Chapter 2: The Second Echelon
ON 12 January 1940 the main drafts of the Second Echelon assembled1 and were taken over by their officers and NCOs who had already been in camp for some weeks. In general the new echelon was much the same as its predecessor. The men were no different; the Regular Force, trained for the work and immediately available, still provided a proportion of the staff. There may have been fewer lawyers among the senior officers but the majority of them, as was the case with 4 Brigade, were civilians who had served with distinction in the First World War and then given devoted service in the Territorial Army.
Brigadier James Hargest, DSO, MC,2 a farmer and Member of Parliament, had in 1917–18 commanded most ably 2 Battalion, Otago Regiment. With 5 Brigade he was to be equally impressive, particularly during the withdrawal across Crete in 1941. Unfortunately he was captured by Rommel at Sidi Azeiz and, after a classic escape from Italy in 1943, was killed in Normandy while on a visit, as an observer, to 50 (Northumbrian) Division. His Brigade Major was Major Clifton. The battalion commanders had all served with distinction in 1914–18. Twenty-first Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Macky, MC,3 an Auckland lawyer, 22 Battalion by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, VC,4 of the
Regular Force, and 23 Battalion by Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer, DSO, MC,5 farmer and businessman. The senior artillerymen were Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser,6 a Wellington businessman, who commanded 5 Field Regiment, and Major Queree,7 another professional soldier, who was second-in-command of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment (31 and 32 Batteries).
The specialist units had several of those civilian authorities of whom General Freyberg was afterwards to speak so highly.8 The commander of 7 Field Company was Major Hanson, MM,9 a graduate of Duntroon but at this time with the Public Works Department and an expert on road construction. Colonel McKillop10 of 1 General Hospital had directed Sunnyside Hospital; Lieutenant-Colonel Kenrick11 of 5 Field Ambulance and Major Boag12 of the Convalescent Depot were medical practitioners. The Senior Chaplain to the Forces was the Rt. Rev. G. V. Gerard, MC,13 Bishop of Waiapu.
In a month’s time the battalions were joined by forestry and railway experts who had been called up to meet an urgent request from Britain for men with experience in the operation of sawmills and the construction of railways. On 14 February 6 officers and 185 other ranks marched into Papakura Camp to form 11 Forestry
Company. The commanding officer, Captain Eliott,14 had been the manager of a box factory; his officers were sawmillers and, in one case, a forestry graduate from the mahogany forests of the French Cameroons. The men, who had been chosen by the Forestry Department from hundreds of volunteers, represented all grades of general logging and sawmilling experience.
The same day 16 officers and 371 other ranks from the thousand volunteers of the Public Works and Railway Departments entered Burnham Camp to become Headquarters Railway Construction and Maintenance Group, 9 Railway Survey Company and 10 Railway Construction Company. The officers, whose lists of university degrees were just as impressive as those of any medical unit, were yet another proof of the accuracy of General Freyberg’s contentions that one of the important features of 2 NZEF was the civilian experience of so many senior officers. Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, MC and bar, Croix de Guerre,15 who was to command the Group, had begun as a Public Works Department cadet and had been studying railway construction and bridge building in Canada when the First World War broke out. By 1918 he was with a division as acting Commander Royal Engineers. Since then he had worked in Mesopotamia and had been resident engineer for the Public Works Department in Christchurch. Ninth Survey Company was commanded by Major Packwood16 of the Public Works Department, who had been with the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in France. Major Rabone17 of 10 Railway Construction Company, an engineer of the last war, was well known for his work on railway construction and hydroelectric projects.
Both groups, railway and forestry, were immediately instructed in the elementary grammar of military training.
The battalions, having endured similar instruction, were now graduating to more technical exercises. General Freyberg had prepared a syllabus based on the eight weeks’ training given to the militia in Britain and emphasising training for war as the keynote of all instruction. The shortage of equipment was just as curbing as it had been for the First Echelon but conditions in the
camps were rapidly improving. There was more parade space, the rifle ranges had been extended and more huts erected for recreation and accommodation.
At the same time there was always that atmosphere of haste and improvisation which suggests an early departure. The original plan had been for the second convoy to leave towards the end of March, with the divisional troops landing in Egypt and the railway and forestry companies going straight to France. Consequently all units were declared on active service and sent away for final leave by 14 March. But the date of departure was changed because it was found advisable to split the great convoy into a slow group and a fast group. The former would leave first with an Australian brigade; the latter would take the rest of the Australian contingent and the New Zealand echelon.
The only New Zealand unit sent with the first or slow convoy was an advance party18 from the railway and forestry companies under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson. They left Wellington for Sydney on 17 April and sailed from there in the Orcades for Port Said on the 27th. Their movements from that port were left as a problem for the Admiralty.
The rest of the echelon continued its training throughout April, with more vaccinations and such diversions as recruiting parades through the cities of the Dominion. There was, by then, a greater sense of urgency; the storm had broken and changed overnight the character of the war. Denmark and Norway had been invaded on 9 April; the naval engagements at Narvik had been fought; the British Expeditionary Force had landed in Norway. And in the Mediterranean theatre there was that wavering neutral, Italy.
In these circumstances the Admiralty insisted upon a concentration of naval forces in the Mediterranean. To this end the escort for the second or fast convoy had to be reduced, even though New Zealand had requested the maximum protection for the convoys in which her troops were despatched. The Admiralty explained that because of the Norwegian operation the units of the German fleet, including the pocket battleships, had been located. The only possible danger would be from a merchant raider, for which the lighter escort would be adequate. Nevertheless, there still remained the possibility of Italy declaring war and closing the entrance to the Red Sea.
The Australian Government thereupon suggested that the troops should not embark until the situation had been clarified. The New Zealand Government did not think that the departure of the convoy
should be postponed but it did ask for further information, including an indication of the ‘probable steps that would be taken’ should the convoy have to be diverted. Such information was already on the way. The convoys, the slow one already at sea and the fast one about to leave, would not, unless the situation improved, enter the Red Sea, nor would the troops be landed at Basra in the Persian Gulf. The ships would be diverted to Britain, where the troops would have better training facilities. The Dominions were asked to accept this suggestion and to continue with their plans for embarkation.
New Zealand agreed to this proposal but the Australian Government asked for a full appreciation of the situation from the Chiefs of Staff. The Australians wanted to know their part in ‘the scheme of things’, and they reminded the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs that such a possibility had ‘long been referred to in Committee of Imperial Defence documents.’ They also pointed out that their 6 Division would be split, with one portion in Palestine and another in Britain. Though it was imperative that they should be united for future operations, there was no certainty as to when this would take place. Moreover this diversion of troops to a theatre of war other than the Middle East ‘might contravene the fulfilment of the decision as to the theatre in which an Imperial Force should serve.’
At this stage there was no time for any answer to reach New Zealand before the departure of the fast convoy. The Government adhered to the programme but appreciated the Australian point of view and the embarrassment that would result were ‘ Australia to take one course and New Zealand another.’ It asked Britain for immediate advice and, as it always did, insisted upon receiving ‘the most explicit assurances’ as to the safety of the convoy. The Australian Government eventually decided that its troops should embark in the fast convoy. The appreciation of the Chiefs of Staff could be expected to arrive in time to allow the destination of the convoy to be altered when it reached Fremantle. As for the slow convoy, already at sea, there would be time for it to be diverted before it entered the Red Sea.
In the meantime the fast convoy had already left New Zealand with the Second Echelon, the railway construction and forestry companies and several hundred naval ratings. With them were Brigadier Barrowclough, DSO, MC,19 his Brigade Major, Brooke,20
and other members of the headquarters staff of 6 Brigade. They were to observe the methods used by the other brigades and be ready to train the brigade as soon as it arrived in the Third Echelon. The brigadier was an Auckland lawyer who, in 1914–18, had risen from private soldier to battalion commander. He returned to New Zealand early in 1942 after the campaigns in Greece and Libya to command 2 NZEF in the Pacific, leaving the imprint of his high character on his brigade.
The troops had embarked, those at Lyttelton on the Andes, those at Wellington on the Aquitania, the Empress of Britain and the Empress of Japan.21 At 6 a.m. on 2 May the great liners, together with HMS Leander and HMAS Canberra, slipped quietly away from their berths at Wellington, with the Trentham Camp Band playing to each ship in succession. They linked up in Cook Strait with the Andes and HMAS Australia from Lyttelton and set out for Sydney. Here they were joined by the Queen Mary and the Empress of Canada and sailed south to be joined by another transport from Melbourne and to arrive at Fremantle on 10 May, the very day that the slow convoy left that port for Colombo. The voyage, so far, had been without incident, living conditions were luxurious and the reception in Fremantle and Perth as enthusiastic as it had been and ever was to be for all New Zealand convoys.
The war situation was still serious but no worse than it had been when the convoy left New Zealand. On 4 May, when the Second Echelon was steaming across the Tasman Sea, the Dominion parliaments had received the promised appreciation of the war situation as seen by the Chiefs of Staff in Britain. They had reviewed the situation on all fronts and had considered that the possibility of a direct attack by Japan upon Australia and New Zealand was very remote. If the convoys were diverted and formations split, all possible steps would be taken to reassemble the forces. Neither India nor Kenya was suitable for training so the diversion, if it should take place, would have to be to the United Kingdom. The situation, however, was being watched from day to day and at the moment no diversion was necessary. This was a more confident statement than the Dominions expected. The Governments were reassured though both made several reservations. They still demanded full information, they wanted the opportunity of deciding the ultimate destination of the convoys and they insisted upon strong escorts should the ships have to enter the more dangerous
Atlantic. Once again it was apparent that the Dominions were not subordinates but members of a Commonwealth with equal status and equal rights.
On the basis of this appreciation the convoys left Fremantle for Egypt. The fast convoy left on 12 May and made steady progress towards Colombo, with the more serious soldiers listening to the wireless reports, well aware that the international situation was changing every hour. The 5 Brigade war diary records that, ‘What news we did get was most disquieting.’
Germany had made an unexpected move across the European chessboard and the Allies had not been able to make any effective counter move. On 10 May Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg had been invaded. Mr Chamberlain had resigned and a Coalition Government had been formed with Mr Churchill as Prime Minister. On 13 May Churchill told the House of Commons and the world: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ Next day the War Office announced that Local Defence Volunteers22 were to be raised in Britain and that Holland was about to capitulate. Italy, the political barometer of Europe, was showing no immediate change, but the British Government decided that no more ships were to come through by way of Aden and the Suez Canal. The two convoys in the Indian Ocean – the slow and the fast – therefore turned south-west towards Capetown.
The fast convoy swung round from its course on the night of 15 May. The men, whose paybooks had been made out for a day in Colombo, learned of this change by observing that the morning sun was shining from another angle. The slow convoy went through to Colombo, left there and was diverted south on 19 May. Instead of being the advance party it was now four days behind the other convoy. In this order the ships moved south, with the Governments of two Dominions very apprehensive about the presence of German raiders in the South Atlantic and the Admiralty calling together for that portion of the voyage the most formidable escort it could assemble.
On the morning of 26 May the fast convoy and its escort were seen like another Armada by the surprised inhabitants of Capetown.23 For five days the city showered upon the troops every hospitality it could offer. The Maori Battalion paid a visit from Simonstown and, as 5 Brigade’s war diary records, ‘They were a credit to their people and a marked example for the remainder of our troops.’ The Empress of Japan was going no farther so her troops were
transferred to the other ships, which by the incredibly luxurious standards of 1940 were already classed as overcrowded. The naval unit went to the Empress of Canada; 21 Battalion to the Empress of Britain. Finally, on 30 May the slow convoy came into port.
Next day the fast convoy put out to sea, calling at Freetown and steaming on with increased precautions against attacks from U-boats and aircraft. The troops crowded about the loudspeakers and listened to the news from the BBC. The announcers were describing the evacuation that was taking place at Dunkirk and the approach of the panzer units towards Paris; on 10 June they announced the declaration of war by Italy. These tremendous events caused no alteration to the route. The convoy rounded Cape Verde at midnight and steamed north for the Irish Sea and increased naval protection. The war was closer now. The wreckage from torpedoed ships drifted past, a tanker stood on its stern with its bow above water, ‘blazing like a torch’. The convoy, however, was not attacked, and on 16 June the ships anchored in the Clyde. The reception given to the Australian and New Zealand forces was genuinely warm, even pathetic in its expressions of gratitude. Their arrival after a voyage of 17,000 miles was dramatic enough to be classed as a triumph and to be featured as an example of unity within the Commonwealth. It was the opinion of General Freyberg, who had not wanted the Second Echelon diverted to Britain, that ‘the arrival of the New Zealanders and Australians in the circumstances had been most opportune and had steadied the nation considerably.’ There was little else to be confident about. The British offer of an Anglo-French union had been rejected, M. Reynaud had resigned, Marshal Pétain had formed a government to negotiate peace with Germany.
The men of the Second Echelon, however, were not unduly excited by the gravity of the international situation. They were too interested in the last stages of their Grand Tour, which began with a train journey to Edinburgh and ended in southern England with a march along tree-lined avenues to the tented camps of the Aldershot Command. The units of the brigade, now together for the first time, were in and about Mytchett; 1 General Hospital took over Pinewood Sanatorium near Wokingham and 1 Convalescent Depot staffed a camp reception hospital near Farnborough.
The railway and forestry companies went to Woolmer, where the advance party left behind with the slow convoy at Capetown was already in quarters. This party’s ships had left a day after the fast convoy, had called at Dakar and Casablanca, and on the collapse of France had been diverted from Brest to Plymouth. From there
it had gone straight to Woolmer to receive the companies on 20 June.
This concentration in the Aldershot area was contrary to the original plan in which the base camp for 2 NZEF (UK) was to have been in Colchester in Essex. But the senior officers24 who had been sent over from Egypt to prepare the camp and to organise the base had found the situation very different from that envisaged by General Freyberg in 1939. The defences in northern France had collapsed and Colchester was classed as a ‘Battle Area’, within which battalions would be dispersed as garrison troops in the coastal towns. As this would have been detrimental to their discipline and training, General Freyberg had suggested an area in the Southern Command. The War Office gave him the choice of Winchester with billets or Aldershot with tents. The General preferred Winchester, but the whole force could not be accommodated so Aldershot it had to be.
These plans had been made when the convoys were moving up the African coast and when the policy of the British Government was to give overseas troops every facility to complete their training. They were changed when the succession of disasters in Europe left the Germans free to plan the invasion of Britain. Thereafter, partly trained though it was, the echelon became part of the defence of the country. The New Zealand Government recognised this state of emergency but stipulated that the troops should have adequate equipment and be a separate formation, under the command of the GOC of the war area in which they were placed and not under the command of any British divisional commander. So, from 17 June, 2 NZEF (UK) was a separate formation,25 under the operational control of the War Office and, from 24 June, responsible for No. 3 section of the Aldershot defence system.
In the meantime General Freyberg had been waiting in Maadi until he was certain that Italy’s entry into the war did not mean an immediate threat to Egypt and the immediate use of the First Echelon. He was then able to leave Brigadier Puttick in command and fly to Britain to take over 2 NZEF (UK). With France crumbling, all regular air routes were blocked but a place was found for him in an aircraft that was taking some very important diplomatic
mail. In it he was taken up the Nile to Khartoum, westwards to Kano and north via obscure petrol points in the Sahara to Oran, and thence to Lisbon, Exeter and, on 24 June, to London.
Until then his policy had always been that his force should not go into action unless it was adequately equipped and thoroughly trained. But after a visit to the War Office he informed the New Zealand Government that ‘There is a desperate shortage of equipment and for some time to come we shall be short of many of our weapons. This is the common lot of most troops here; nevertheless in spite of this I feel, and I am sure that Cabinet will agree with me, that New Zealand troops must be prepared to accept battle upon uneven terms in defence of Great Britain.’ He knew that should there be an invasion the first question the people of New Zealand would ask would be, ‘What part did our men take?’ After this correspondence all questions concerning the role of 2 NZEF (UK) were left to him. He returned to the War Office to say, ‘My Government want you to give us as much equipment as you can spare, and would wish you to cast the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the role in which you may consider us to be of greatest assistance at the present moment.’ Thereupon the force became part of GHQ Reserve. ‘The great hunt for stores and equipment was also on forthwith. We found conditions infinitely worse than in New Zealand – no new weapons, no ammunition, no transport. The BEF had lost everything in France and, naturally, had priority in refitting. It was almost heart-breaking but we carried on for the first week and the equipment started trickling in.’26 The first issue of equipment was received on 28 June; next day 2 NZEF (UK) was placed at eight hours’ notice because an invasion was thought possible that coming weekend.
There was no suggestion that the First Echelon should be brought over from Egypt. Such plans had been shelved when Italy entered the war and challenged Britain’s control of the Mediterranean. The echelon would stay where it was and there be joined by the Third Echelon, which was due to leave New Zealand in August. The Second Echelon would remain in Britain until mid-August at least, or until the danger of attack on England was over. Until then only those units not actually required in the defence of Britain would leave in the convoys that were being so boldly despatched to the Middle East.
Shortly after this decision the Convalescent Depot and Railway Construction and Maintenance Group were warned to prepare for a move overseas. The former had to hand over its hospital to 1
General Hospital and that unit, in its turn, had to select some of its staff for immediate service in the Middle East. They entrained for the Clyde on 3 August, the railwaymen embarking at Gourock on the Franconia and the medical staffs at Glasgow on the Andes. This convoy, taking the route via Capetown, did not reach Egypt until mid-September.
The rest of the echelon spent their time training for their role in the defence of Britain. General Freyberg had given the officers an inspiring survey of the military situation; the press and Mr Churchill warned everyone that each weekend was a potential crisis. And history seemed to be repeating itself with some romantic variations. On 6 July the battalions were inspected by King George VI, and men with imagination and some slight knowledge of history thought of Elizabeth I at Tilbury or of George III reviewing his regiments when they were waiting for the forces of Napoleon.
At this stage the battalions and detachments of reinforcements with the Second Echelon had been organised into 2 NZEF (UK), with a Force Headquarters and three groups. Headquarters Covering Force (Brigadier Miles) had C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, a machine-gun company and an infantry battalion commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser and made up of the men from the two batteries of 5 Field Regiment and the two batteries of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment that were still without guns. The Mixed Brigade27 (Brigadier Barrowclough) was formed from 28 (Maori) Battalion and 29 (or Composite) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught28) organised from the unattached infantry reinforcements. The third group was 5 Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Hargest). Fourth Anti-Tank Company was attached to the Mixed Infantry Brigade and 5 Anti-Tank Company to 5 Infantry Brigade.
There was still an acute shortage of arms, vehicles and equipment. Fifth Field Regiment had only one battery: a collection of 18-pounder guns and 4.5-inch howitzers. The anti-tank companies had been given the Bedford 30-cwt trucks, sheeted with ⅝-inch steel plate and equipped with Bren guns and anti-tank rifles. C Squadron Divisional Cavalry had six light tanks and six Bren carriers. The Army Service Corps details, men from the Petrol and Ammunition Companies, had motor lorries, but for the transportation of troops 8 and 9 Motor Coach Companies had been attached from the Royal Army Service Corps. With their enormous camouflaged buses they could lift the whole force in one move.
On 17 July, when the force was finally organised, it came under the control of the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces and with 1 Canadian Division and 1 Armoured Division formed 7 Corps under the command of Major-General A. G. L. McNaughton. Their allotted task was ‘to counter-attack and destroy any enemy force invading the counties of Surrey–Kent–Sussex–Hampshire which was not destroyed by the troops of the Eastern and Southern Commands.’
As this landing was thought likely to take place at any moment the training of 2 NZEF (UK) had to be unconventional. Instead of the regular stages of section, platoon, company, battalion, brigade and finally divisional exercises, the order was reversed. The syllabus began with divisional training on the assumption that the troops were already trained soldiers. They practised moving by motor transport to their defence areas and trained by doing tactical exercises on the spot.
The first large-scale exercise took place on 18–22 July. Three convoys of buses moved off in drizzling rain for Ashdown Forest to the south-west of Tunbridge Wells. The brigades then had to cover the southern approaches to Crowborough and to counter-attack any landings on the south coast east of the River Ouse. With wind and rain to encourage them, they dug in and learnt by unpleasant experience how to bivouac in the open. They repelled hypothetical assaults on the beaches or overwhelmed imaginary parachutists landing on the South Downs. The exercise ended with a solid route march, a night embussing and a move back to Aldershot.
General Freyberg then went ruthlessly through all the mistakes with his officers and NCOs. Everyone had learnt something; he was certain that his force could move by MT, deploy into position and have behind it an organisation that ran sufficiently smoothly to keep the fighting troops from starving or running short of ammunition. Altogether he thought the exercise had been ‘a remarkable performance.’
It was repeated on 28–31 July with the Mixed Brigade (7 Brigade) as an enemy who was advancing towards London. Fifth Brigade, assisted by I tanks but harried by low-flying aircraft, fought its way eastwards towards Crowborough and ended the exercise with a dawn attack in the East Grinstead area.
The infantry then marched through the area they were to hold should the invasion take place. For another week of that sunlit August they marched over the Downs and across the Weald. Those who remembered the distance from New Zealand, the youth of the Dominion and the past history of the counties they were detailed to defend realised that they were taking part in a great romance. The General thought that, as a spectacle, nothing equalled this
long march across Sussex. Through his ‘méthode naturelle’ the battalions had become magnificent instruments of war. He afterwards could say: ‘Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this English adventure was the rapid and successful training of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. ... I am certain that in two months they had become a fully trained fighting force, capable of taking their part in any offensive. This is a tribute to their excellent qualities and their natural adaptability. In any case ... although the times were hard, and the move of our men interfered with the concentration of the Division, I am very glad they went to Great Britain. They saw the people at a time of crisis, and in their small way inspired confidence in England at a time when the Homeland had few friends, if any, other than her people from overseas.’
At the same time the force was steadily acquiring greater fire power. Seventh Anti-Tank Regiment had two-pounders; 5 Field Regiment had the new 25-pounders and some French 75-millimetre guns; the Army Service Corps units had at least 50 per cent of their regular transport; and the infantry had almost 100 per cent of their equipment. Once strengthened, the brigades were tested again, on the South Downs on 27–29 August. The troops returned to Aldershot, expecting soon to leave for the Middle East.
They did not know that the relative importance of the Pacific and the Middle East had just been decided,29 or that the Third Echelon had left Wellington on 27 August. But they did know that Headquarters 6 Brigade30 was about to leave for Egypt, and that the War Office had stated that the echelon would leave Aldershot on or after 15 September. The Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, General Sir Alan Brooke, inspected the force preparatory to its departure; Mr Churchill appeared on 4 September to fulfil a promise of a similar inspection. Both were impressed and said so.
But to everyone’s surprise, on 4 September all preparations for departure were abruptly halted. Late that night General Freyberg was asked by GHQ Home Forces if the echelon could be retained in an operational role. The Intelligence Staff was almost certain that a landing on the south-east coast was imminent. For days the Luftwaffe had been attempting to eliminate the Royal Air Force, there was an ominous concentration of shipping across the Channel, and September was the month with favourable tides and phases of the moon. To meet the threat every available unit was being transferred to the southern counties.
In this emergency the Second Echelon was an obvious choice, for it had been training for the last two months as a mobile force, complete with all reserves of ammunition and three days’ supplies. General Freyberg consequently gave his consent and thereby postponed the concentration of his Division in the Middle East.
The order from GHQ Home Forces ran as follows: ‘Emergency Move. NZ Force and 8 R Tanks under command General Freyberg will move to area EAST of TUNBRIDGE WELLS to be selected by Commander 12 Corps. On arrival this area FORCE will come under command of 12 Corps and will be held in reserve for counter offensive role.’ For further information the General went to GHQ Home Forces, where he learnt what the commander had not been willing to say over the telephone – that after the heavy bombardment of Dover from Gris Nez, Mr Churchill had ordered that if an invasion took place and Dover was captured it must be retaken at all costs. To take part in this all-important counter-attack the New Zealand brigades were being transferred to the outskirts of the Dover–Folkestone area. The signals strength for this role was increased by 100 British signallers who had served in France or Norway, 8 Royal Tank Regiment came under command and, after 12 September, 157 Anti-Aircraft Battery.
The brigades left Aldershot late on 5 September, stopping and starting all through the night, listening to the drone of aircraft on their way to bomb London and eventually settling down under cover in the woods before first light. East of Maidstone there was 5 Brigade, north of the Maidstone-Charing road was 7 Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier Falconer, and at Charing there was Milforce, an armoured group, commanded by Brigadier Miles and formally constituted the following morning.
Their instructions were specific and detailed. Seventh Brigade would deal with airborne landings in the Chatham–Maidstone area; Milforce and 5 Brigade would prepare to counter-attack in the direction of Dover and Folkestone. They immediately carried out exercises along all possible routes. There was no need to emphasise their importance. With the Battle of Britain then reaching its climax, the exercises were obviously rehearsals for what might take place in the next few hours. The days began with stand-to at dawn; the training exercises went on with bomber formations roaring over towards London and fighter screens weaving their vapour trails across the autumn skies; and then dusk came down with all troops standing-to again.
The week passed by with the air battle increasing in intensity, but the echelon still expected that it would be withdrawn in time to leave for the Middle East with an October convoy. On 12
September, however, Churchill postponed the date of sailing for a week and the actual withdrawal from Kent until 19 September. The culminating date was 15 September. ‘On this day the Luftwaffe, after two heavy attacks on the 14th, made its greatest concentrated effort in a resumed daylight attack on London.’31 Mr Churchill thereupon decided that the force must remain in Kent; only when all dangers of an invasion were over was it to go overseas. He has since stated that, ‘By the middle of September the invasion menace seemed sufficiently glaring to arrest further movement of vital units to the East, especially as they had to go round the Cape. After a visit to the Dover sector, where the electric atmosphere was compulsive, I suspended for a few weeks the dispatch of the New Zealanders and the remaining two tank battalions to the Middle East.’32
This decision forced General Freyberg to choose, for the second time that year, the theatre of war in which it was most necessary for him to be. In Kent he had the Second Echelon, nearly 7000 men, waiting to counter-attack a German landing. In the Middle East the Italian Tenth Army had crossed the Egyptian border on 14 September and was advancing towards Sidi Barrani. This meant that the First Echelon (4 Brigade Group), only partially equipped and strung out along the line of communication, was presumably about to be engaged in a major battle.33 The Third Echelon (6 Brigade) was on its way to the Middle East to be trained and equipped. Convinced that any invasion would fail34 and confident about the ability of the Second Echelon, he decided to return to Egypt. With the somewhat reserved permission of Mr Churchill, General Freyberg and Colonel Stewart left by air on the night of 22–23 September. The forecast for the night read, ‘No wind in Channel, sea calm, invasion imminent, all precautions to be put into effect.’ In spite of a crash landing on Malta airfield, they reached Divisional Headquarters at Baggush in the Western Desert on 25 September.
The units left in Kent carried on as before. On 8 October 7 Brigade was disbanded35 so that 2 NZEF (UK), commanded first by Brigadier Miles and then by Brigadier Hargest, consisted of 5 Brigade and Milforce. Otherwise there were few changes. The battalions still stood-to at dawn and at dusk. There were several casualties during the air raids but more from accidents during the
‘blackout’. Those on leave could be in London during the raids; others in Canterbury were thanked by the Chief Constable for their assistance, and in another town an NCO with a small party was thanked for recovering bodies from wrecked buildings.
Even so, 5 Brigade’s war diary records that October 1940 was ‘one of the happiest months spent overseas.’ The troops were billeted with private families or lived in barns, oast-houses and requisitioned dwellings. Games36 were organised and enjoyed, even if Routine Orders could read: ‘Final Match at Watchett’s Recreation Ground, ... 23 Bn to provide AA defence, medical personnel and to mark and clear the ground.’
There was no suggestion of any major move to the Middle East. The only New Zealand troops to go with that month’s convoy were the staff of 1 General Hospital, detachments from different headquarters, small sections of artillerymen, engineers and Army Service Corps drivers, all under the command of Captain Grigg,37 and a group of senior officers, Brigadiers Miles and Falla and Lieutenant-Colonel Crump. Their convoy left the Clyde on 7 October and was attacked from the air, the Oronsay being hit by bombs and escorted back to Greenock. The 363 New Zealanders on board, none of whom was hurt, had a week’s survivors leave and then by leisurely stages in different camps appeared again at Aldershot. The other two ships rounded the Cape with the convoy and reached Port Tewfik on 16 November.
The next convoy was due to leave in November, but there were 100,000 competitors and capacity for only 30,000 men. In any case, priority was being given to armoured regiments, artillery and anti-aircraft units. Everything was based on the precise requirements in the Middle East and they could not be assessed until the date of sailing. Consequently the British Government would not promise that the echelon would leave even with the December convoy.
But there was some suggestion of the move. October was now drawing to a close, winter was approaching and the Germans could not attempt an invasion until the summer of 1941. The echelon, with billets cleaned and all accounts paid, moved from Kent to the Aldershot area, there to continue training and await orders to embark.
No one left in November, but the artillery and the advance parties from the battalions were selected for the December convoy. Guns and equipment, trucks and Bren carriers were taken to the transports
at Liverpool; detachments, each of one NCO and thirteen other ranks, went with LMGs to the different ships as anti-aircraft gunners. They sailed on 17 December: 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, less 33 and 34 Batteries already in Egypt, from Avonmouth in the Rangitiki; 5 Field Regiment in the City of London and advance parties in the Elizabethville, both from Liverpool. With congested living conditions, winter weather and the close proximity of enemy raiders it was not a pleasant voyage. On Christmas Day the convoy was attacked and had to scatter for a time; at Freetown the troops, in spite of the oppressive heat, slept below deck to escape from the mosquitoes. There was no further trouble along the route to the Cape, to Durban and to Port Tewfik, and on 18 February 1941 the regiments marched into Helwan Camp and the artillery of the Division was complete for the first time.
In the Aldershot area there now remained HQ 2 NZEF (UK), 5 Brigade, and several specialist units still training, still marching and still being inspected. On 27 November HRH the Princess Royal, as Colonel-in-Chief, Royal Signals, reviewed the Divisional Signals unit at Mytchett and set a standard of thorough inspection that was remembered until the end of the war. The other two events for which all were preparing were Christmas in Britain and the approaching embarkation for the Middle East. Leave for all was not practicable but 50 per cent of the men had leave before Christmas, a small number dined at the New Zealand Services Club and others went to private homes. For the rest there was Christmas dinner in camp and parcels from the New Zealand Patriotic Council as some consolation for the severity of the weather. New Year saw similar hospitality, more frozen pipes and more skating, the same draughty billets and a mild epidemic of influenza. But in the first four days of January baggage was loaded and the battalions left for Newport or Liverpool.
The Duchess of Bedford took 2781 all ranks from Newport on 7 January and steamed up the Irish Sea and into Belfast Lough off Bangor the next day. The Athlone Castle, with 1480 all ranks, left Liverpool on 7 January but remained anchored off the coast of North Wales until the 11th, when she joined the convoy that was assembling in Belfast Lough. In several other ships 112 other ranks sailed as anti-aircraft defence parties and 10 officers and 404 other ranks sailed in the ships carrying the transport vehicles. The only troops left in Britain were the Base Details,38 approximately 90 all ranks.
With a strong air and naval escort the convoy of over twenty ships left on 12 January, calling at Freetown and sailing south, one section steaming on to Durban and the other, which included the New Zealand ships, berthing for five delightful days in Capetown. The convoy eventually reassembled off Durban and reached Port Tewfik on 3 March. The men from the Athlone Castle entered Helwan Camp the next day. The majority of those in the Duchess of Bedford disembarked on 5 March, but rough seas for the next two days kept 21 Battalion on board until 8 March.
By then the other battalions had endured their first route march, even though many of them did not have such tropical equipment as shorts, hose-tops and sun helmets. They were being reorganised. Twenty-ninth Battalion39 was broken up, some men going to the units of 5 Brigade, others to the training battalions. The Reconnaissance Battalion, the core of which had been formed in Britain from 4 and 5 Anti-Tank Companies, was disbanded and the men drafted to the training battalions.
Still more important, on 7 March Brigadier Hargest told all ranks that their stay in Egypt would be short. In fact, some of the transport vehicles had not yet come up from the ships at Port Tewfik when the brigade received its warning orders. The battalions left Helwan on 17 March, this time for Alexandria and the campaign in Greece.