Chapter 5: Assembly and Training of the New Zealand Division
IN December 1940, when it was clear that the Italian Army was withdrawing along the North African coast, permission was granted for the New Zealand units to assemble in Maadi and Helwan camps and there prepare for the spring campaign. The Division was to be in General Headquarters Reserve ready to move at short notice to any theatre of war. There was no certainty just where this would be. The battalions could be sent to Libya, to Abyssinia, or to any other country in the Middle East in which the German High Command chose to play its next card. In November General Freyberg had informed the New Zealand Government that Germany, having failed to invade Britain, might attack either Russia or Turkey; in December he thought that the Italian disasters in Greece would affect ‘German plans for next spring’ and that Greece as well as Turkey was a possible theatre of war.
The immediate problem, however, was the assembly of the scattered Division. There were even doubts about the arrival of reinforcements, though they were essential if the Division was ever to go into action. In August the reinforcements who were to have sailed with the Third Echelon were retained for service in Fiji. Since then the position in the Pacific had deteriorated, and in October the Government warned General Freyberg that the growing tension in the Far East made it necessary for it to revise its plans for reinforcements to the Middle East and to consider whether a proportion of those available should not be sent to Fiji at the earliest possible moment. The Government eventually decided that only a section of the 4th Reinforcements should leave in November. Later on, to the consternation of the General, a shortage of shipping made it necessary to send the remainder in two sections. In the end, however, he was able to act on the assumption that the original total of reinforcements would be adhered to ‘without any deficiency’. From December onwards a succession of convoys was to come in from Britain and New Zealand.
To make way for these reinforcements, 6 Brigade and those units of the Division already in Maadi Camp moved out during 9–14
December to Helwan, the desert camp near which 2 General Hospital was already established and from which 6 Australian Division had just moved to the Western Desert. Henceforward Maadi was left as the Base Camp for HQ 2 NZEF base units and the training units of the Reinforcement Depot.
The first to enter Maadi Camp under this new system was the first section of the 4th Reinforcements, 1487 all ranks, who left Wellington on 8 November in HMTs Batory and Maunganui and after an uneventful voyage arrived at Port Tewfik on 16 December. They were joined by a small detachment from Divisional Headquarters and Headquarters Divisional Artillery which arrived from England on 29 December.
As the Italian army in North Africa was then in full retreat, there was no reason why several of the units which had been attached to Western Desert Force should not return1 for divisional training. The long-awaited orders came through and, by 17 January, despite sandstorms and the more urgent transport requirements of the desert army, the battalions of 4 Brigade were in Helwan Camp. Sixth Field Company was recalled from the Canal Zone, B Section of the Ammunition Company came in from Abbassia, and GHQ Middle East at last agreed that the New Zealand units still advancing with 13 Corps should be recalled as soon as it was convenient for General O’Connor to release them.
For the rank and file of 4 Brigade the important fact was that, during their absence in the desert, efforts had been made to introduce some of the amenities of civilisation to the tented camps at Maadi and Helwan. The meals were better cooked and had more variety now that the cooks had taken courses at the School of Cookery from the instructors who had, at last, arrived from Britain.2 Sports competitions had been organised, the best known being that for the Freyberg Cup, for which rugby teams struggled on such dusty grounds as ‘Eden Park’ and ‘Carisbrook’. Bands had been organised within each brigade and in March the Kiwi Concert Party became an official unit of 2 NZEF. There was the change-of-air camp at Alexandria for those who had leave. And in Cairo itself on 5 February, at the corner of Sharia Malika Farida and Sharia Emad el Din, the New Zealand Club was opened to 600 men representing all units, and probably enjoying the New Zealand beer sent over
by the Patriotic Fund Board, whose Commissioner in the Middle East was now Colonel Waite.3
The other side to the story is one of training and organisation. Training schemes were drawn up and warnings issued about divisional exercises in February and active operations in March. By then it was hoped that 5 Brigade would have arrived from Britain and that the rest of the expected reinforcements would have come over from New Zealand.
In Maadi Camp elaborate arrangements were being made for the reception and training of these new drafts. The Artillery Training Regiment, the NCOs’ School, and the Composite Training Depot for engineers, signallers and Divisional Cavalry had already been established. On 15 January 9 Infantry Brigade, with Northern, Central and Southern Training Battalions and a Maori Training Company, was formed under the command of Brigadier L. M. Inglis, promoted from command of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion.
At the same time much was done to perfect the organisation and administration of the Division. Groupings for the three brigades4 were settled; 27 (MG) Battalion, originally a non-divisional unit, was absorbed into the Division; 19 Army Troops Company was temporarily attached to 6 Brigade Group to take the place of 8 Field Company, which did not leave New Zealand until 1 February. The plans for a Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment were scrapped when it was realised that a colossal amount of special equipment not then available was necessary.
There was, however, less shortage of the more regular items of clothing and equipment. The authorities were making every effort to issue the troops with the full G10985 equipment. Supplies were coming in through the Red Sea ports and the quartermasters, free to adopt war accounting, were no longer hoarding their treasures. By February it was fashionable for the well-dressed soldier to be wearing khaki drill by day and the new battle-dress uniform at night. Motor vehicles were being issued to replace those ruined in the desert; 25-pounder guns replaced the old 18-pounders and the 45-inch howitzers; the Divisional Cavalry Regiment received Marmon-Harrington armoured cars and the Signals Corps was issued with many tons of equipment. In fact, the only major unit still working under difficulties was the Base Training establishment at Maadi.
Here a shortage of transport and the employment of men on guard duties at the Tura caves, 2 General Hospital and Helwan prisoner-of-war camp made it difficult to prepare the reinforcement drafts for the Division.6
The task for the brigades was to complete the basic training of the men and then, by intensive day and night marches, to have them so fit that they could cover 40 miles in twenty-four hours. By February this was possible and the monotony of the work was then broken by more advanced exercises. The battalions attacked behind the supporting fire of machine guns and mortars or advanced in extended line behind smoke screens to capture imaginary defences in the sandhills; on the route marches they were harried by the Royal Air Force or diverted to test the brains and the efficiency of the brigade staffs.
The actual role which the Division was to play had not been defined, but General Freyberg had been able to tell his brigadiers that their theatre of war was no longer likely to be the Western Desert. He gave them a general directive envisaging a landing from the sea, and along these lines a considerable amount of training was carried out, the desert escarpments providing the stage setting for actions at the foot of sea cliffs. The battalions practised river crossings, using kapok bridges for the canals and assault boats for the river. The final event was a regular ‘Henley on the Nile’ in which a spectacular variety of craft took part.
All this time reinforcements had been arriving from New Zealand and units returning from the desert. The second section of the 4th Reinforcements, 2301 all ranks, which had left Wellington on 20 December on HMTs Dominion Monarch, Empress of Russia and Awatea, arrived at Port Tewfik on 28–30 January.
The next to appear was 19 Army Troops Company, whose sections had been working between Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani. They had constructed camps, laid pipelines, perfected a water system about Mersa Matruh, salvaged equipment and lifted Italian minefields. Small detachments had been with 708 Construction Company and with the water barges at Sollum and Tobruk. In fact, one barge crew was still in Tobruk for lightering duties, the naval authorities having asked if the crew could be retained and General Freyberg having agreed on condition that the men were replaced as soon as possible. They rejoined the company during the last week of February, in time to leave for Greece.
The rest of the company, however, was at Sidi Barrani by 31 January with orders to return to Helwan Camp. That night the SS Sollum with 500 Italian prisoners ran aground on an outer reef.
There was a strong wind with high seas, but men from the ship swam ashore with lines to the foot of the coastal escarpment. They were assisted through the breakers by Sergeant Cookson,7 who organised the rescue work after hawsers had been attached to some heavy trucks. Relays of men spent hours in the bitterly cold surf dragging the Italians to safety; others assisted them into slings and those on the escarpment hauled them to the crest. The wounded had to be brought ashore on Carley floats, so the last stages of their journey were extremely hazardous, but groups of volunteers brought them through the breakers and had everyone ashore by first light. The company was then free to move back to Helwan on 3 February.
The railway construction companies, lacking mechanical equipment and dependent upon unreliable native labour, had lost touch with the advancing forces, but the limitations of the railway system had by now been balanced by the capture of Tobruk and the acquisition of Italian motor vehicles. The companies were therefore withdrawn for more urgent work in the Canal area. They left early in February: the detachment from 9 Survey Company to join the unit at Almaza; Group Headquarters and 13 Railway Construction Company for Moascar and Geneifa respectively; 10 Construction Company for Qassassin and 17 Operating Company to Geneifa, where it was to control the shunting yards. The only New Zealand railway unit left in the desert was 16 Operating Company on the line from El Daba to Mersa Matruh.
The next moves in the assembly of the divisional troops now began to take place in swift succession. On 16 February 5 Field Regiment, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment (31 and 32 Batteries) and the advance parties from the other units of 5 Brigade arrived from Britain. More important still, General Freyberg, on the following day, was told8 by General Wavell that his Division would move to Greece as the advanced guard of an Imperial force commanded by General Maitland Wilson.
As if further proof was required to support this verbal order, the units which had been advancing to Benghazi with 13 Corps now began to return. The last of the signalmen – 3 officers and 17 other ranks – who had been in the desert ever since the worrying days of June 1940, marched into camp the very same day. The Engineers of 5 Field Park Company and 10 Light Aid Detachment, who had lifted their last mines and completed the construction of their bridge in the Barce valley, were moving east along the great highway. They were in Helwan Camp by 21 February.
The transport companies were also on the move. The Petrol Company, the Supply Column and A Section of the Ammunition Company came in to Helwan from the railhead at Qasaba on 21 February. Fourth RMT Company sent its last convoy from Derna to Benghazi on 22 February, had one driver wounded during an air attack and was back in Helwan by the 28th.
For the New Zealand Division this was the end of the Libyan campaign, the last paragraph of a brief introduction. It had not gone into action as a complete formation, for neither the infantry nor the artillery had been engaged. But the signals, engineer and transport companies had gained invaluable experience. The work of all these units was acknowledged and praised in farewell messages from Lieutenant-General O’Connor and the heads of services in Western Desert Force (13 Corps). This was the praise which everyone appreciates – praise from the fellow members of one’s own craft.
But the men from the desert had little time to appreciate these messages or to enjoy the now well-organised camps at Maadi and Helwan. The stage was already being prepared for the next act in the drama, for on 28 February when the last trucks were moving into Helwan the advance parties from the Division were leaving the camp to join the first convoy to Greece. Fourth Brigade Group, went first, then 6 Brigade Group and, finally, 5 Brigade Group,9 which had reached Egypt with very little time to spare. On 3 March, when the main body of 4 Brigade left Helwan, the first ships of the convoy from Britain steamed into Port Tewfik, and within a few days the battalions of 5 Brigade, after receiving equipment and completing their training, were preparing for their own move to Greece.
The third section of the 4th Reinforcements brought four units which had been in camp with the Third Echelon, and the several thousand reinforcements without whom it would have been unwise for the Division to begin the campaign in Greece. Eighth Field Company, commanded by Major Currie10 of the Regular Force, had come over from Fiji; 36 Survey Battery was commanded by Major Rawle,11 18 Army Troops Company by Major Lincoln and 21 Mechanical Equipment Company by Major Tiffen.12 With 3 General
Hospital were two well-known medical officers: Colonel Gower,13 the commanding officer, who had been with 1 NZ General Hospital in 1916–18, and Major Russell,14 the registrar, who was afterwards for some years Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services, 2 NZEF.
These units and the mass of unattached reinforcements had left New Zealand on 1 February in HMT Nieuw Amsterdam as part of a large convoy that reached Bombay on 22 February. Here they had been broken into sections. One of 1196 all ranks, including 8 Field Company, had boarded HMT Nevassa and reached Port Tewfik on 15 March. The other section of 2492 all ranks, including 21 Mechanical Equipment Company, 18 Army Troops Company, 36 Survey Battery and 3 General Hospital, had gone to Deolali Camp for two weeks before sailing on 11 March in the Empress of Australia, Windsor Castle, Nieuw Zeeland and Indrapoera. The convoy reached Port Tewfik on 22–23 March and the troops were transferred by train to Helwan and Maadi camps.
By then the movement15 to Greece was almost complete and the two great camps were clear for the training of the new arrivals. Some were soon required for service in the Western Desert; others took over the work of units which had left for Greece; all waited for news of the Division and the appearance of their own movement orders.