27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 1 — Going Overseas
The 700-odd men who formed 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion came from all parts of New Zealand and all walks of life. When they volunteered for service overseas soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, about 120 of them described themselves as labourers, eighty as clerks, seventy as drivers of lorries, buses, taxis, tractors and other vehicles, forty as carpenters, forty as farmhands and shepherds, and thirty as farmers; among the others accountants, civil servants, salesmen, butchers, bakers, grocers, painters, storemen, mechanics and electricians were well represented. Anybody who saw the arrival at Burnham Military Camp on 3 October 1939 of this heterogeneous crowd might not have recognised the origin of a highly efficient, specialist unit of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In fact many of these men would have to be taught their job from the very beginning.
Officers, NCOs, and potential NCOs, mostly those with previous training, including a handful of Regular soldiers and men who had devoted part of their spare time to Territorial service, had arrived at Burnham a fortnight earlier. They had found the camp in the noisy and dusty process of being enlarged, and had to pick their way among trucks, bulldozers, graders and other machines working against the clock. Almost overnight bare paddocks had become a system of streets; buildings had sprung up like mushrooms.
At the outset the battalion1 was without a commanding officer. Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis,2 who had a distinguished record as a machine-gun officer in the First World War, had been selected for the position, but had to undergo an operation and did not assume command until early in December. In the meantime the page 2 battalion was run by a caucus of officers, with the Adjutant (Captain King3) having much to do with the organising of headquarters, companies, platoons and sections; on 16 October Lieutenant-Colonel Mason4 was given temporary command.
The first stage of the battalion's evolution was the sorting out of companies.5 Those who came from North Auckland, Auckland and Waikato were chosen for 1 Company; those from Taranaki, Wellington West Coast, Wellington, Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa for 2 Company; those from the South Island for 3 Company; and members of Scottish Territorial units and others of Scottish descent for 4 Company. Men were also selected according to their previous experience for administration, signals, transport, anti-aircraft defence, and the other activities of Headquarters Company.
Training was begun immediately. Regimental Sergeant-Major Brant6 was there to show the men the ropes. Rifles and web equipment were issued and the would-be machine-gunners were paraded in more or less straight lines to go through the motions of elementary rifle drill. One squad could hear, sometimes all too clearly and with distressing results, the commands addressed to another, but in spite of such initial confusion, order and efficiency emerged in a commendably short time.
Then the Vickers guns7 arrived. They had been manufactured by the Lithgow works in Australia, were beautiful to look at, but were covered with pounds of grease packing. The task of getting them into working order was accepted with enthusiasm.page 3
The training left nothing to chance. Even the most experienced men had to start from scratch and learn everything anew while the others caught up; they had to share the boredom of the instructors who talked themselves hoarse day after day as they went over the familiar routine of stripping and assembling and elementary gun drill.
The regimental badge—the crossed-gun emblem—was issued on 11 October. This was quite an event. Hitherto there had been a variegated mixture of insignia throughout the camp; now a visible sign of belonging made all the difference. Later, when the universal 2 NZEF badge was to be worn by all troops, it was with the keenest regret that the battalion took down its distinctive emblem.
October ended with icy showers and bitterly cold wind from the south, which gave the North Islanders a chance to demonstrate their parochialism. About this time an epidemic of a virulent form of influenza, the ‘Burnham bot’, incapacitated at least half the battalion and held up training. This outbreak, some thought, was caused by inoculations, open drains and Burnham's everlasting dust. By the second week of November, however, nearly everybody had returned to duty.
And then for the first time, on 13 November, the men fired the Vickers on the range. Redcliffs turned on bright sunshine and a gentle sea breeze for the occasion. There was some splendid shooting and competition ran high; anxious platoon commanders scanned the targets through their new binoculars. But the numbers did not go up until the next day. The winning platoon, of course, had been sure of success all along, but the others had no difficulty in finding explanations for their temporary lapses.
The war drew closer. On 7 December two officers and eight other ranks8 went home on a brief final leave; these were members of the Advance Party, which left Wellington in the Awatea on the 11th on the first stage of the voyage overseas.
Training was begun under canvas at Cave, in South Canterbury, on the 8th. This gave Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis, who had joined the battalion only two or three days earlier, the opportunity to see how it would fare under active service conditions and to ‘get the weights’ of his officers. In the opinion of one subaltern, ‘he succeeded in no mean manner!’ The battalion page 4 was introduced to the ‘Inglis design’9 of gun emplacement, which had been devised in the First World War. Positions were occupied at night and next morning the CO personally checked every gun, causing some anxious moments among platoon and section commanders. The battalion was taken out on exercises, which included long carries, action from trucks, occupation of positions, and direct fire orders. At the end of a strenuous day everybody was of one mind: this sort of thing was to be preferred to Burnham's bluegums, boulders and bulldozers. Field firing was ‘great fun, the boys really enjoyed it’, and the guns were made to boil for the first time. The farmer on whose land the shooting was done had served as a machine-gunner in the First World War. The CO offered him a shoot, and his first shots hit a gate half a mile away.
The First Echelon of 2 NZEF was placed on ‘active service’ on the 14th, and the troops went on a fortnight's final leave. Major-General Freyberg inspected the battalion and the other troops at Burnham on the 30th; the final church parade was held on New Year's Eve, a Sunday; there was a march through Christchurch and an official farewell at Cranmer Square on 3 January 1940, and in the afternoon the camp was open to visitors.
The question, What is the ship called Z6 on which we are to embark and where is she going? occupied all minds.
The embarkation was supposed to be shrouded in secrecy. The blinds of the train were drawn on the journey from Burnham to Lyttelton, in the afternoon of 5 January, and an officer was on duty at each end of each carriage, but ‘bush telegraph’ methods must have been at work—when the blinds were raised multitudes were revealed milling around the wharf behind a barrier of locked gates.
The battalion went aboard a Polish ship, the Sobieski, which also carried 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, a section page 5 each of the Medical Corps and Dental Corps, and three nursing sisters. Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis was in command of all troops.10
The troopship Dunera took aboard 20 Battalion and other troops, and both vessels sailed about 5 p.m., escorted by HMS Leander. Next morning they joined the ships from Wellington— Rangitata, Orion, Strathaird and Empress of Canada, escorted by HMS Ramillies and HMAS Canberra—which had been lying at anchor in Cook Strait since the previous afternoon. The convoy headed westwards into the Tasman, and the First Echelon's last glimpse of New Zealand, the white tip of Mount Egmont sank below the horizon.
Built in 1937 for the American run, the Sobieski was a luxury liner of 11,000 tons. The troops were quartered in cabins, with officers first class, warrant officers and sergeants second class, and rank and file 30-odd to a cabin on the lower deck; they enjoyed some of the comforts of peacetime tourists, but the cabins were very stuffy, in spite of the air blowers, when the ship was blacked out and the portholes closed at night.
From the beginning to the end of the voyage relations with the Polish crew were cordial. Only a few spoke English, but linguistic difficulties were more or less overcome by a system of dumb show, which produced goodwill if it did not always achieve the desired results. The continental style of cooking, however, caused some distress until remedied. ‘One gets rather fed up of highly seasoned, “tasty” and oily muck…. Tea! They had no more idea of making tea than flying,’ wrote an officer, who also objected: ‘One could not do a thing for oneself at first but now one is at least permitted to transfer jam from the dish to one's plate.’page 6
Smoking on deck after dark and showing lights from portholes were strictly forbidden, and if such an offence escaped the notice of the ship's police it seldom went undetected by the vigilant naval escorts. If a porthole was left open by accident or was opened for a few minutes by someone feeling the heat in his cabin too oppressive, the offending transport was informed immediately, and so accurate were the Navy's reports that individual culprits usually could be traced and dealt with.
Limited deck space curtailed the training programme, which began on the second day out from New Zealand. Games and physical training were intended to prevent the men from getting soft.
On a glassy sea the convoy steamed west at a deliberate twelve and a half knots until, on 10 January, it came close enough to the Australian coast to be within range of patrolling aircraft. Next day it was augmented by four Australian troopships— Orcades, Orontes, Orford and Strathnaver—and on the 12th by the Empress of Japan. The Leander left the escort, which was strengthened by HMAS Australia and HMAS Sydney, making a total of fourteen ships. Cold winds and heavy seas were encountered in the Australian Bight, where some of those who had prided themselves on being good sailors were disillusioned.
The next port was at Fremantle, where the Sobieski berthed on the 19th, and leave was granted to Perth, whose citizens were lavish in their hospitality. The appearance of men parading next day with Australian badges and even Australian uniforms, for which they had exchanged their own, was ‘ghastly’. They showed little repentance, despite rigid inspections and disciplinary action, but a vaccination had a salutary and sobering effect.
For the second stage of the voyage the Australian warships left the convoy, which was joined by HMS Kent and the French cruiser Suffren. When Colombo was reached on 30 January the Sobieski was one of the last ships to enter the harbour, which appeared to be ‘a terrific jumble of funnels and masts’. Only one ship at a time could pass between the two moles. There were no wharves and the ships were lined up in seven rows, with about 50 yards between the vessels and the rows about 200 yards apart. Tugs butted at the bow, sides and stern of each new arrival until it was in its mooring place, and there were tugs, barges, launches, bum-boats, catamarans and junks all over the place. The transports were soon surrounded by swarms of small craft laden with fruit, curios, and eager vendors page 7 gesticulating and crying their wares. Purchases were made by basket, in which money was lowered over the ship's side. As soon as the gangway was let down agents from laundries and other businesses tried to get past the guards by dodging under their arms and between their legs, but although they waved papers which they claimed were references from the port authorities, only officials were allowed aboard.
The troops were paid the equivalent of 16 shillings sterling in Ceylon currency and were advised to get rid of it or to change it ashore as it could not be accepted in the ship's canteens. Each man was given a packet of biscuits and an orange, so as not to impose too great a strain on Colombo's caterers. The troops disembarked by lighter and marched through the town to Rifle Green, where a canteen and other facilities had been prepared for them. They were then dismissed until late afternoon, when they reassembled to return to the ship. Those who were on duty during the day were given leave at night. Most of them went sightseeing and looking for bargains. ‘It was rather fun watching the troops making their way back in rickshaws,’ said somebody who preferred to walk. ‘They had the poor devils racing one another. It looked odd to see a great 6 ft N.Z. sitting in a sort of enlarged two-wheeled pram being pulled along by a skinny 5 ft native.’
Only eight men failed to return to the ship on time, and they arrived before morning. Next day training was resumed as usual. Colonel Inglis was most emphatic that the ship had to be just as clean and tidy and everybody fit for work after leave as at any other time. The training was suspended, however, when the time came to leave Colombo. The boom across the harbour entrance was swung aside and ship after ship slipped her moorings and headed out towards the horizon.
Now the convoy was escorted by an aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle, and three warships, the Sussex, Ramillies and Hobart, and also included a French troopship, Athos II, bound for French Somaliland. The New Zealanders had already been told that their destination was Egypt. The ship's magazine announced: ‘We are going to a place called El Ma'adi, about twelve miles south of Cairo on the east bank of the River Nile.’ Men wondered how to pronounce the name.
The voyage across the Arabian Sea was as calm and uneventful as that from Perth to Colombo, except that aircraft from the Eagle flew about daily, and one of them plummeted into the sea within sight of the convoy. The crew was rescued. The page 8 troops manned ship as a salute to the Eagle when she passed down the line of transports, and again for the Ramillies when she left the convoy in the Gulf of Aden; the latter was replaced by the destroyer Westcott. The convoy divided while passing Aden on 8 February; the Orion and Rangitata and three of the Australian transports put into that port to refuel, the French ship proceeded to her destination, and the rest of the convoy entered the Red Sea through the straits of Bab el Mandeb, where it left the naval escort, with the exception of the Hobart.
By this time the troops were finding the routine of shipboard training increasingly irksome, although some variety had been provided by a live-shoot practice from the deck, which had aroused intense interest among the ship's crew. As the destina tion drew near, however, the training was discontinued in favour of packing and storing equipment in readiness for disembarkation. The Vickers guns were to be left on the ship.
A following wind made the Sobieski, now low in oil and water, roll badly for a day or two. The temperature rose, but not as much as might be expected, and when the convoy ran into a head wind it became appreciably cooler. Islands were passed, land appeared on both sides, the barren, rugged coasts of Arabia and North-East Africa, and the convoy reached Suez on the morning of the 12th, after a voyage lasting thirty-eight days.
The Sobieski and Dunera were the only two transports to berth alongside the quay at Port Tewfik, at the end of a causeway running out from Suez and near the entrance of the Canal; the other ships anchored a short way out in the bay and were unloaded by lighter.
The machine-gunners had time to study their surroundings before disembarking on the 15th. Their first impressions were not very favourable. The Egyptian, while perhaps sturdier than the Sinhalese of Colombo, seemed dirtier and more ragged. ‘The outer garment appears to be a night-gown affair, a bit of cloth round the head, no footwear.’ Native vendors who came alongside the ship sold leather handbags, purses, wallets, cigarette cases, wooden camels and donkeys, and large numbers of oranges, but the troops had been dissuaded from touching other foodstuffs and drinks because of the risk of disease.
The town looked interesting at a distance but lacked the green trees of Colombo. At close quarters it was much less attractive. Some officers who went ashore were struck by the page 9 filthiness and dilapidation of the mud-daubed, lath and plaster buildings. ‘It is a wonder the first puff of wind doesn't raze the whole show…. The smell! We first whiffed it while on the boat and on land it became more pronounced but here it was overpowering … a combination of over-ripe pigsty plus Rotorua … add a strong component of carbide and you about have it.’
At last the time came to disembark. After a four o'clock reveille the battalion was entrained by 7.40 a.m. and began the 90-mile journey to Maadi actually ahead of schedule. The carriages had hard wooden seats and bare floors—a harsh contrast to the comforts of the Sobieski—and the journey was dusty, smoky and hot. ‘We admired just sand, sand in ridges, flats, scarps, heaps…. There were working parties in some places but all they appeared to be doing was just shifting sand —some guessed roads, some guessed searching for ancient ruins. We saw many ruins but whether ancient or modern it would be hard to say after seeing Suez.’ When the train entered the cultivated Nile Delta, interest quickened at the sight of lucerne crops, orange groves, water buffalo pulling wooden ploughs— ‘the kind of plough Jesus must have made in his carpenter's shop’—donkeys carrying incredible loads, and blindfold oxen turning water wheels.
Cairo looked much the same as Suez, except that some parts of it were ‘really attractive, new looking, clean buildings, bright gardens’. At the main railway station (Bab el Hadid), where ‘we were immediately besieged by Gyppos selling all manner of stuff including lurid literature’, the engine changed ends before pulling out on a branch line through the Dead City— graves and houses mixed up in a macabre fashion—and into the desert again. And then the train suddenly stopped.
Major White11 describes the arrival at Maadi: ‘We could see a few trucks standing about, a lot of soldiers and a band but why for? in the middle of the desert? We were soon disillusioned. Here we were to detrain! We stepped out into about 4 in. of soft fine dust and soon were enveloped in a cloud of it as men tramped about forming up into companies.
‘Soon we were on the move, each company in a smoke screen of dust of its own making. A hundred yards or so we passed over the crest of a rise and could see desert stretching away page 10 before us on either hand with many tents nearer at hand. Before long we were in among the tents and were led aside to our own group.’
The tents had been erected by British troops in straight lines —later they were re-erected in ‘broken’ formation. Each New Zealand unit had a ‘foster parent’ British unit, and the machine-gunners found themselves under the wing of the King's Royal Rifles, who had met them at the railway siding with their regimental band and had played them into their lines. Their cooks had prepared a meal and had made other arrangements for the comfort of the newcomers. Their quartermaster and some of his staff remained for a while to help the battalion settle.
A month or two earlier the site of Maadi Camp had been a typical desert waste, and it still had a bleak look. The battalion's lines had a few wooden buildings—the officers' mess, the orderly room, the quartermaster's store, and mess huts. The task of erecting tents brought home the difficulties that had been encountered by the New Zealand advance party, Egyptians, and others supervised by the Royal Engineers. What looked like loose sand was a mere veneer, under which sandstone had to be drilled before tent pegs could be driven.
Members of the advance party, who had received no mail since leaving New Zealand in December, were delighted to be reunited with their battalion. They had arrived in Egypt on 7 January and Staff-Sergeant Stanley12 and Privates Mayers13 and Wilson14 had assisted in erecting the camp. It had been intended that the rest of the party should attend schools of instruction, but because training facilities had not been available they had been sent to Mersa Matruh, in the Western Desert, where they had been attached to the only machine-gun unit in Egypt, 5 Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Later, Captain Grant15 had gone to the Middle East Tactical School at the Abbassia Barracks, Cairo, but Captain Luxford16 and the remainder of the party had stayed at Matruh (which still had all page 11 the appearances of a peacetime seaside resort) until just before the arrival of the First Echelon in Egypt. ‘We took part in the normal Battalion training but our duties were by no means arduous and the whole party were treated as honoured guests,’ says Luxford. ‘It was in fact nothing but a glorious desert holiday.’
Maadi Camp gave no promise of a desert holiday. Although the men had been told what to expect, they were not prepared for the sharp drop in temperature during their first night there. Reveille was at 6.30, when it was still almost dark, and everybody's teeth were chattering as the men made their way from their dusty tents to the taps to wash and shave with gritty soap. British Army field rations for breakfast came as a shock— only about half a feed for a hungry man. Egypt is going to be hell; why the devil did they want to bring us here?
1 Thirty officers and 704 other ranks, organised in battalion headquarters, headquarters company and four machine-gun companies, each composed of three four-gun platoons.
2 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn 4 Dec 1939–13 Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde 1941–42 and 4 Armd Bde 1942–44; comd 2 NZ Div 27 Jun–16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun–31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; stipendiary magistrate.
The war establishment of a machine-gun company was modified from time to time but in 1940 comprised Coy HQ (OC, 2 i/c, CSM, CQMS, transport corporal, corporal cook and 20 privates) and three platoons each of 39 or 40 men, which gave a total company strength of 144. Each platoon comprised Pl HQ (subaltern, sergeant and five or six privates) and two sections (each of two NCOs and 14 privates). Each section had two Vickers guns, and each gun team included five gun numbers and a driver. By Sep 1944 the platoon had been increased to 42 men, and the company to 154.
7 The .303 Vickers medium machine gun has a rate of fire of about 500 rounds a minute, is water cooled, weighs about 40 lb. with water in the barrel casing, is mounted on a tripod weighing about 50 lb., and is fed by a belt containing 250 rounds. The normal rate of fire is one belt in about two minutes, and rapid fire one belt in about a minute. Introduced late in 1915, the Vickers is more reliable mechanically and half the weight of its predecessor, the Maxim.
8 Capts J. L. Grant and J. H. R. Luxford, WO II G. B. C. Pleasants, S-Sgt H. V. Stanley, Sgts C. A. Newland, C. S. Mason, A. E. Fear, R. M. Rapley, and Ptes R. C. Mayers and H. V. H. Wilson.
9 In place of the orthodox V-shaped trench, this was a deep, narrow, semi-circular one, which gave protection against shell and mortar fire. The gun was placed within the radius of this trench, with its tripod below ground level and the long leg of the tripod pointing to the front instead of the rear. This allowed the gun team to get closer to their weapon and gave an 180-degree traverse. The gun could be lowered flush with the ground by collapsing the tripod, and a tank could then pass over the pit without doing any damage. With all excavated soil hidden out of sight, the gun emplacement was difficult to detect.
10 The officers of 27 (MG) Bn when it embarked were:
CO: Lt-Col L. M. Inglis
2 i/c: Maj S. C. V. W. Sugden
Adj: Capt J. S. King
IO: Lt A. W. Cooper
MO: Capt J. R. H. Fulton
Padre: Rev L. P. Spring
OC: Capt A. J. Neil
Sigs Pl: Lt R. I. Crafts
TO: Lt H. H. Parata
AA Pl: 2 Lt K. J. Frazer
OC: Maj P. W. Wright
2 i/c: Capt J. H. R. Luxford (Advance Party)
Lt R. J. Mason
Lt C. C. Johansen
OC: Maj R. L. McGaffin
2 i/c: Capt J. L. Grant (Advance Party)
Lt H. A. Purcell
2 Lt R. H. Howell
OC: Maj A. W. White
2 i/c: Capt J. K. Robbie
Lt E. S. McLean
Lt A. T. B. Green
2 Lt R. H. Kerr
Reinforcements: Lt A. W. Brown, 2 Lts R. C. Bradshaw, A. H. Dickinson, J. A. Snedden, O. Somerset-Smith, D. G. Steele.