Chapter 3: Third Echelon joins the First
IN May–July 1940, when the Second Echelon was at sea or being hurriedly equipped at Aldershot, the Third Echelon had been assembling in New Zealand. The officers and NCOs, having trained with the Second Echelon, were already in camp when the main drafts1 marched in on 15–17 May to form 6 Infantry Brigade, the attached units and some 3000 reinforcements.
With Brigadier Barrowclough and his staff in Britain, the new formation was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder, DSO, MC,2 of 25 Battalion. He had served with distinction on Gallipoli and in Palestine and had then returned to civilian life – in his case to sheep-farming. The other commanders represented the younger generation of New Zealanders who had to provide the possible replacements in what was obviously going to be a long war. Lieutenant-Colonels Shuttleworth3 and Page,4 both graduates of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and members of the New Zealand Staff Corps, commanded 24 and 26 Battalions respectively; Lieutenant-Colonel Weir,5 once in the Survey Department and afterwards a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, commanded 6 Field Regiment.
The medical officers were, as usual, a strong group with military experience and impressive civilian qualifications. Lieutenant-Colonel Bull,6 a Wellington surgeon, commanded 6 Field Ambulance, and Lieutenant-Colonel Spencer,7 of Wellington, was in charge of 2 General Hospital.
For them and for the men they were to command there were more comfortable quarters and better facilities for training than there had been for the other echelons, but the greatest difference was the sense of urgency aroused by the disastrous course of the war in Europe. The officers and NCOs had marched into camp shortly after the German invasion of Norway and Denmark; they were training on 10 May when the German armies entered the Low Countries and began the campaign that was to end with the evacuation from Dunkirk and the capitulation of France.
The general public was sensitive in its turn. People were now expressing their opinions about the war effort in greater volume and with more asperity. The newspapers, public bodies and the Returned Soldiers’ Association called for drastic measures; on 23 May news was received of the British Emergency Powers Bill which placed all persons and property at the disposal of the state. The following day Mr Fraser8 announced that similar measures would be introduced in New Zealand. They would mean compulsory national service, civil, military and financial. He thought that the country would welcome such a decision; the serious nature of the war demanded it and no other means would be effective. The Government and the Parliamentary Labour Party were discussing the necessity of a ‘national’ Government.
These statements restored public confidence, even when the ensuing week saw the surrender of the Belgian Army and the evacuation of Dunkirk. But they meant two startling changes in the traditional policy of the Labour Government – the introduction of conscription and the admission9 of the National Party to some share in the direction of the war effort. The Prime Minister who had the strength of mind to make such important decisions was equally resolute when stating his reasons for them. On 30 May,
when Parliament was discussing the Emergency Regulations Bill, he made the following statement:
Provision will be made for the compulsory system right away. The question of when it will be applied will depend upon the conditions in regard to the Forces; it will depend entirely on the conditions in regard to the number at present volunteering, and the number that will be available during the next few months. Apart from everything else, however, the country feels at the present time in this crisis that the voluntary system, even if completely successful, does not apply fairly and does not embody that spirit of service that the country demands. There is that feeling – a feeling that must be shared by all, including even some of us who were strong anti-conscriptionists under ordinary conditions, for it is the life of the Commonwealth for which we are fighting at the present time. If I am aboard a sinking ship and I am asked to go to the pumps, and if another chap does not want to go to the pumps I will certainly compel him to do his best at least to save the ship. That is how I look upon the matter and that is how the Government looks upon it. If the house is on fire, we cannot start arguing about whether the other chap will help or not, but we can do our best to induce him to help. I am not going to reflect upon those who have conscientious objections to killing and would rather be killed than kill ... but ... it is quite impossible to carry on efficiently without compulsion; I say that quite definitely.
The 22nd July 1940 was the last day for voluntary enlistment in 2 NZEF. By then the total number of voluntary enlistments was 59,644.
Another result of the collapse of France and the declaration of war by Italy was the formation of several new units. Britain had asked if ‘in the present grave situation’ the Dominion could provide, in addition to those non-divisional troops already overseas,10 more foresters, railwaymen and engineers. The Government had immediately called for volunteers from the Forestry, Railway and Public Works Departments. By the end of June 14 and 15 Forestry Companies were at Trentham; Headquarters Railway Operating Group,11 16 and 17 Railway Operating Companies and 13 Railway Construction Company were at Ngaruawahia. To form the required companies of engineers 8 Field Company12 had been more or less disbanded; the men were still at Trentham but they had been redrafted according to qualifications into 18 and 19 Army Troops Companies.
To command these specialist units there were again civilians with invaluable technical experience. Major Lincoln13 of 18 Army Troops Company was an engineer from Auckland; Major Langbein,14 who commanded 19 Army Troops Company, was an engineer in the Public Works Department. The Railways Department was the natural source for the officers of the Railway Operating Group. The Group’s commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Sage, MM;15 Captain Aickin16 had 16 Railway Operating Company and Major Poole17 17 Railway Operating Company. The additional construction company that was being sent over, 13 Railway Construction Company, was commanded by Captain R. T. Smith,18 a civil engineer. All four commanding officers had served for several years with 1 NZEF.
The movement and ultimate destination of these companies was not decided for some weeks. The railwaymen, being required in the Middle East, could travel with the Third Echelon. The engineers and forestry men, both urgently needed in Britain, were to have travelled there by way of Canada but the plan was shelved because no naval escort was available in the North Pacific. In the end it was decided that only the Forestry Companies would go to Britain; they would travel with the Third Echelon as far as Colombo and there be transferred to a homeward-bound convoy. The engineers would go no farther than the Middle East, 19 Army Troops Company with the Third Echelon, 18 Army Troops Company with the 4th Reinforcements.
By July, however, there were serious doubts about the wisdom of sending any troops away from New Zealand. In the original plan the New Zealand Division was to operate from a base in Britain, and by the unpredictable chances of war the Second Echelon was already there. But it was now extremely unlikely that the First Echelon could ever be sent over from the Middle East. Nor was there any promise that either the First or the Third Echelon would
on its arrival in Britain be fully equipped and thoroughly trained. To the New Zealand Government the wisest move seemed to be to divert a brigade group to Fiji and retain the remainder of the Third Echelon until more equipment was available in Britain.
This cautious attitude was due to the rapid deterioration of the situation in the Far East. Relations between Japan and the British Commonwealth were now unstable and there were indications that Japan, in order to achieve her ambitions in Asia and throughout the Pacific, was carefully estimating the possible advantages to be gained by calculated aggression. Moreover, Britain admitted that the fall of France and the declaration of war by Italy had wrecked the balance of naval strength in European waters. Without the French Navy she could not blockade the German and Italian fleets and, at the same time, despatch a fleet to the Far East. This gave Japan ‘a chance which could only occur once in a thousand years.’19 Fortunately such aggression required preparation and preparation required time. The Japanese hesitated and Britain was able to consolidate her position in western Europe before she was challenged in the Far East and the Pacific.
Her policy20 was clearly stated on 13 July. ‘The immediate threat is to the United Kingdom, the security of which is vital. At present our policy must be a short-term one with the primary object of avoiding defeat at Home, and all resources must be devoted initially to this purpose. It is hoped that by September this phase will be over and that any attempt at invasion will have been defeated. The attention of the enemy is then likely to turn to the Middle East: this may happen simultaneously with the attack on this country, but owing to climatic conditions it is doubtful if the enemy will embark on large-scale operations from Libya or North Africa ... until the end of September. Therefore, as soon as the situation at Home permits, it will be necessary to reinforce the Middle East, and it is hoped that it will be possible to reconstitute the 6th Australian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division in the Middle East by the autumn or early winter of this year.’
This meant that the Division would assemble in the Middle East and not in Britain; that the Second Echelon would not be released before September. On the other hand, the Third Echelon could travel with the convoy due to leave Sydney on or about 23 August. In fact the transports were now assembling and space for the New Zealand troops had already been allocated. The New Zealand Government, however, was not convinced that the Third Echelon
with its reinforcements and auxiliary troops should leave the Pacific zone. It asked for more information about the dangers of the route and the availability of equipment, and pointed out that if a brigade group went to Fiji the number of reinforcements travelling with the echelon would have to be reduced in proportion. To these questions the Government received carefully worded but reasonable answers – and the hope that they would send the forces as proposed.
After carefully weighing all the known factors the Government decided to send the troops to the Middle East. On 3 August in a cable to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs it retraced the steps by which it had reached this decision and elaborated the policy from which it was never to deviate at any future stage of the war.
The Government realised that the situation in the Far East had been deteriorating and that war with Japan had to be accepted as a probability. With the long and complicated coastline of the Dominion offering scores of landing places to any invader, there was every reason to defer the departure of the echelon. It was the only body of trained troops in the Dominion; if it left it would take with it arms and equipment from supplies that were already inadequate.
On the other hand, the collapse of France had doubled the possible weight of attack in the Middle East. It was therefore essential to build up the forces already in that area, even if the half-equipped troops might have to fight on unequal terms. The proposed escort for the convoy was lighter than it had been for the earlier echelons but the Government realised that, if the departure of the convoy was postponed until a stronger escort could be provided, the First Echelon would be left unsupported and the concentration of the Division would be delayed. The Chiefs of Staff, in their turn, had emphasised the vital necessity of safeguarding the sources of oil and of maintaining the lines of communication through the Middle East. They thought that the best contribution the Dominion could make to the common cause would be to despatch the Third Echelon to the Middle East.
For these reasons, the Government ‘fully accepted the fact that a large view must be taken, that in the last resort this Dominion must stand or fall according to the decision in the main theatres of war, and that as a corollary it would be wise to have all possible forces at decisive points rather than to disperse them in reserves all over the world.’ The Third Echelon would go to the Middle East, but in view of the threatening attitude of Japan the Dominion would retain such troops as were necessary for the defence of Fiji. The 3050 reinforcements who were to have travelled with the Third
Echelon were consequently retained in New Zealand and organised for service in Fiji.
To this decision there was, on 9 August, a characteristic response from Churchill: ‘I read the Governor-General’s telegram ... with the greatest interest and sympathy. I appreciate fully the great responsibility which you and your colleagues cannot but feel in taking the decisions which you have reached as to the disposition of the available New Zealand forces. For our part we are greatly heartened as ever by New Zealand’s readiness to meet the needs of the situation both in the Middle East and the Pacific. I feel sure of the absolute soundness of your decision.’21
Having made this decision, the Government arranged for the concentration of 2 NZEF in the Middle East. The Third Echelon would sail in the August convoy; Brigadier Barrowclough22 and his staff would leave Britain and prepare for its arrival; General Freyberg and the Second Echelon would remain until after the Battle of Britain.
The Middle East to which they were going had been the scene of much activity since the arrival of the First Echelon in February 1940. In case Italy came into the war, the Western Desert Force had screened the Libyan frontier and maintained a series of carefully chosen but inadequately manned positions along the desert road. Fourth Brigade Group, as part of the reserve force, had remained in Egypt but in May, when the front in France was disintegrating and Mussolini was waiting for the psychological moment, it was given a more definite role in the defence system. Eighteenth Battalion was rushed into the Kasr-el-Nil Barracks, leaving 19 and 20 Battalions to deal with fifth-column activities in Cairo. Later in the month the brigade had become responsible for the security of Cairo, with General Freyberg in command of all operations in the city and its suburbs. The battalions in turn did spells of duty at the barracks; the machine-gunners had detachments at the Citadel and about the airfields at Heliopolis and Helwan; the rest of the brigade group was at Maadi on short notice to move. The plan was afterwards amended by the provision of a motorised reserve and anti-parachute detachments at Bulac bridge and Gezira Sporting Club.
The really serious problems of the period were the detachment of units and the gradual dispersion of the brigade. Faced with a dangerous shortage of guns and transport, of signallers and railway operators, General Headquarters Middle East had asked General Freyberg if he could provide troops for the operation of railways
and communications. General Wavell appreciated his desire to have the New Zealand Division working as a complete formation, but stressed the fact that adequate communications were absolutely essential. With some misgivings Freyberg authorised the detachment of signallers, Army Service Corps units and, in the event of a crisis, officers and men to operate the Egyptian State Railways. The whole arrangement was to be of a very temporary nature.
The first to leave were 7 officers and 122 other ranks who, on 9 June, became Advanced Corps Signals, Western Desert Force. They operated from Baggush under the command of Major Agar,23 providing despatch riders and controlling all line and wireless communication between Headquarters British Troops in Egypt and the formations in the desert.
Two days later Italy entered the war. Officially it was at 0001 hours on 11 June; in Maadi Camp the news spread on the evening of 10 June. At the cinema, at the NAAFI and at the Maadi Recreation Tent the announcement was received with prolonged cheering. A blackout was ordered throughout the camp, anti-aircraft posts were manned, slit trenches were dug in case of air raids. To prevent sabotage and to meet airborne attacks, small detachments went out to guard the ammunition dump24 in the Tura caves, the Maadi water supply and the grounds of the Gezira Sporting Club, the most suitable landing area for paratroops in Cairo. In Alexandria New Zealanders on leave from the Sidi Bishr rest camp joined the street patrols of the Coldstream Guards but there was little trouble. The Fascist leaders of the Italian colony had been arrested and life in the cities went on as before.
In the Western Desert the Italians were no more aggressive than they had been in Cairo, so it was soon evident that they would not attack until the cooler weather of the late autumn or early winter. General Freyberg was therefore free to join25 the Second Echelon in Britain, leaving Brigadier Puttick in command of 2 NZEF (Middle East) and Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis as the commander of the brigade.
The understanding was that the force would not take part in any active operations until the arrival of the Second and Third Echelons. But the General had agreed to the employment of the battalions in the rear areas and of the transport units in the desert.
This explains why on 18 June, after only twenty-four hours’ notice, 18 and 19 Battalions with an Advanced Headquarters from 4 Brigade were transported by 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company to Garawla, a rock-strewn waste near Mersa Matruh. Here they were 200 miles west of Alexandria in an area of some strategic importance and under the command of Western Desert Force.
The battalions then continued their training or improved the local defences. A new landing ground was required at Baggush, patrols had to watch the beaches at night, guards were wanted for the Italian prisoners at Mersa Matruh. The Wadi Naghamish, which stretched inland for several miles, was to be converted into a tremendous anti-tank ditch. With little mechanical equipment26 this was a laborious task, remembered by all who were there for the intense heat, the plague of flies and the moonlight nights when Italian aircraft droned overhead searching for targets on the railway and at Mersa Matruh. The tours of duty, however, were not long. The battalions were replaced on 5 July by 20 Battalion and a composite unit of artillerymen and signallers, who in their turn were relieved on 29 July by 18 Battalion and another composite force.
Fourth RMT Company remained in the desert at Smugglers’ Cove, attached to Western Desert Force and close to Mersa Matruh, an Egyptian watering place with white houses and a mosque, palm trees and a perfect beach. As the terminus of the desert railway, Matruh was the base from which the company took supplies along the coast road to the forward depots in the Sidi Barrani area. On occasions there were variations in the routine: from July to October C Section was at Sidi Barrani attached to 7 Armoured Division; in November B Section was there directly under orders from Western Desert Force; and from 14 August to 4 September A Section, more fortunate than the others, had a leave period in Maadi, its work being done by a detachment from the Divisional Supply Column.
This work along the coast road and inland to the desert outposts was most exacting. The drivers were enduring their first Egyptian summer, the hours were long and roads dangerous because of air raids by day and blackouts at night, but there were no serious injuries until 12 July when Corporal Pussell27 was wounded during an air raid. This was the first battle casualty in the Division.
For those who remained in the Maadi–Cairo area there was the more prosaic life of pickets and training exercises. The Egyptian summer was an unending succession of blistering days, each so like the others that odd incidents of the period stand out in the war diaries like islands in an ocean of dull detail. The engineers constructed 200 dummy tanks28 and motor vehicles that were urgently required at Mersa Matruh. The Divisional Cavalry, the anti-tank battery and the machine-gunners provided officers and men for the Long Range Desert Patrol. Nos. 1 and 2 Patrols were complete by the end of July, the cavalry war diary recording their detachment from the Division and stating that ‘What is known of their destination and the scope of their mission may not as yet be committed to paper.’ Parties of selected officers and other ranks who had been attached to Western Desert Force for operational experience took part in patrol work which was now being carried on energetically behind the Italian lines. On returning to their units they were able to pass on accounts of their experiences, to the benefit of both training and morale.
At the same time this practice of detaching units for service with other formations could easily have been abused, especially when Wavell on 3 July suggested that the units in the Middle East be regrouped. As part of an Egypt Corps, 16 Australian Brigade and 4 New Zealand Brigade would form a ‘6th Australian Division’; the Divisional Signals and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion would be Corps troops; and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment would come under the command of 4 Indian Division. As this would have wrecked the organisation of the New Zealand Division, Brigadier Puttick cabled to General Freyberg, who promptly explained to General Wavell the rights and responsibilities of a Dominion commander:29
Have just received your proposals for reorganisation with its repercussions upon the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt. As no such change can be made without the approval of the New Zealand Government, I hope these proposals will not be proceeded with. I do not wish to disclose to the New Zealand Government the proposals as outlined by you to break up the New Zealand Force, as they would make a most unfavourable impression in New Zealand official circles with repercussions you probably have not foreseen. The answer to any such proposals would, I am sure, be an uncompromising refusal.30
This decided the question; Egypt Corps was organised but the Australian and New Zealand groups were included as self-contained formations.
There had, of course, been some very good reasons for the suggested reorganisation. In July 1940 the situation in the Middle East was no more encouraging than it was in Western Europe. The French commanders in Syria and Somaliland were obedient to the Vichy Government; the Italians in East Africa, having forced the evacuation of eastern Sudan and British Somaliland, were threatening Kenya Colony; in Libya the Italian Army had already made reconnaissances towards Sollum. To meet these threats Wavell had to use every available unit and, above all, had to gain time until men, tanks, aircraft and equipment arrived from Britain by way of the Cape of Good Hope.
If the Italians entered Egypt he proposed to retire to his defences about Mersa Matruh. Being short of both troops and mechanical transport, he had to employ the small New Zealand group, even though it was incomplete and partially equipped. In the event of an Italian attack, 4 Brigade Group would take over from 11 Indian Infantry Brigade the protection of the lines of communication between Alexandria and Mersa Matruh. The warning order about a probable move was received on 19 August, a week before the date of departure.
The guards at the Tura caves, the detachments picketing the Cairo Sub-area and the battalions digging the anti-tank ditch at Garawla were recalled and, as far as was possible, equipped for active service. That completed, the New Zealand Division as it then existed – Divisional Headquarters, 4 Infantry Brigade and the supporting units – would move to the heat and the sand of Baggush, a coastal oasis with some palm trees and a beach. The Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General for the Division, Colonel W. G. Stevens, would remain with his staff in Maadi Camp to control the base units necessary for the maintenance of the Division and the reception of the Third Echelon.
The move began on 27 August and the units, after much shuffling and reshuffling, were dug in and camouflaged by the end of September. Headquarters New Zealand Division, with 5 Field Park Company and 4 Field Ambulance, was at Burbeita; Headquarters 4 Brigade was at El Daba. Along the line of communication were 18 and 19 Battalions, 4 Field Regiment and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion in No. 3 sector at Baggush, the Divisional Cavalry Regiment in No. 2 sector at El Daba and 20 Battalion in No. 1 sector at Ikingi Maryut. At the end of September 20 Battalion
moved to Baggush and the sector was taken over by 16 Australian Brigade.
The work to be done in the Baggush Box was explained to the senior officers by Lieutenant-General R. N. O’Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force. There was to be an elaborate defence system under the control of 4 Indian Division, which would take care of the western and southern approaches while 4 Brigade Group, with 4/6 Rajputana Rifles under command, would prepare the eastern sector. The Mediterranean would be the northern flank of the Box. Within it trenches and living quarters, pillboxes and gunpits had to be constructed; unfortunately, the New Zealand engineers who could have simplified the work were required elsewhere. Fifth Field Park Company had to maintain the workshop and control the water supply within the Box. Sixth Field Company, when it returned from some defence work west of Alexandria, was needed for the construction of a pipeline from Baggush to Mersa Matruh. This demanded its attention until December, when it handed over the pipeline to 126 E and M Company, Royal Engineers, and went to Gebel Maryam in the Canal Zone for a course in floating bridge training. The units of 4 Brigade, with few compressors or power tools, had therefore to construct the eastern sector as best they could. And this, with intervals for training, they continued to do until they were recalled to Helwan Camp in January 1941.
The units which had been attached to the Western Desert Force in the anxious days of June were not released to join the group in the Baggush Box. The signallers were actually in the same area, but they could not be replaced as they were operating the signals for Force Headquarters and repairing the cable system when it was damaged during the air raids on Mersa Matruh. As there was a shortage of qualified linesmen in the Middle East, the New Zealand detachment often worked for long and dangerous periods re-establishing these communications.
The trucks of 4 RMT Company were usually far to the west of Baggush. Convoys did on occasion go south to Siwa oasis and in October the company, assisted by the Petrol Company, moved an Indian battalion from Baggush to near Garawla. But, for the most part, the unit had become too important a link in the desert supply system for it to be withdrawn to the Box. Supplies were now coming out steadily to the western railhead so two sections were working from the depot near Fuka, with another, usually C Section, in the forward area with 7 Armoured Division.
The Italian answer to this increased volume of transport was more air activity. There were showers of shaving sticks and pencils, tooth-paste, innocent lumps of wood and thermos-flask bombs which
became active after touching the ground. They were the novelty of the period; in fact a thermos bomb provided the Division’s first ‘killed in action’ casualty. On 13 September, when a convoy from 4 RMT Company was moving past Kilo 91, it ran into a sprinkling of thermos bombs and Driver Osborn31 was killed from the resultant explosions, as were several British drivers.
With 4 RMT Company so occupied in the Western Desert, the Petrol Company and the Supply Column were brought out in September from Maadi to El Daba. They built up a DID (Detail Issue Depot) at Abu Haggag or carried supplies to the Box and, on occasions, to Siwa oasis.
This historic resort, being of some strategic importance, was now a military outpost to which supplies were taken from Mersa Matruh. The battalions at Baggush supplied small anti-aircraft detachments to protect the convoys against the occasional air attacks, and the only New Zealand casualties for November occurred when the oasis was bombed and three men from 18 Battalion were wounded.
Along the line of communication between Mersa Matruh and Cairo there were equally urgent transport problems. If the troops in the desert were to be maintained and if supplies for the First Libyan Campaign were to be accumulated, the Egyptian State Railway line had to be operated more efficiently. And the line had to be extended westwards from Mersa Matruh as quickly as possible. The 80-mile stretch between Daba and Matruh was particularly important, but the Egyptian authorities would not hand it over to a British staff. They were quite satisfied with a daily service of three or four trains, often hours or even days late. But if any counter-offensive was to be organised there had to be, in spite of the blackout, the bomb damage and the drifts of wind-blown sand, a regular service each day of ten or more trains.
To bring about such a change the non-divisional troops from New Zealand were available. The first to arrive were 9 Survey Company and 10 Railway Construction Company, who had sailed with the Second Echelon and had been diverted to Britain. They had left there in August and arrived in Egypt32 on 16 September when the movement authorities were facing a minor crisis. The Egyptian railway staff on the El Daba– Mersa Matruh section had been so disturbed by Italian bombers that they were proposing to cease work. Consequently the first task for the New Zealand railwaymen in the Middle East was to send a small detachment to Daba, where British engineers were hurriedly preparing to take over the
railway system. And there the detachment remained until the Egyptians could be persuaded to carry on.
Meanwhile the companies had left for the Western Desert on 29 September, only a fortnight after their arrival in the Middle East. Ninth Survey Company had to select and survey two routes, one from Kilo 243 towards Minqar Qaim and the other an extension of the main line. Until this work was complete and the necessary equipment could be found, 10 Construction Company was employed with 4 Brigade Group in the Baggush Box, its men enduring the seasonal sandstorms and suffering from attacks of dysentery.
These two surveys were not the only tasks for the Survey Company. As they were, until the arrival of Australian and South African companies, the only survey experts in the Middle East, their services were very much in demand. War material was accumulating with the arrival of every convoy; supply depots had to be surveyed and hundreds of miles of railway line had to be selected, surveyed and mapped. Before long there were survey parties throughout the Middle East, often 2000 miles apart and very often in different countries. By 1945 9 Survey Company had surveyed many of the railways, sidings and depots used by the army in North Africa; its detachments had worked in Palestine and Transjordan, Syria and Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Sudan and Eritrea. The first of these detachments spent October and November in the Sudan surveying bridge sites across the Atbara River; another was recalled to survey depots in Palestine; and another came back to work in the Canal Zone.
In Maadi Camp, on the other hand, there was none of this dispersion and disintegration. The autumn of 1940 was notable for the organisation of a permanent base and the simplification of the administration of 2 NZEF. On 1 October HQ 2 NZEF, with Colonel Stevens as Officer in Charge of Administration, came into being to control all reinforcements, the base depots33 and the administration of 2 NZEF as a whole. The force in the field, which was the concern of Headquarters New Zealand Division, would, when recalled, concentrate at Helwan, leaving Maadi for the Base Camp and the training depots.
Empress of Japan36 from Wellington. They had met next morning in Cook Strait and set off for Fremantle, escorted by HMS Achilles and HMAS Perth. On 31 August they were joined by the Aquitania and HMAS Canberra from Sydney. After calling at Fremantle, the convoy reached Bombay on 15 September and broke into different groups destined either for Britain or the Middle East.
As the Orcades was going on to Britain, 14 and 15 Forestry Companies went aboard from the Empress of Japan while 26 Battalion left for the humid atmosphere of the racecourse and eventually for the crowded decks of the Orion. As there was no accommodation for 6 Field Ambulance and some 500 reinforcements they were sent to the stadium. When flooded out from there by the monsoon rains, they were quartered at the racecourse and finally at Deolali, a rest camp 100 miles from Bombay.
This small detachment remained in India until 9 October when it left Bombay for a grimy but exciting voyage in the French motor-vessel Felix Roussel. In the Red Sea the convoy was bombed by aircraft from Eritrea and, when east of Massawa, had to face units of the Italian Navy. The Kimberley, one of the escort vessels, put an Italian destroyer out of action, engaged the shore batteries and ended the day as a disabled vessel towed astern of the convoy. In Port Sudan, where the Felix Roussel had put in for water, there was another air attack with a near miss on the wharf-side. Finally, unlike most reinforcements, they passed Port Tewfik and steamed up the Suez Canal to disembark at Port Said.
The main body of the echelon had a less exciting voyage from Bombay. The troops in the Mauretania went to the Ormonde, a ship that had just arrived from Britain. She had been left in a filthy condition by another contingent, the living quarters were crowded and the meat which was being taken aboard was already tainted from exposure on the wharves. Consequently, when the large convoy was due to sail on 19 September some of the troops got out of control and the Ormonde had to be retained in port. Many excuses can be made for the men; their officers could be criticised for not explaining the urgency of the convoy system. Nevertheless the incident was regrettable. In the end, after order was restored, arrangements were made for some of the men to sleep on deck and the Ormonde was able to catch up with the waiting convoy on the afternoon of the 20th. Nine days later the ships were in Port Tewfik.
Within a few days Headquarters 2 NZEF had decided the future of the different units. Sixth Anti-Tank Company was disbanded and
its personnel transferred to the Reinforcement Depot; C Section Ammunition Company joined the rest of the unit at Abbassia. Sixth Brigade, 6 Field Regiment, 33 Battery of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment and the 600 reinforcements in the depot began a course of individual training, stiffened with long marches and leading up to the higher realms of tactical exercises in the desert. Nineteenth Army Troops Company endured some weeks of elementary training before leaving for the Canal Zone and an intensive course in field engineering. This was not its normal role but it was necessary if the company was to be the substitute37 for 8 Field Company.
The non-divisional units were absorbed without any waste of time. On 8 October 2 General Hospital, with Colonel F. M. Spencer as CO and Miss D. I. Brown as matron, took over the hospital at Helwan, relieving the members of 4 Field Ambulance who had established it in July and the advance party from 1 General Hospital which had been attached ever since its arrival from Britain in September. The other members of 1 General Hospital who arrived in November established their unit at Helmieh, a dusty suburb of Cairo and the camp site of 1 NZEF in 1915. The hospital was opened on 15 December with Colonel A. C. McKillop in charge and Miss E. C. Mackay38 as matron.
The railway companies were required so urgently that the Director of Transportation, Middle East, wanted them in the desert ten days after their arrival. One hundred operators and plate-layers were away within a fortnight; the others were needed but they had first to complete an intensive weapon-training course. All the same, they were out in the Western Desert only a few months after they had entered camp in Ngaruawahia. On 21 October 16 Railway Operating Company went out to El Daba to assist the Egyptian staff on the line from there to Mersa Matruh; 13 Construction Company went to Qasaba and became responsible for the maintenance of the track; 17 Operating Company went on 7–8 November to control the yards and railway station at Burg el Arab.
Their immediate task was to eliminate the delays in the movement of wagons and to increase the daily number of trains without completely taking over from the Egyptians. ‘The Company had to make 10 trains run where a couple ambled along in a maleesh fashion before.’ The Director of Transportation had been very careful to explain the delicacy of the situation and the necessity of avoiding any friction whatsoever. The solution was to have men at each station along the line and spare engine crews at danger points or regular target areas. The engines were run without headlights and
the water, which had to be brought out from the Nile, was issued most carefully. In time the trains whose arrival had once been unpredictable were so regular that officials with short memories were known to pay the indirect compliment of complaining when there were any delays.
But there was another side to this swift absorption of the Third Echelon. It was very evident that GHQ Middle East was making no effort to assemble the scattered units of the Division. Divisional Headquarters and 6 Brigade Group were at Maadi, but most of the other detachments were over 200 miles away. Divisional Signals and 4 RMT Company were with Western Desert Force; B and C Sections of the Ammunition Company were with the Cairo Area; the men with the Long Range Desert Patrol were on the Libyan frontier under British officers; the Divisional Cavalry Regiment was under Headquarters Lines of Communication; 4 Brigade Group, 27 (MG) Battalion, 5 Field Park Company and 6 Field Company were controlled by Western Desert Force; and about fifty artificers were scattered from Khartoum to Alexandria.
In September, soon after his arrival from Britain, General Freyberg had asked for the return of all these units as he now could, with Headquarters and two infantry brigades, begin training on a divisional scale. The answer from GHQ, Cairo, had been that they could not be released; General Wilson had suggested that they would not be available until 1941; and Headquarters British Troops in Egypt had stated in writing that it was ‘out of the question for the time being.’
These unsympathetic replies forced Freyberg to explain to the Middle East Command the status of 2 NZEF. In a letter on 19 October he said:
The New Zealand Forces are not an integral part of the British Army – they are a distinct New Zealand force, proud of their own identity. They cannot be split up and used piecemeal, except with the consent of the New Zealand Government. The past I know has been unfortunate, and for that I must take my share of the blame. We came over here in February, keen and willing to help everybody, and have never refused a request of any sort. It has been a mistake, and the efficiency of the Division has suffered grievously. Now, because we are insisting on concentrating as a force, we are most unpopular. I feel I let our force in for this by not saying ‘No’ right at the beginning, as I believe did the AIF.
For your information I send you a copy of the special powers39 vested in me by the New Zealand Government. They will put you in the picture. They were granted to me when I accepted command of the NZEF. ...
The position is quite clear; in an emergency we will all work under anybody’s command, and do any job for which we are trained and equipped. The Division meanwhile cannot be used piecemeal.40
This cleared the air and the future concentration of 2 NZEF was soon settled with General Wavell. He was planning the counterattack which opened the First Libyan Campaign, so 4 Brigade Group, as a reserve in the Baggush Box, would have to remain in the desert until it could be relieved by an Australian division.41 But the other detached units42 were to come under the command of Headquarters 4 Brigade in order to maintain some connection between them and the Division. With the Long Range Desert Patrol, however, the only concession that could be granted was the right to provide substitutes for those already in the desert.
This still meant that the New Zealand forces in the Middle East would not be assembled for divisional training until January 1941. If the necessary equipment was then available the Division would be enlarged and reorganised on the lines of the Bartholomew Report.43 There would be a reconnaissance unit, increased mobility and much greater fire power. The Division would not, however, be mobile enough either in attack or in defence, so General Freyberg thought that there should be an armoured brigade.44 ‘With such a brigade the Division would be a most formidable fighting formation, well fitted to undertake any operation in the Western Desert with undoubted reduction in casualties.’ The authorities agreed in principle but pointed out that the plans were dependent upon the volume of equipment arriving in the Middle East. At the moment the Division was receiving its share of the supplies which Churchill was so boldly despatching to the Middle East. The infantry were fully equipped and 4 Field Regiment had new 25-pounder guns.
The greatest problem was that of reinforcements. The decision to garrison Fiji had meant that instead of 2900 men only 600 reinforcements had come over with the Third Echelon. To allow for casualties when the Division went into action, the Government decided that the trained troops in Fiji should be replaced by recruits from New Zealand and sent as soon as possible to the Middle East. They would be needed in the spring of 1941, when the Division as part of GHQ Reserve might be moved at short notice to any part of the Middle East.
This, however, was still in the realms of possibility. The problems of the moment were those of the units at Maadi and Baggush. In the former camp 6 Brigade and the men in the different reinforcement depots were training in comparative comfort. With the scattered units in the desert it was very different. They were doing urgent work as well as regular training. The great anti-tank ditch was still being excavated, for the most part by 10 Railway Construction Company, with hundreds of native labourers and a party from 19 Army Troops Company to operate the compressors, power shovels and bulldozers that had arrived with the Third Echelon. Signallers, engineers and ASC drivers were still with the British units; the battalions of 4 Brigade, released from the anti-tank ditch, were now training according to the latest theories of desert warfare.
This life in the desert was monotonous and often Spartan in its simplicity. The hot, clear days and sharp, brilliant nights followed in endless succession. Meals seemed to consist of tinned food and chlorinated tea. Self-control was needed when the water allowance was one and a half gallons per man per day and resignation when sandstorms paralysed all movements. Milder days did come with the approach of winter but they meant colder nights and heavy showers, such as those of 26–27 November when water rushed down the wadis, flooding dugouts and anti tank ditches. As compensation there were fewer flies and less dysentery, football matches and leave to Alexandria. But there was one obvious and unpleasant fact – the brigade group would remain in the desert until the Italian Army was no longer a threat to Egypt.