Chapter 22: 2 NZEF in North Africa, April–May 1941
Maadi and Helwan Camps
THE month of May was notable for movements to and from Egypt. On 2 May 6 Brigade Group returned from Greece; Headquarters New Zealand Artillery, 6 Field Company and 1 Survey Troop were brought over from Crete on 9 May; the Ammunition Company, the Supply Column and detachments of signallers on 14 May; and the 5th Reinforcements and 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, which had left Wellington on 7 April, arrived on 13 May. The immediate problem was the equipment and reorganisation of these troops.
At the same time there was movement away from Egypt. The Kiwi Concert Party and the bands of 4 and 5 Brigades left for Crete on 11 May and a detachment from the Composite Training Depot went from Port Tewfik to Durban as guard for prisoners of war in the Dunera.
New Zealand Units in the Desert
The other New Zealanders in Egypt were the railway construction and operating units that had been withdrawn in February from the Western Desert to the Canal Zone. Docks, depots and railways were to be surveyed by 9 Survey Company and constructed in the northern sub-area by 10 Railway Construction Company and in the southern sub-area by 13 Railway Construction Company.
In this work 10 Company did not take a very active part; it suffered from a most exasperating series of orders and counter-orders about service in Greece. In the first plan a composite company from all units was to go, then in March the company had to call in all detachments to Qassasin, hand over their tasks to 13 Company and prepare for service overseas with a section from 16 Railway Operating Company under command. The advance party left with the motor transport for Amiriya on its way to Alexandria, but the departure of the main body was repeatedly postponed. The arrival of an Australian company1 to take over some of the work was encouraging but the return of the operating detachment to its own unit was ominous. April came and there were orders to move – on
the 15th, then on the 16th – and finally on 23 April an order to return to the Western Desert. On 2 May the company was back in the dust-storm about El Daba maintaining the line from Kilo 85 to Mersa Matruh.
Thirteenth Railway Construction Company had a much less disturbed existence. There had been no suggestion that the company should go to Greece as a complete unit, so February for its men was a month for the construction of sidings and depots along the Canal and for the completion of the different tasks begun by 10 Company before it assembled for its possible move to Greece. March and April saw no important changes; May came and the company was still in the furnace of the Canal Zone, laying new railway tracks and constructing a bridge over the Sweet Water Canal, a jetty and a marshalling yard at Agroud.
There were equally few changes for the railway operating companies. Sixteenth Company spent February and March controlling the line to Mersa Matruh; 17 Company remained in the Canal Zone operating the yards at Geneifa or attached to the stations along the main railway line.
But there were several small detachments that travelled a very long way from the Canal Zone. In February 1 officer and 72 other ranks were selected from the two operating companies for work at Haifa in Palestine. There they were employed overhauling railway stock and ‘knocking 1914–18 locomotives into shape’ for the Syrian campaign of July 1941.
Some detachments travelled 2400 miles to Eritrea, from which the Italians were now being expelled. On 26 February 9 Survey Company sent 2 officers and 18 other ranks to Kassala in eastern Sudan. From here they had driven 60 dusty miles to Tessenei and the granite foothills on the way to Keren and the central plateau of Eritrea. A railway line was then surveyed through the box thorn and up the arid wadis. With the temperature at 115 degrees F. in the shade at midday all work was done in the early morning; the cool evenings could be spent shooting gazelle or resting in camp watching the lights of the convoys bumping forward to the forces attacking Keren. This town fell on 27 March and the detachment left soon afterwards for Egypt.
The other detachment, 1 officer and 49 other ranks, came from 10 Railway Construction Company. They left the Canal Zone on 6 March to travel the same long route by railway, steamer, and motor lorry to Kassala and to Tessenei. Here they were attached to 10 Railway Construction Company, Royal Engineers, to work on the railway and on the Gash River bridge. In April they were attached to 101 Indian Railway Construction Company and remained
with it until the bridge was completed towards the end of May. The detachment returned by way of Port Sudan and the Red Sea to join the rest of the company in the Western Desert.
Still more interesting was the work of another detachment selected from 16 Railway Operating Company for duties at Benghazi in Cyrenaica. The Navy had decided that this outlying port was too damaged and too often raided to be a workable harbour. Until there was good air cover all shipping would unload at Tobruk; men and stores would be taken forward from there by motor transport. This was not easy to obtain because the original shortage of vehicles had been accentuated by the transfer of many units to Greece. To ease the situation Lieutenant Bishop2 and twenty-one other ranks had to operate the railway line between Barce and Benghazi. As they had to undertake all the main duties in a railway system, the small party included drivers, firemen, traffic operators, fitters, boilermakers and carpenters.
The detachment left Alexandria in a coastal vessel, landed at Tobruk and reached Benghazi by motor transport on 1 March. The metre gauge railway line was almost intact, complete with steam and diesel engines, carriages, wagons and an Arab operating staff of 150 men. Within three days they were running two trains each way each day, taking out Italian prisoners and returning with petrol and rations that had been landed at Tobruk.
The same week a small detachment, Sergeant Rinaldi3 and four railway engineers, was sent up from Tobruk to the harbour at Derna. Attached to Movement Control for duties on the wharves, they dealt with the small ships that were sent up with petrol.
This peacetime regularity lasted only a few weeks. The German High Command had already decided that the crumbling Italian defences in North Africa must be buttressed by the Afrika Korps and screened by the Luftwaffe. And to accentuate the problem some of the British and Australian units were being withdrawn for service in Greece; for those who remained there was also a shortage of armour and transport. The inevitable result of German strength and British weakness was a shattering series of disasters.
Rommel made the first move on 31 March when he crossed the border at El Agheila and forced 2 Armoured Division to withdraw. This in turn led to the evacuation of Benghazi, the precipitate retreat from Cyrenaica, and in the end to the loss of almost all that had been won a few months before. By 12 April the Germans were in Bardia and approaching the frontier of Egypt.
The only centre of resistance in their rear was Tobruk, which General Wavell had decided should be held in order to preserve the large supply dumps and to prevent Rommel using the port to support his advance into Egypt. Until the end of the year the siege of that town dominated the course of the war in North Africa.
In the retreat across Cyrenaica and in the defence of Tobruk itself only a few New Zealanders took part. On 3 April, when Rommel was approaching Benghazi, the detachment from 16 Railway Operating Company was given the task of transporting a pioneer battalion to Barce. The detachment stood-to all night, unrequired locomotives were destroyed and at 7 a.m. on 4 April it pulled out, reaching Barce with two trainloads that same afternoon. Here the locomotives were destroyed and the party was taken on to Tobruk by motor transport. Thence it went by ship to Alexandria as escort for several hundred Italian prisoners of war.
The Derna detachment, with orders to stay so long as there were vehicles requiring petrol, watched the main stream of vehicles go east and then destroyed all the remaining petrol. After that it was every man for himself. In their case they kept together, hitch-hiking their way back to the units in Tobruk only a few hours ahead of the German advanced guard.
About the same time a small detachment from 21 Mechanical Equipment Company was moving in the other direction. It was being hurried out from Egypt to Tobruk. The company had arrived on 23 March with the third section of the 4th Reinforcements. Ten days later Second-Lieutenant Bryant4 and four other ranks received orders to collect from the Delta Barrage mechanical shovels and rooters for delivery at Barce. This equipment, only partially assembled, was loaded on eight 10-ton trucks driven by Royal Army Service Corps drivers. They got as far as Tobruk on 8 April just before it was encircled by the Afrika Korps. The machines were hurriedly assembled and handed over to an Australian unit for the excavation of tank traps about the perimeter. The New Zealanders then waited for a ship to Alexandria and had their first experience of intense air raids. The first ship they left on was bombed and had to be beached; the second had some near misses but reached Alexandria on 25 April. For speed of approach to the battlefront after arrival in the Middle East, this detachment’s movement is probably the record for 2 NZEF. Other detachments from the same company were sent with their heavy machinery to excavate anti-tank ditches at Mersa Matruh and Baggush.
The largest detachment of New Zealanders in the Tobruk area was composed of the seventy or more railwaymen who had worked
the tugs and lighters at Sollum. They had come round5 by sea in February and were well established by the time the town was encircled. The RAF was then unable to operate from within the area nor was it able to provide adequate cover from bases in Egypt. Air attacks were therefore more frequent and more destructive. Before long the normal practice was for destroyers to slip in at night, unload and be away before dawn. The freighters and tankers, trawlers, schooners and minesweepers usually came in before dawn, unloaded into lighters in daylight and left on the earliest convenient night.
In this work New Zealanders operated four tugs that brought in the lighters; others unloaded these stores or were concerned with the transportation of the wounded from the shore to the hospital ships. One man was killed in April but otherwise they were very fortunate. The only available diary kept by anyone in the unit is very brief but its plain matter-of-fact entries become very impressive. The tugs had to race out to pick up the survivors from sunken ships; a blazing oil tanker had to be towed to a disused jetty; lighters were towed alongside the wreckage of sunken ships to escape observation during an air raid; inland, German dive-bombers could on occasion be seen peeling off to attack gun positions. And so the saga went on until June, when the writer with other railwaymen was recalled to Alexandria and to his company.
To the east of Tobruk the forward element of Rommel’s army had come to a halt in April mid-way between the Egyptian border and Mersa Matruh, in front of a line held by British, Australian and Polish troops. Behind them in the Cairo Sub-area were Indian troops just back from Eritrea and brigades of Australians and New Zealanders who had returned from Greece. The situation was serious, somewhat similar to that of mid-1940 when the Italians had declared war and invaded Egypt. The men needed rest and reorganisation; supplies and equipment had been left in Greece or were needed in Crete. But there was one difference so far as the New Zealanders were concerned. In 1940 2 NZEF had been able to send 4 Brigade Group to the Baggush Box; in 1941 it had only a few non-fighting units available for immediate service in the desert.
Nevertheless on 10 April, when the situation was even more threatening – Bardia fell on the 13th – General Freyberg from Greece suggested to Mr Fraser in New Zealand that Wavell should be offered liberty of action to use to the best advantage the New Zealanders in Egypt. Officers and NCOs had been left at Maadi and, if the necessity arose, ‘they could form an infantry brigade.’
The consent of the Government was immediately given,6 but no action was taken.
The same April crisis brought back into the Western Desert several units with useful desert experience. Sixteenth Railway Operating Company had left the desert railway on 28 March for El Kirsh in the Canal Zone. It was to take over the duties of 17 Railway Operating Company, then under orders for service in Palestine; plans were also under way for a detachment to work in Eritrea. But all these plans were dropped when Rommel recovered Cyrenaica. General Headquarters, Middle East, expecting the worst, had most of the company back on the El Daba– Mersa Matruh railway early in April, only eleven days after it had handed it over to the Egyptian staff. The detachment that had been seconded for service in Greece with 10 Railway Construction Company remained at Amiriya in case the line to Alexandria was threatened or the forward units had to retire. If that had happened, 16 Railway Operating Company was to have controlled the whole 200 miles between Mersa Matruh and Amiriya. In the meantime the company ran more trains than previously, prepared a defence system at El Daba ‘with an all round field of fire’ and welcomed back its odd detachments, first that from Benghazi, then the Workshops section from Syria, the detachment which never went to Eritrea and finally the one which never left for Greece.
The newcomers to the desert were 18 Army Troops Company, which had arrived in Egypt with the third section of the 4th Reinforcements. Within a few days of its arrival the company was warned that it was to be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the desert water supply. In mid-April the company left Maadi for the Western Desert and became responsible for the pipeline from Alexandria to Daba, to Mersa Matruh and Charing Cross, for the supply of water in drums and for the operation of self-propelled water barges. This meant sections maintaining the pipeline, detachments on the water barges within the harbour of Mersa Matruh and small parties on the water ships7 Myriel and Eocene that ran between Alexandria and Mersa Matruh.
Thus, by the end of April 1941, 2 NZEF was once more dispersed. Fourth and 5th Infantry Brigades and other units were in Crete waiting for the German attack; 6 Infantry Brigade was in
Egypt reorganising after its return from Greece; the 4th Reinforcements and the base units were training in Maadi and Helwan camps; in the desert railwaymen and engineers were serving from Alexandria to Tobruk. The comparison can be extended still further by pointing out that in 1940 5 Infantry Brigade Group in Britain was waiting to repulse an invasion; in 1941 4 and 5 Infantry Brigade Groups were standing-to in Crete waiting for the parachute battalions.