all through 1941, and the corps had even existed for a brief period in Greece. In page 45 November we were only awaiting the release of one Australian division from Tobruk to go on with the integration of the formations. In early 1942, however, all except one Australian division went back to Australia, neither country could go on with the formation of corps troops, and the idea was dropped for good1
While we did not realise it at the time, mid-November 1941 was our high-water mark in strength. Our numbers were some 36,000, of whom half were outside the Division. We never reached that figure again, our maximum thereafter being some 34,000 and our average about 32,000.
During the year there had been a slow but steady addition to the number of base and line-of-communication units. We now had three rest homes (medical units), one each for officers, women's services, and other ranks. The medical position had been further improved by the formation of our own Casualty Clearing Station, a much-needed link between field ambulances and base hospitals, and by the formation of a depot for medical stores. We had thought it better to keep the punishment of our troops as much as possible under our own control and so had formed a Field Punishment Centre in Maadi Camp. The time had come when we felt we must play our part in the early care of burial places, and so we formed a Graves Registration and Inquiry Unit, the work of which was the first step in a chain that would end with the Imperial War Graves Commission. The unit worked within the general Allied framework, was allotted an area of country to work over, and looked after all Allied graves in the area. Also, to work within a GHQ pool we formed a New Zealand Censor Section; but in this case the section, while carrying out whatever duties were allotted to it by GHQ, did in fact censor all the New Zealand mails.
In October, in order to help GHQ with the forthcoming campaign, we formed a group of small line-of-communication and corps units – signals and ASC, and the staff for an ambulance train. They lasted until the campaign was finally over in the spring of 1942, after which they were disbanded for the time being. One or two were later re-formed.
The whole of the mass of administrative detail with which Headquarters had had to wrestle during the year had been handled by a quite insufficient number of shorthand-typists, of whom there was a continuing dearth. It was still difficult also to get good clerks; but this deficiency showed signs of easing with the increasing number of men unfit for service in the field.
During December 1941 we had to try to conduct the voting for a by-election in New Zealand. It was not our first nor, indeed, our page 46 last; but it came at a time when the Division was fighting in Cyrenaica. The Government had to be told that only about half of those entitled to vote could possibly do so.
Towards the end of the year we succeeded in coming to a satisfactory arrangement with Army Headquarters over the difficult problem of compassionate leave, and as a result issued the first of a series of instructions on the subject. The problem is discussed in Chapter 15.
From the purely administrative standpoint the campaign in Libya in November–December 1941 created no special problems for HQ 2 NZEF and was handled as normal routine. For one thing the campaign, as far as the Division was concerned, lasted only three weeks. For another the Division, less one brigade, came straight back to the area in the Western Desert from which it had moved out. While losses were regrettably and even tragically heavy, the disorganisation in units was not as great as in Greece or Crete, and our reinforcements were plentiful enough to replace losses at once. By this time, moreover, the various parts of HQ 2 NZEF knew their work much better.
Had the campaign continued, however, there might have been a brief crisis over the forward despatch of reinforcements, for an investigation made by HQ 2 NZEF on 24 November (a week after the campaign started) showed that the Army authorities had not made any allowance for New Zealand reinforcements to be sent after the Division. We would, of course, have made our own arrangements had the need arisen. It was another lesson for the future – that we would be better advised to look after ourselves.
The one unfortunate feature in the casualties was that the number of prisoners of war was still high – higher than in Greece, but not quite so high as in Crete. While over half the wounded return to duty in due course, prisoners of war are a total loss. Our reinforcement position had thus worsened somewhat compared with the estimate made before the campaign; and after units had been made up to establishment it appeared that we had enough reinforcements to keep the Division going only until August 1942. It had been intended that we should form one of the corps units overseas – a medium artillery regiment – but this idea was now abandoned, and GHQ was told that we could not form any more units, no matter how small.
In January 1942 we were told by Army Headquarters that we could expect no more reinforcements for an indefinite period.
Towards the end of 1941 we obtained authority from New Zealand to purchase a printing plant, as an alternative to having one sent out from there. Suitable plant was bought in Cairo, a Printing Unit formed, and the first issue of printed orders distributed page 47 in January 1942. The printed word is always easier to read than the cyclostyled one, and everyone welcomed the new departure.
The second group of women's services arrived in January, this time for work in the hospitals.
The situation about shoulder titles was finally settled in January 1942. For some little while we had been experimenting with a cloth strip bearing the words ‘New Zealand’ in white on a black background, and stitched on the point of the shoulder. This did not get over the problem of removal for washing, and subsequent re-stitching, but a sudden brainwave by one officer produced the idea of a looped title which could be slipped over the shoulder strap which formed a part of all types of uniform. The idea was a success; and after a first issue had been manufactured in Egypt, supplies were drawn from New Zealand.
After about a month in the Western Desert the Division moved to the Suez Canal near Ismailia, arriving there in the middle of January. The intention was that after training for a while in the Canal Zone the whole Division would move to Syria. One brigade group later went back to Libya for temporary duty in Army reserve.
At the beginning of February a party from the Division joined with other troops (British and South African) in internal security measures in Cairo, these including sealing off the Royal Palace while the King of Egypt was brought to see reason.
For the first time some care had to be taken over the morale of the force, not on account of any of its experiences overseas, but because there was a strong, and natural, feeling among the troops that their place was back in New Zealand defending the homeland. This feeling was accentuated when it became known that two-thirds of the Australian forces were going back to Australia, and still further accentuated when somehow or other it became known that United States troops were to be stationed in New Zealand. The GOC took special steps to explain to all ranks the strategical reasons that made it advisable that the Division should remain in the Middle East, and little by little the feeling died down. The most affected were the non-divisional units stationed in areas away from the rest of the force. The companies were always widely spread out and always felt more cut off from home affairs than the greater assemblage in the Division. In this case, as at intervals throughout their service, we thought it advisable to take some additional steps to impress on them that they were not forgotten, and were just as much part of the Expeditionary Force as anyone else.
The move of the Division to Syria in March 1942 was the cause of the first change of communications for 2 NZEF. For over six months we had looked westwards to the Western Desert, and during rest or training periods there had never been more than 250 miles page 48 between Maadi and the bulk of the Division. No intermediate link was necessary. In Syria, however, it was intended that the Division would be dispersed from front to rear over a distance of more than 150 miles, commencing at the north on the Turkish frontier. Divisional Headquarters at Baalbek would be some 500 miles from Maadi, the rest of the Division being farther away still. It appeared, moreover, that the Division was likely to be there for some time, as it was now in general reserve for a role in the future unspecified at the moment, but with the possibility of an advance to the north into Turkey. The view at the time was that the Libyan war would be finally won without our Division taking part.
That being the case, our attention had now to be directed to the east and north instead of to the west. Two hospitals were moved, one to Nazareth and one close to Beirut. The Convalescent Depot went to the sea-coast in Palestine near a village called Kfar Vitkin. For the first time we formed an ‘advanced base’ known under that title, and intended to be a Maadi Camp in miniature. It was located in Palestine in a one-time Australian camp on the coast near the Convalescent Depot at Kfar Vitkin. It was to be large enough to hold one month's reinforcements on the highest scale of wastage, about 900 all ranks. The Division was to draw its reinforcements from Advanced Base, which in turn would draw on Maadi. Moreover, men discharged from convalescent depot or hospital in Palestine or Syria would go to Advanced Base and not all the way back to Maadi. All this was intended to keep the maintenance machinery reasonably close to the Division, so that losses in men could be speedily made up. For similar reasons our postal corps formed an advanced post office in Beirut, and pay, records, and ordnance set up small branches in Advanced Base.
It was briefly considered whether or not we should close down in Maadi, and indeed in Egypt altogether, and concentrate in Palestine and Syria. Our communications to New Zealand still ran through Egypt, however, and the future moves of the Division were by no means firm, so that the idea was never given serious thought.
It is of interest at this stage to look at the locations of the non-divisional engineer units. The railway construction and railway operating groups had been working for some months in the Western Desert and Libya, where they had made their mark in the construction and operating of the extension of the railway towards Tobruk. One of the Army Troops companies was spread out all over the Western Desert with its headquarters in Alexandria. The other Army Troops company was away down on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, developing a small port called Safaga. The Mechanical Equipment Company was in bits and pieces from the Western page 49 Desert to Transjordan. All these units were for operational purposes under GHQ control, and HQ 2 NZEF had no part in deciding on their locations; but we did try to persuade GHQ to keep them more concentrated, for as New Zealanders they liked to be close to their fellow nationals. In early March 1942, entirely for their benefit, we formed a second Mobile Dental Unit; for it would supply a service that they could not get from the British medical establishments on which they were largely dependent.
In March the strayed brigade came back finally from Libya and in April went on to join the Division in Syria. The change in surroundings and climate was of great benefit to all ranks. Probably never before had the members of the Division appreciated the joy to be obtained from green fields and trees and running water.
Having taken note of our reinforcement position – not for the first time – GHQ asked us in March to form a parachute battalion, saying kindly that such work would be most suitable for the New Zealanders’ characteristics of initiative and dash. The request was refused, and GHQ was again told that we could form no more units of any kind, and would in fact be glad to have back the men from such few specially formed GHQ units as remained – mostly signals and ASC. To them our attitude must have seemed selfish; but we were determined to keep our pool of reinforcements at a substantial figure. By so doing we could continue to keep the Division up to full establishment and so, in our opinion, help the common cause as much as if we dissipated our effort in a number of oddments.
In early 1942 we received a plaintive wail from the head of the NAAFI in the Middle East. Our units drew their supplies of canteen stores from this source, and at intervals paid the outstanding accounts; but the disorganisation in Greece and Crete, and the losses in the recent Libyan campaign, meant either that records had been lost or that the officers who had made the purchases were either killed or prisoners. The correspondence between the NAAFI and units had dragged on for months. The blame was by no means all ours, as there had been disorganisation in NAAFI also, for it had shared in the catastrophes in Greece and Crete. The total sum involved ran into many thousands of pounds. In the end we appointed a special investigator, a lawyer, to examine the NAAFI claims, both sides agreeing to accept his arbitration; and after a few months he gave his decisions and the accounts were settled.
In April 1942 2 NZEF co-operated with Army Headquarters by sending back a party of 46 officers and 140 other ranks to help with the formation and training of the home defence forces and of the force intended for the Pacific. Their loss was felt by 2 NZEF; but for the moment the need of the home country was at least as great page 50 as ours. It should be borne in mind that the New Zealand Government was showing remarkable restraint in not insisting on the return of the force to New Zealand.
Advantage was taken of the lull in early 1942 to circulate all the more senior officers and obtain their views on the question – a long-term one – of the final repatriation to New Zealand. On the face of it such a thought at that time appeared premature; but the problem was not an easy one, and merited some attention. The opinions of the officers were collated and, together with some comments from the GOC, were sent back to New Zealand. As far as we were concerned the problem was then put into the back of our minds.
Our women's services were the cause of one or two problems about this time. The first was that they were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain themselves in clothing under the arrangements in force, which were in the main that they were given an initial issue and thereafter an annual monetary grant with which to maintain the issue. For the new auxiliary services the annual grant was quite insufficient; and for all the services, including the nurses, the usefulness of the grant was dependent on the availability of suitable army stores or civilian shops. While Cairo was near at hand goods were readily obtainable, although rising costs were playing their part; but it was not certain that a great city would be available indefinitely. In addition, the existing types of outdoor uniform worn by the nurses had not proved entirely satisfactory for the rough usage they were receiving. A series of discussions was held, and the decision was to increase army issues. In the long run the uniforms of the auxiliary services were almost completely issued from store. The nurses’ outdoor uniforms were gradually changed over from white to khaki.
A more difficult problem was that of marriages of members of the force to civilians, or to members of other armies. The real complication came from mixed marriages, i.e., marriages of men to Egyptians, Armenians, or other nationalities not purely European. The problem is discussed at length in Chapter 15. It is enough to say here that it began to give trouble about the end of 1941, and was the most irritating problem with which HQ 2 NZEF had to deal throughout the war.
During April 1942 steps were taken to reduce the strength of the training staffs and of the various depots in Maadi, the reason being that reinforcements had stopped and that depot staffs would in all likellhood be needed for duty in the field. Depots were either disbanded or were reduced in number by amalgamations.
Our gentle sparring with GHQ about the non-divisional engineer units took a new turn about this time, when to our slight dismay it page 51 emerged that some of the units were in part the financial responsibility of the United Kingdom, and thus were not a complete 100 percent New Zealand contribution. New Zealand was responsible for pay, uniform, and pensions; the United Kingdom was responsible for equipment and stores. Headquarters 2 NZEF had not been told of this by anyone in New Zealand; and indeed at this time we were still in the dark about the financial arrangements for the force itself.
In April and May we received our first draft of exchanged prisoners of war. Except for a number of permanently unfit men, the draft was in the main ‘protected personnel’, i.e., medical or chaplains. After much cabled communication with New Zealand, it was decided to send them back home. While legally there was no objection to their resuming service, the policy adopted by the United Kingdom was that it was undesirable that they should serve again on the same front as that on which they had been captured. With this we concurred.
The period from the beginning of March to the beginning of June was a pleasant one for the whole force. The area in which the Division was resting was a complete change from the desert and was packed full of interest. The rest and the freedom from casualties was a relief to all ranks. Stormy days lay ahead, with yet one more crisis and with heavy casualties; but the Division entered on the campaign in good heart and with renewed determination.
1 As it happened, the Australian Government had decided against the proposal in August 1941.—Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Australian war history), p. 542.