CHAPTER 3 — Second and Third Echelons
Second and Third Echelons
THE war was still quiescent when the Second Echelon of 2 NZEF was mobilised on 12 January 1940, a week after the First Echelon had left for overseas, but by the time it sailed on 2 May the Norwegian campaign was in full swing, and when it was eight days out from New Zealand the German invasion of Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium, which was to develop into the rout of France, was begun.
Training of the Second Echelon details of Supply Column at Burnham was generally along the same lines as that for the First Echelon, although revised syllabi replaced earlier ones. After final leave the contingent sailed from New Zealand on 2 May in the ships Empress of Britain, Aquitania, Empress of Japan (later renamed Empress of Scotland) and Andes, all except the Aquitania, on which Supply Column embarked, modern vessels and designed for travel in the tropics.
When the convoy cleared Fremantle early in May and headed north-west, Egypt seemed assuredly to be the destination, and in Egypt the First Echelon was preparing for the arrival of the Second. On 15 May, when near Cocos Island, the convoy abruptly changed course and on the 26th put into Cape Town. The Aquitania, being unable to berth in the harbour, had to go to the naval base at Simonstown. Here the officer commanding the Supply Column detachment, Captain Creeser,1 who had become ill early in the voyage, was taken ashore, but died before he reached hospital.page 24
Continuing north, the convoy touched Sierra Leone, where there was no leave—and in the sultry heat no inclination for any. On 14 June, as the ships were approaching Britain, escort reinforcements consisting of six destroyers, the aircraft carrier Argus and the battle-cruiser Hood, joined the convoy. The next day the troops had a glimpse of the battle of the Atlantic. At 9 a.m. wreckage floated by, and later in the day the convoy passed a burning tanker, stern down and bow pointing to the sky. During the afternoon a lookout on the Aquitania reported that a torpedo, fired at long range, had passed astern of the Hood and between the Queen Mary and the Aquitania, and sank at the end of its run. The ships of the convoy heeled around at right angles and steamed away at full speed. The destroyers converged on a point away on the horizon and their depth-charges threw up white fountains.
On the beautiful morning of 16 June the convoy sailed up the Clyde in an atmosphere far removed from the disturbing news that French resistance was folding up. Supply Column members went ashore from the Aquitania in ferries, landing at the Glasgow suburb of Dunoon. The train journey was along the banks of the river, through vast ship-building areas, and on into the city itself, where the drab rows of slum houses struck a jarring note in the New Zealanders' introduction to Britain. Continuing through intensively cultivated market gardens, the train ran on to Edinburgh, where a meal halt gave the troops time for a glimpse of the Scottish capital.
The train crossed the border that afternoon and wound south through trim, hedge-lined fields and compact little villages. Yorkshire presented a less colourful vista of steel plants and coal mines, and vast networks of railway sidings. York was reached at dusk.
During the night the train halted for some hours in a tunnel, presumably because of enemy aircraft. As daylight broke the men saw sleeping villages and green fields flying past again. Reading station flashed by, and at Aldershot the page 25 train stopped. Led by the depot band of the RAMC, the troops marched through the town and across a common to a camp—Cæsar's Camp—at Bourley.
The New Zealanders immediately fell into the life of the besieged island. First tasks for Supply Column were the digging of slit trenches and the setting up of an anti-aircraft gun at which a spotter was on duty throughout the day.
Supply Column shared in the transport work allotted to the NZASC and then took up its duties of issuing rations, its primary task during the stay in Britain. On 15 August more trucks were received and transport was organised into two sections, together with a headquarters and workshops section. This simplified work and increased the unit's efficiency.
Life generally was fairly pleasant as neighbouring villagers offered hospitality in off-duty hours, and troops found the English pub a pleasant place in which to pass evenings. Two days' leave was granted soon after arrival; many men went to London, and others to see relatives or friends.
Fifth Brigade was ordered to a defensive position on the Channel coast, and on 27 August Supply Column moved to Hollingbourne, near Maidstone. The brigade followed nine days later and was held as a mobile reserve for counter-attack in the event of invasion. After a conference of brigade and unit commanders called by Major-General Freyberg, who had come to Britain from Egypt, an operation order was published saying that enemy landings by sea and air were likely, and the New Zealand Division was to be prepared to counter-attack vigorously any enemy landings in 1 London Division's area, especially north and north-west of Dover and Folkestone.
Though the invasion never came, there was at least one scare in late October when New Zealand Division (UK) issued an exercise order to test the time in which units could be cleared from their billeting areas. The orders to Supply Column were that it was to be ready to move two hours after midnight. Enemy planes were overhead while, in light rain and darkness, gear was loaded onto trucks. In the absence of any explanation, the opinion was strongly held that the enemy was expected, but after a cheerless night a page 26 cancellation order came at dawn, and the affair fizzled out dismally into another routine day.
The Battle of Britain was now being fought in the air, and Supply Column men at their camp in Kent could see the formations of German bombers passing over and the curling vapour trails of dogfights too high for the aircraft to be seen. Some bombs fell in the district.
Towards the end of September the weather became cold and wet and the unit moved into more comfortable quarters in Hollingbourne House. Fifth Brigade was withdrawn from its defensive position and spent October near Maidstone. Early in November Supply Column returned to the London area, where it was billeted in Dene Lodge at Ash, seven miles from Aldershot. During November and December normal duties were carried out with the new handicaps of ice and mud.
Seven days' leave enabled troops to go as far afield as Scotland. At Dene Lodge the Column had an enjoyable Christmas in an unaccustomed wintry atmosphere.
Snow was falling on New Year's Day when the Second Echelon began to move from Aldershot to embarkation ports for the transfer to the Middle East. The ship carrying Supply Column waited a few days before joining the huge convoy bound for Egypt via the Cape.
Third Echelon members of Supply Column who entered Burnham Camp on 14 May 1940 provided two operating sections (D and H) to complete the unit. After receiving training similar to that of the two previous contingents, the Burnham men embarked on the Orcades at Lyttelton on 28 August. The convoy was joined by the liners Mauretania and Empress of Japan in Cook Strait, and by the Aquitania, with Australian troops aboard, before reaching Fremantle.
The convoy arrived at Bombay on 15 September, and the next day the troops on the Orcades disembarked and in sweltering heat marched to the railway station. From there they were transported to the racecourse, where they bunked down in the grandstand. On the 18th Supply Column men embarked on the Empress of Japan, and the convoy, minus page 27 the Ormonde, sailed next day. The Ormonde, it was later found, had been delayed by the troops because of a complaint over the food and the dirty, crowded conditions.
Headquarters 2 NZEF at Maadi stated on 2 October that it was intended to complete all essential training of the Third Echelon—including 6 Brigade—in six weeks. Because of the shortage of drivers in 2 NZEF almost the whole of D and H Sections of Supply Column were soon supplied with vehicles and immediately began general transport work. Many took part in convoys to the Western Desert.
When the main body of Supply Column returned from the desert on 28 February, the two Third Echelon sections joined it for the first time. On 2 March 5 Brigade reached Suez from Britain and next day the main body of Supply Column moved from Maadi to Amiriya, where on the 5th it was joined by five officers, among them Major Pryde,2 formerly OC Ammunition Company in Britain, who took over command from Captain Stock. The latter was transferred to 4 Brigade as supply officer.
At Suez the second draft of Supply Column, newly arrived from Britain, was hastily refitting. At Amiriya, the main part of the Column was busy, too. Workshops Section and drivers were stripping vehicles, replacing worn parts and generally tuning up trucks. One substantial task was the modification of the stub axles of 15-cwt Fordsons; desert experience had shown that these broke easily, and fifteen vehicles were fitted with stub axles of the unit's own manufacture. The trouble did not recur.
The Suez group joined the Column at Amiriya on 8 March, and for the first time the unit was complete: it consisted of Headquarters, Nos. 1 and 2 Echelons, each with supply detail personnel attached, and Workshops Section. Its strength was 484 officers and men.page 28
It was a narrow time margin that exemplified the desperate straits of the British forces in 1941. The next day the move from Egypt was begun. Where the Division was bound for few knew. Sun helmets and tropical kit had been issued, and the Sudan and India were among the conjectures; another theory was an invasion of Tripoli in North Africa. Not until they were at sea did the men learn that their destination was Greece.