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Problems of 2 NZEF

CHAPTER 4 — Defeat and Victory

page 52

Defeat and Victory

THE enemy attacked in Libya towards the end of May 1942 and by the middle of June showed signs of being victorious. In order to reinforce the Eighth Army the Division was warned on 14 June to prepare to move back to the Western Desert. The move started on the 15th and was spectacular in its speed, the whole Division being in its new position within ten days. It was at once obvious that a grim battle lay ahead, that defence of Egypt took precedence over any other plans, and that the Division was finished with Syria for at least some time to come.

In those circumstances, the decision was taken to close down Advanced Base and the other small administrative offices in Palestine and Lebanon and withdraw personnel to Maadi. Advanced Base closed officially before the end of June. There was no question of re-establishing it elsewhere, as by that time the Division was already fighting in an area closer to Egypt than ever before, and further withdrawals seemed likely. The medical establishments in the Levant were left where they were for the moment – one hospital in Nazareth and one in Beirut, and the Convalescent Depot at Kfar Vitkin – but after a short delay the Nazareth hospital was moved to the vicinity of the Suez Canal. The Convalescent Depot and the hospital in Beirut remained in their positions, partly because the areas were good ones and partly because, in the case of the hospital at least, the location fitted in with the general layout of all Allied hospitals. This point is mentioned here in view of later dissensions, to be narrated in their place.

The campaign started sensationally, not to say tragically, by the GOC being wounded and flown back to hospital at Helwan. Another officer was at once appointed to command the Division; but, as it happened, the GOC's wound was not severe enough for him to hand over what might be called ‘2 NZEF’ matters, and he continued in his capacity as commander of the force as a whole.

By the beginning of July the crisis had spread back from the Western Desert to Egypt itself, where hasty preparations had to be made for the worst, namely a failure of the Eighth Army to hold the enemy on the line then reached, stretching from the Qattara Depression to the sea and only 60 miles from Alexandria. The immediate crisis lasted for two or three days, until it was seen that the enemy was not going to storm the Delta; but bitter defensive page 53 battles still faced the Allied troops, with an uncertain outcome. It behoved base and line-of-communication headquarters to plan for an unfavourable outcome.

So, in common with other sedentary offices, HQ 2 NZEF and all the associated offices – medical, pay, records, etc. – had to prepare to move back either to the line of the Suez Canal, or even farther. General Headquarters had made plans to withdraw to southern Palestine and agreed that, if circumstances became bad enough to warrant this move, HQ 2 NZEF should move with it and be accommodated in the same area. A small reconnaissance party went off to Palestine and, pending its return, plans were drawn up for the move. Like all sedentary headquarters we had accumulated files. The first thing to do was to reduce the quantity, so there was a series of bonfires – and a splendid excuse was provided for failure in future years to trace some communication – ‘destroyed during the crisis in July 1942’. The move was planned to take place in two or three stages, the various parties being at so many hours’ notice.

At the same time preparations were made to defend Maadi Camp itself, and exercises were held to ensure that the mixed collection of troops were ready for the unexpected. There were rumours of the possibility of a parachute attack, or at least of a parachute raid, and this was taken into account.

Concurrently with these activities, a drastic comb-out was then started in Maadi in order to swell the numbers of reinforcements, every man of whom was going to be needed. Staffs were reduced all round, depots further amalgamated or disbanded, and a fine-tooth comb dragged through all our base establishments. We had to be firm with a much-harried GHQ and insist on the return of some small parties away on guard duties. One bright spot was the discovery that practically all the men then serving at Maadi had seen at least some amount of field service. The exceptions were nearly all due to medical unfitness. There was no ground for the common belief that there were hundreds of total embusqués in Maadi Camp. During July and August the total employed in Maadi was much reduced; and to set an example, part of the staffs of HQ 2 NZEF and HQ Maadi Camp were amalgamated, and then later on the two headquarters were integrated under one commander.

A trying problem during this period was what to do with our women's services and, even more difficult, what to do with the wives of members of 2 NZEF, of whom, of one sort and another, there were now some scores. Some behaved admirably; others were hysterical and wellnigh lived on the doorstep of Headquarters in Maadi. Plans were drawn up for the evacuation of all women, whether serving members or wives, to South Africa; and while the service women waited for the point when there would be real page 54 danger, the wives were put under pressure to accept evacuation without delay. A number, especially those with children, accepted the offer of immediate repatriation to New Zealand via the Union of South Africa – where, as it happened, they had to wait for some months, and created their own little crop of work for the conducting officer and the kindly people of the country. The New Zealand Government had agreed without hesitation to bear all the costs of this move.

As the month of July came to an end, it became progressively clearer that the danger of invasion of Egypt was passing. The period of notice under which Headquarters and the women's services had been placed was gradually extended until it became unnecessary to have any notice at all; but the plans were kept up to date for some months.

The losses during June and July had been tragic, especially in senior officers. They hit home to all at Maadi all the more vividly because the Division was now so close that it could be reached in two or three hours. It was gratifying that we were in a position to replace most of the casualties and keep the Division for the moment in fair strength even if not up to establishment. One infantry brigade had so many casualties that it was withdrawn to Maadi for reforming and refitting. This same brigade was later chosen for turning over to armour and was out of action for the rest of the fighting in North Africa.

At the earliest possible date parties were sent back from the Division on leave and were accommodated in Maadi Camp. Special arrangements were made to ensure that it was a real spell for the men. They were immediately given fresh clothes and placed in a remote area with no set routine at all, provided with messing facilities which gave them meals individually at any time they liked, and issued free with beer when they felt like it. The result was that they did have a rest, and in the main kept away from Cairo.

At one stage during the crisis GHQ planned to take the despatch of reinforcements for all formations into its own hands, for the quite good reason that congestion of the roads and tracks forward was becoming insupportable. This meant that if our Division wanted reinforcements, first Eighth Army and then GHQ would have to agree; and presumably if the moment in their opinion was not propitious, or if our demand came low in the order of priority, would not agree. We had to concur with the principle, but showed no enthusiasm for the scheme; and it was lucky that the front stabilised and the machinery was little used. It was just as well, as it is certain that if the Division had called for reinforcements, no excuse such as that GHQ would not agree would have been accepted page 55 by either the Divisional Commander or by formation and unit commanders.

Towards the end of May we had been asked by GHQ to take part in a scheme designed to make the enemy believe that there were more formed bodies of fighting troops in the Middle East than actually existed. Our part would be to give formation and unit numbers to the units in Maadi Camp and to rename the camp itself as a New Zealand division. The scheme, named cascade, had a certain fascination, and we agreed to play. We had to consult Army Headquarters to be provided with numbers for units, numbering throughout the war being a New Zealand responsibility. In the end Maadi Camp was entitled ‘Sixth New Zealand Division’ (6 NZ Division), the camp works section 25 NZ Field Company, the infantry training depot 9 NZ Infantry Brigade, the camp hospital 23 NZ Field Ambulance and so on. A fresh vehicle sign, a kiwi, was brought into use for the units of the new division. The scheme was effective by the end of June and continued with some modifications until late 1944. Our contribution was only a part of the whole, which applied to United Kingdom and South African units also. It was of some value, for an Allied order of battle captured from the enemy after Alamein showed many of the shadow units as in existence and overestimated the Allied strength by about a third.

The introduction of this scheme meant that a number would have to be allotted to our real division. In the Order of Battle of the country's forces kept at Army Headquarters it had always been known as the Second Division; but the number had never been used in the Middle East, where it was known simply as the New Zealand Division. Concurrently with cascade we adopted the title Second New Zealand Division (2 NZ Division). The change was effective as from 29 June and quickly became known and used by all concerned.

It is mentioned above that a vehicle sign of a kiwi was used by the so-called 6 NZ Division. The Second Division – the real division – had from the first used a fernleaf, having inherited it from the New Zealand Division of the 1914–18 war. Hitherto no special vehicle sign had been used by HQ 2 NZEF nor by the non-divisional units. For the latter we had experimented with a black fernleaf on a white background, the reverse of the normal; but this was not very clever, for optical illusion often made it difficult to appreciate the difference. So now we grasped the nettle, and after trying out on sample vehicles such things as mako sharks, tikis, and Mount Cook, settled on the Southern Cross for all NZEF and non-divisional units – the Cross as on the national flag, red stars with a narrow white edging on a dark-blue background.

page 56

By the middle of August the real strain was over, and we were beginning to think about future offensives, helped by the information from New Zealand that the Government would be prepared to send us a draft of reinforcements later in the year. There followed an exchange of cables with New Zealand about the constitution of the draft, the main point at issue being whether Army Headquarters should send out the Army Tank Brigade – or one or more of its battalions – as formed units, or whether the equivalent number of men should come as unorganised reinforcements. If the former alternative were adopted, one infantry brigade overseas would be broken up, and the proposed turnover of another to armour would be cancelled. The Army Tank Brigade had been approved as part of FFC 36 in the latter half of 1941. Since then the Division had had a lot of experience, both good and bad, with armour, and the GOC now had his own ideas about what was wanted – a more mobile, harder hitting ‘armoured brigade’ as opposed to the less aggressive ‘army tank brigade’. Authorities in New Zealand showed a natural desire to send the units out to us unbroken. Both parties to the discussion were careful not to tread on the other's corns; but in the end the GOC's views, put forward firmly but respectfully, carried the day. The draft came to us with one formed tank battalion only, the rest being individual men; and even this one unit was broken up soon after arrival and the men merged into the new armoured brigade. The arrival of the draft will be mentioned later.

The changeover of the infantry brigade to armour was only a minor problem to HQ 2 NZEF. It was in the main a case of new equipment and training, the equipment being drawn from United Kingdom depots when available and the training being handled by the brigade commander. After all, the whole formation was out of the line and engaged on this one task. Almost the only action taken by Headquarters was to form a new corps in the Expeditionary Force, the ‘Armoured Corps’, to transfer to this corps the Divisional Cavalry, which hitherto had been a corps on its own, and to turn the one-time battalions of the brigade into armoured regiments.

In September, despite the reinforcement position, we felt compelled to co-operate with GHQ to the extent of helping it out with staff for rear duties. Our agreement to this was dependent upon our running an organised area with our own staff, instead of lending officers and men as individuals for duties in odd posts. In the end we staffed an Area Headquarters in the Canal Zone. During the discussions GHQ pointed out that if we were to contribute to base and line-of-communications staff at the same rate as did the United Kingdom, we would have to find 502 officers and 2566 other ranks. page 57 There were some fallacies in this argument, which will be dealt with in Chapter 11; but it is probably true that we were not doing enough.

Supplying the personnel for this area staff meant that we were down to the bone as far as men were concerned. The Division was reasonably strong, but depots were to all intents and purposes empty. It was fortunate that the next draft to arrive promised to be exceptionally well trained, for the personnel had been under arms in New Zealand for most of the year.

During the period from August to October there was the usual crop of problems, big and little, irritating and amusing, but luckily not of the first order. It transpired, for instance, that it was doubtful if the members of our women's services were governed by the ordinary military law. We did not expect any disciplinary troubles, and our concern was more from the standpoint of their position vis-à-vis other troops; but it was advisable that all should be in order. The position was doubtful within New Zealand also. In the end, after an exchange of cables, special Emergency Regulations were passed in New Zealand and all was well.

The first six weeks of the campaign that started at Alamein on 23 October 1942 created no special work for HQ 2 NZEF. Admittedly the Division was getting steadily farther away, and this time it was clear that there was not going to be any more withdrawal, but that the advance was going to continue. The Division rested for some weeks after crossing the Libyan border, and this enabled administrative contact to be maintained and such reinforcements as we could find sent forward. From early December onwards, however, contact became more difficult. The Division was then beyond Benghazi, and was shortly to swing round far beyond El Agheila. Road transport for either men or stores from Maadi to the Division became an impossibility and we had to start making use of sea transport from Alexandria to Benghazi. To help in this we formed another port detachment to work at Benghazi, as again we found that a small party of our own was of advantage in speeding up the forward despatch of men or stores. From the middle of December to the end of January we were practically out of touch, as by that time the distance even from Benghazi to the Division was beyond the economic use of MT. In fact, at that stage the whole Eighth Army had cut itself adrift from contact with the rear and was depending on the early capture of Tripoli. Such road transport as did go forward from Benghazi was confined to carrying the barest essentials of rations and ammunition to tide over the period until Tripoli had been taken. It was captured in the last week in January.

page 58

At that point a new situation arose. The Division was continuing under the Eighth Army and so would be advancing still farther westwards, quite beyond any contact with depots in Egypt. For the second time, therefore, it was decided to form an Advanced Base, to be located near Tripoli, and to hold reinforcements sent from Egypt by sea. (By this time the 8th Reinforcements had arrived.) The port detachment from Benghazi moved to Tripoli; a site in a pleasantly rural area called Suani Ben Adem was found for Advanced Base; a wing of the Convalescent Depot was set up near by; and the GOC considered that it was time we had a hospital of our own behind the Division's line of advance. At this time our hospitals were still at Helwan, in the Suez Canal zone, and at Beirut. It was this last hospital that we wished to move.

General Headquarters objected strongly to the move and, owing to its control of rail and sea transport, was in a position to block it. The locations of our hospitals were governed by two factors: first, the wish of New Zealanders to be treated in their own hospitals (and therefore always to have one hospital readily accessible to men from the Division), and second, the general distribution of all Allied hospitals so as to meet the needs of the army at large. We attached the greater importance to the first of these factors, GHQ to the second; and in this case the two factors were in conflict, as GHQ had already moved a sufficient number of hospitals to suitable positions for the Eighth Army. General Headquarters maintained, moreover, that by the time the hospital was functioning in its new area (presumably near Tripoli) the campaign would be over. However, the GOC was firm and pointed out that we had not had a hospital of our own anywhere near the Division since the campaign started in October 1942. With very bad grace, GHQ agreed to the move. General Headquarters was right in its contention, as the hospital was not functioning fully until the latter half of April, the campaign ended in early May, and the Division left on its return to Egypt shortly afterwards.

At that point we were able to make the amende honorable and agree that both hospital and Convalescent Depot should stay in the area during the campaign in Sicily, in which the Division played no part. The hospital remained there until September, cut off from all other New Zealand units, so that in the end we did feel that we had played our part in the common cause.

To go back to the point after the capture of Tripoli – Advanced Base was established during February 1943 and, for the second time, intermediate offices were opened for such things as pay, records, and postal duties. Casualties in this campaign had been low, lower than our estimates, and much lower than in any previous fighting; but page 59 we continued to hold the equivalent of one month's wastage in the depot at Advanced Base. Reinforcements were sent forward from there in our own transport, but once or twice we helped GHQ by using reinforcement drafts to drive convoys of MT vehicles intended as replacements for losses. Even from Tripoli forward distances were great, and at its limit just short of Tunis the Division was some 500 miles from Advanced Base. The only comfort was that very soon the advance must stop.

For the moment a return must be made to the latter months of 1942. During this period we had further discussions with Army Headquarters about compassionate leave, a problem that was becoming increasingly acute with the years. Many little points were cleared up and in the end we were satisfied that the best possible was being done in New Zealand to investigate the cases and report on them. In February 1943 a fresh issue of the instructions on the subject was promulgated, a copy being in Appendix IX.

Towards the end of 1942 the British Army formed the new corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, taking away from the old Ordnance Corps that portion which dealt with such technicalities. After only slight hesitation we recommended to New Zealand that we should follow suit, and the recommendation was approved. The change became effective in December 1942.

As 1942 had gone on, the manpower position had become progressively more acute. At Maadi we did our best to maintain the comb-out and, what was more difficult, to resist the only too frequent requests for more men for this and that. The time for luxuries had for the moment ceased to be. It so happened that in December the GOC agreed to the formation of another unit within the Division, aimed at improving the amenities for the troops. It was only a field bakery section and the numbers were small, 37 all ranks; but to the careworn accountants of manpower at HQ 2 NZEF it resembled the famous last straw. For once the Officer in Charge of Administration had to warn the GOC that if this sort of thing went on there would shortly be no more troops to do the fighting. The unit, of course, did excellent service, but in principle its formation just at that time was questionable.

In January 1943 the problem of the marginally unfit man became acute. It is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 15. Here it will be enough to say that we had to set up a special standing committee to review cases, and at the same time appointed a full-time officer to do nothing else except look after affected cases and ensure that men had work that was productive and not merely time-filling.

In January the 8th Reinforcements arrived, some 5500 strong. Never was any draft more welcome throughout the war. The draft page 60 was well trained and could be handed over to active units with less training overseas than was usual. It was speedily absorbed, as our numbers were low.

In March 1943 the Eighth Army advancing from the south was joined to the Allied army coming from the west (Algeria) and control of the combined forces passed to General Eisenhower, who had his headquarters in Algiers. This meant that censorship of war correspondents’ despatches was done there instead of in Cairo. We sent one correspondent there as liaison officer. From the beginning we had difficulties, for the reason that the headquarters in Algiers had had no experience of Dominion troops and would not allow them a separate identity. There was some acerbity, and a degree of plain speaking, and in the end our despatches were cleared with reasonable speed. We had by this time established such a good understanding with General Headquarters, Middle East, that it was irritating to have to start all over again. It was, however, not the last time that we had to assert our separate identity.

As soon as the victory at Alamein was seen to be certain, i.e., in December 1942, the Australians withdrew their remaining division for service in the Pacific. Naturally there was a recrudescence of the uneasy feeling in 2 NZEF that our place was in New Zealand; but the troops were now advancing victoriously, the tide of the war had turned, even in the Pacific, and the feeling died down quickly.

After the withdrawal of the Australian forces HQ 2 NZEF offered to look after Australia's interests, so to speak. We had already made the Australians free of our clubs. Now we said that we would handle any parties of exchanged or escaped prisoners. There was always a sprinkling of Australians about, both in North Africa and in Italy, and it gave us pleasure to look after them.

March 1943 produced the beginning of an exchange of cables with New Zealand about a General Election, which now seemed likely to take place later in the year. It was agreed that in due course New Zealand would send out someone with the necessary instructions and authority to handle the voting; and then for the moment the matter was put aside.

Since Japan had entered the war in December 1941 the only mails to and from New Zealand had been carried by sea, a sad blow to those who had become accustomed to air mails. During 1942, however, postal authorities in the countries concerned – United States, United Kingdom, Egypt, and New Zealand – had arranged for the introduction of an airgraph service – microfilmed air letter-cards – and this was started to and from New Zealand in March 1943. At the outset, troops had to be rationed to only one card a week; but page 61 it was at least something, and meant that an answer to a letter could be received in a matter of weeks instead of months.

During March there were other discussions with New Zealand on manpower, which was now becoming a problem in New Zealand too. After careful examination, and taking a bit of a chance on the future, HQ 2 NZEF agreed to a delay of two months in the sailing of the next draft, the 9th Reinforcements. It had been intended to despatch it in March; but it did not sail until mid-May.

Advanced Base had its teething troubles, as was only to be expected. One arose out of our desire to be helpful to British Headquarters, in this case Rear Headquarters of the Eighth Army. With some hesitation Advanced Base had agreed to lend men for guard duties, the understanding being that the men were to be given back as soon as they were wanted for a draft to the Division; but it always seemed to happen that the moment when we wanted them was an awkward one for Army Headquarters, and there were appeals to be allowed to retain them for a further period. Then there would be an argument embarrassing to both sides; but we had to be firm and get the men back.

For some weeks before the beginning of March 1943 we had known that the Minister of Defence was proposing to visit the Expeditionary Force. The time first suggested for his visit was unsuitable for the Division, which was just beginning (mid-March) one of its outstanding operations, the outflanking of the Mareth line; but the Minister decided to adhere to his plans and arrive on the original date, but confine his activities to that portion of the Expeditionary Force not engaged in Tunisia. He would then go to England, engage in part of his business there, and later come back to see the Division at a more suitable time. He arrived initially on 16 March and stayed until 3 April, visiting all the camps and units in Egypt, together with some of the non-divisional units in the Western Desert and in Syria and Palestine.

From the start the policy was for the Minister to talk freely to the men and so get an opinion on their real feelings. At the end of each day he would tell Headquarters what questions he had been asked, and what matters appeared to be troubling the men. He would then be given an answer if one was known. Otherwise, Headquarters would engage to investigate the query. It was gratifying that there were few complaints, and even fewer real grievances, and that most of the matters raised with the Minister referred to happenings in New Zealand and not in the Expeditionary Force.

At this time (March–April 1943) our non-divisional units were spread out from Tunisia to Beirut. The Railway Construction Group page 62 had been moved complete to Palestine and Lebanon, where it was extending the railway line up the coast from Acre in Palestine to Beirut in Lebanon. The Railway Operating Group was again runing the trains as far as Tobruk. The artillery Survey Battery, after a spell in both Transjordan and Syria on ordinary survey work, had at last joined the Division and was carrying out artillery duties. One Army Troops company was in the Western Desert, mostly engaged on improving the water supply; one had moved from the small port of Safaga on the Red Sea to Benghazi, where it was helping to get the port back into full running order. The Mechanical Equipment Company was strewn out over a good part of Libya.

Even the opening up of Tripoli had not led to the abandonment of Benghazi, and we had to re-form the Port Detachment at the latter port.

It was not until April that we received the full details of the financial arrangements between the United Kingdom and New Zealand Governments under which the Expeditionary Force was operating. It was, in brief, that first a lump sum should be paid for initial equipment; second, a lump sum should be paid to cover maintenance up to 31 July 1942; and third, there should be a monthly payment of a fixed sum for maintenance after 1 August 1942. We now felt a bit surer of our ground when dealing with British authorities. Had it not been for the generosity and forbearance of these authorities, we might often have found ourselves in difficulties. This is further mentioned in Chapter 11.

The Minister of Defence arrived back in North Africa on 27 April, but this time went direct to the Division. It was now right up against the last mountain defences of Tunis and was not very active, so that the Minister was able to see most of the units. He stayed there about a week and then came back to Egypt, visiting one or two units in Libya en route. He left us finally on 14 May.

Towards the end of May the Division started on its long journey by road back to Maadi, some 1800 miles away. Advanced Base was closed on 23 May, and with the exception of the medical units mentioned on page 58, all our administrative units were withdrawn to Egypt. In preparation for the return of the Division, Maadi Camp was cleared of a number of the depots, which moved to Puttick Camp at Mena, some miles away near the Pyramids. Helwan was no longer available, having long ago become the main South African base. Maadi was so much the New Zealand home that the Division preferred to pack itself closely in there, rather than go to an area elsewhere in Egypt. For those who were badly in need of recuperation, a leave camp was started at Alexandria.

During the Minister's visit discussions had taken place on a scheme for furlough for long-service personnel, following on some page 63 cabled communications with New Zealand. The broad principles had been established, and the proposals had been further considered in the weeks following the Minister's departure. Any scheme was dependent on the Division being freed from an operational role, which was now the position. It had previously been made clear to GHQ that the Division would not be available for the next campaign, the invasion of Sicily, planning for which had been going on for some time.

The way was now clear, for the first time for over two years, for the Expeditionary Force to turn its attention to matters unconnected with fighting.