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Divisional Cavalry

CHAPTER 7 — Reorganisation and Back to the Desert

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Reorganisation and Back to the Desert

The division had been beaten in battle; beaten by an enemy whom the New Zealanders considered, man to man, was not their equal. But they had lost. The campaigns in Greece and Crete were an unhappy introduction to battle.

A dangerous sense of frustration could be discerned in every man in Helwan. You could recognise it in the criticism of other units; in the bitter nickname given to the RAF—the ‘R’ stood for its rarity—which had been pounded into the ground tackling odds a hundred times more hopeless than the Army's. In the NAAFIs you could hear men remark, after 22 June, that Russia would collapse in a fortnight. All these are the symptoms of that defeatism which signifies low morale.

How was this state of affairs to be righted? Give the men something to do, some interest, and give it straight away. The strength of every soldier, and the New Zealander is no exception, lies in his self-discipline. That appeals to his pride and stiffens his morale.

Only about half of the Divisional Cavalry had come straight from Greece to Helwan. They had arrived in the early morning, exhausted. After a hot meal they were each given a blanket and a palliasse. They took these to the huts and were soon fast asleep. In the afternoon a large mail arrived and there were few who did not get a parcel. The next day new clothes were issued and a routine drawn up. By the end of the first week the regiment had been issued with no fewer than thirty new carriers.

Major Nicoll, who was in command while Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth was in hospital, spoke to the regiment, stressing the vital necessity of hard training and firm discipline. The reaction was immediate. Despite the heat, despite their chaffing against authority, men began to look to their new vehicles, their crews, their troops, and took interest. You could see the pride rising in the way they trooped off to the tailors in their spare time to have their clothes altered to fit smartly.

But those were anxious days in May 1941. Everyone had a best friend in Crete and all through the month they worried; worried in the heat of Helwan. There were route marches and parades. They drank their beer in the Naafi or sat in the page 111 suffocating heat of the cinema; they lost their money on the Crown and Anchor boards—there was a wave of gambling in the Division at the time—and all the while they worried. Before the fighting began some men arrived from Crete, bringing with them a freshening breath of high morale. Mostly they were men who had escaped from Greece after the evacuation and they brought news of friends still alive.

But it was work and interest that kept spirits from falling to dangerous levels. The acting CO, true to form, demanded smartness on parade. Wisely was he firm and prompt in dealing with defaulters, for had he been indulgent, the lesser crimes would have opened the door for more serious offences.

Thus by the end of May a firm foundation of discipline, smartness and orderliness had been relaid, upon which on 3 June those who arrived from Crete tired and battle-weary could rebuild their own self-reliance which, in their case too, was threatening to crumble.

At that time there was something else in the regiment that made every man keen. A rumour went the rounds.

Rumour based on fact is marked by certain peculiarities which force the most sceptical to give it thought and decide that, in time, it will be authenticated. It is always vague; it is backed by no tangible source of reliability; one hears it only casually; it seems to be whispered through the air rather than to come by word of mouth: but it persists. Such a rumour went round that the Divisional Cavalry was to supply a cadre for an armoured training school in New Zealand. On 1 June the rumour came a step nearer to reality when thirty-nine other ranks were marched out to the RAC School at Abbassia to take instructors' courses.

The very next day a large detail of reinforcements was marched in from the Composite Training Depot, and the regiment was once again up to full strength. In their keenness alone these reinforcements came like a breath of fresh air. Their spirit was high, for in New Zealand most of them had been moulded into soldiers by a notable soldier, a man who was proven brave, who had himself absorbed—and even inspired a little—the spirit of the 1st NZEF; who had already visited Div Cav to see what was needed. He was Lieutenant-Colonel R. P. Harper, DSO, MC, DCM.1

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And so the regiment, having licked its wounds, settled down to hard training and steady routine in the summer heat. Men took their leave and came back impecunious but freshened. There were the divisional sports at the Maadi Club and swimming sports in the Helwan baths; there was leave to Cairo at nights; and all the time they trained, looking to the day when they would yet be able to prove that they could beat any enemy that met them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth took over command of the Composite Training Depot on 26 July and was succeeded as CO by Major Nicoll, promoted lieutenant-colonel.

About this time there was a lot of celebrating to be done. There were reunions of every body or club or type of civil employment. Some men seemed able to produce a birthday once a week, and that of course coincided with pay-day. Failing that there would be someone's second cousin's wedding anniversary, or a wife had won a free ticket in the next Tattersall's consultation. Anything was an excuse for a party, with spirits running high. They were great days. Those who had gone to Abbassia had completed their courses and, 7 officers and 66 other ranks in all, were soon off home. They had to be farewelled. One of the regiment's officers, Captain Crisp,2 was married in the Cairo Cathedral to Miss Winifred Johnson. The officers' mess had presented him with a salver inscribed with the regimental badge and, excepting those on duty at the time, they all attended his wedding. Indeed they were great days.

Soon one could see signs of an impending move from Base. On 22 August the arrival of fourteen new carriers brought that part of the establishment up to full strength, and by the end of the month, except for a few motor-cycles, the full quota of ‘B’ vehicles had been taken over. Training had got to the stage of manoeuvres and the regiment had been out to the south of the camp on several exercises, alone and with the brigades. On one of these, incidentally, it had narrowly missed being shot up by the Artillery, who were firing a live shell barrage.

Early in September the regiment began to prepare for a move. Base kits were sent to store, messes were disbanded and barrack equipment returned to Ordnance, and on the 14th an advanced party, under the second-in-command, Major Russell, left Helwan for the Western Desert.

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Here the Division had a role in the major desert strategy. Whilst completing its training it had to man the defensive ‘box’ at Baggush which the First Echelon had built the year before. This was one of a series of fortresses that sprang into being along the coast of Cyrenaica and Egypt—at Mersa Matruh, at Tobruk, and at Maaten Baggush. In a month or two Div Cav were to find themselves, under command of 3 South African Brigade, attacking a similar fortress at Bardia. The Baggush Box had on its perimeter, and within it, a system of concrete pillboxes, wire and minefields. For a while, under command of 4 Infantry Brigade, the Divisional Cavalry had to man one sector. This occupied two troops from each squadron until early in October, when the regiment again came under command of the Division and moved down to the coast to Ilwet ez Zeitun, just outside the eastern boundary of the Box.

The Divisional Cavalry had no tactical function while at Ilwet ez Zeitun and could concentrate on training and on attaining physical fitness. The area was clean and there were no flies. The ground was unsuitable for football but space was cleared for hockey, which was played hard and with enthusiasm. The coastline consisted of a series of rocky ledges and was therefore unsuitable for bathing, except when the sea was dead calm and the men could bathe in the pools between the rocks. What they did discover, though, was that the rocks harboured quite a lot of fish. Some men had success with line and rod but soon a more interesting means came into vogue. The mines laid nearby were of local manufacture and were easily dismantled. They contained gelignite. If you could find fuse and detonators —in other words, if you had sapper friends—well, as the French say: ‘What would you?’ A single bomb on one occasion brought to the surface enough fish to feed one squadron.

In certain parts of the regiment, however, mines were a more touchy subject. Several times during September, officers went out to the forward areas on reconnaissance. The first of these parties ran on to a minefield south of Charing Cross. One truck was blown up and damaged and Major Sutherland sustained a severely bruised leg.

This month, too, marked another item of historical interest. The GOC gave the regiment permission to wear black berets whilst on leave from the desert. Officially all headgear changed with the seasons, but never after that, summer or winter, could Div Cav be persuaded to wear any other head-dress.

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September and October are two of the most pleasant months in the desert. Along the coast the weather is cool and the wind fresh. The nights are damp but the dew disappears at dawn with the first ray of sunlight.

By the middle of October the regiment had been out on exercises south of Baggush, twice working with brigade groups and once alone. These exercises involved the necessity of being able to find one's way about by means of compass and map, but thanks to previous training, the standard of navigation was high. And it had to be—at night, on a featureless desert. Moreover, the unit administration was tested under such difficult conditions and proved to be working smoothly.

Then AFVs began to arrive for the tank troops. They were light tanks, Mark VI, and though old, they were well equipped and in sound mechanical condition, having only just been overhauled. Some came direct from Abbassia, some from Divisional Workshops, and some from Mersa Matruh from a Hussar regiment that had been re-equipped. Twenty-six arrived by the end of October—two fewer than the regimental establishment. They were allotted to squadrons and training in them was pushed on apace.

The Mark VI tank was, for those days, quite fast. It was not heavily armoured but relied on its speed to get out of trouble. It was powered by a Meadows Marine engine with an ordinary ‘crash’ gearbox. The suspension was very similar to that of a Bren carrier, though the tracks were a little wider and there were four bogey wheels instead of three. It carried a crew of three: driver, commander and gunner-wireless operator. The turret had an all-round traverse and carried two Vickers guns adapted for tanks, of .303-inch and .5-inch calibre, the latter firing armour-piercing solid shot similar to that of a Boys rifle. These guns were co-axially mounted and had a common telescopic sight. Every tank had wireless communication. Though the wireless set was the responsibility of the gunner-operator, in action the actual working of the set was arranged as the job of the commander.

The matter of operating the wireless brings up a question of some importance which might have been, but fortunately never was, driven home with tragic emphasis. The Divisional Cavalry, in the first three years of the war, was always short of wireless operators. This was possibly due to the fact that men are more prepared to become proficient in manual rather than mental dexterity, and there was never a surfeit of men who page 115 were keen to master the techniques of tuning a wireless set, of observing a strict procedure whilst talking, of learning to talk in the prescribed jargon, or of mastering the Morse code. A trained wireless operator had to be able to do all this as well as to execute minor repairs. Now, every man was capable to a greater or lesser extent of driving any vehicle in the regiment; everyone could handle the weapons with accuracy; but never more than one man in five was capable of pushing a switch from ‘Receive’ to ‘Send’ at the right instant and saying: ‘O.K.—Off.’ The degree of proficiency required for this was small and the occasion when it would be needed, other than for regular operators, would only be when in actual contact with the enemy; and that is when communication is most vital. Yet, though an operator could become a casualty just as easily as any man, as often as not there was no one else in his crew to carry out his responsibilities, even for a few minutes. His vehicle—and if that were a carrier, his whole troop—was completely out of touch and therefore out of control. In any case, if the operator was also the gunner, in action his hands and head were far too full to be working on a wireless set; again, he was out of touch at a time when communication was vital.

The Signals Officer was fully aware of this dangerous state of affairs, but he was of junior rank and not in a position to insist that all crew commanders be trained in at least R/T3 procedure, so that not until the end of the African campaign were there any serious steps taken in this direction. Most of the senior officers were content to snap up any good wireless operators and hold them at all costs until they ‘cracked’.

It seems, therefore, that the lesson is that every man in every vehicle should be interchangeable, and should be regularly inter- changed. For that matter, if ever again a war comes, and if a man, irrespective of the arm of the service he is in, intends to survive it, let him make sure that he can work the wireless set. No body of men can afford to trust entirely its communications to one individual.

There was blood in the sun as it went down on 6 November. West of the Div Cav lines much transport had been moving in the Baggush Box and a haze of dust ‘like the Pomptine fog at morn’ hung in the lazy atmosphere. As the sun went down its white light turned slightly lemon which, as the sun dropped behind the haze, tinged from yellow to gold; and the lower it page 116 crept, deeper behind the dust, it took the colour of violence— and yet of beauty. You could look boldly at its orb glowing like a polished blood-orange. All around, the haze merged from pink to rose and the whole sky was crimson as the sun hovered doubtfully on a distant escarpment before disappearing, as it does under those skies, with dramatic suddenness under the curtain of night.

In the Divisional Cavalry lines that evening all was bustle. Carriers and tanks were packed with heed, each man taking meticulous care to stow his gear in a way that would not impair the fighting efficiency of his vehicle.

In the morning the fighting squadrons moved out independently and took the main road to Mersa Matruh. Past Matruh they took the Siwa road and travelled south for an hour or so before swinging west into the desert. At dusk they laagered and the next day continued by easy stages. On the 9th they ambled on whilst the CO visited the headquarters of 4 Indian Division. The next day RHQ, B and C Squadrons, under command of 4 Indian Division, moved to Alam el Seneini whilst A Squadron went forward about ten miles to come under command of 4 South African Armoured Car Regiment; HQ Squadron remained about 12 miles back with the South Africans' B Echelon.

So the major part of the regiment lay up well concealed and waited for the word to go. The Central India Horse, who were to patrol west of the Wire, handed over to A Squadron the task of patrolling a ten-mile stretch of the east side and of manning three observation posts there. B Squadron sent one patrol through the Wire to reconnoitre the Trigh el Abd as far as Bir Gibni.

One troop of 65 Anti-Tank Regiment and a troop of 57 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment were placed under command of the Divisional Cavalry. This latter troop distinguished itself on the 14th by shooting down an Italian ‘recce’ plane at El Rabta. During the week an Air Support Control tentacle was attached to the regiment.

Just east of Sheferzen, then, the Divisional Cavalry, as part of the Division, waited to move forward when the whole Eighth Army rolled into Libya. The New Zealanders had been tried once. If they had lost every battle they had not lost their pride, for every man knew there was no need for shame; they had been tried but not found wanting; they had been beaten by superior weight and lack of support. But this time they had page 117 everything with them. The Allies had superiority in the air and equality of numbers in tanks. The men had stout hearts and were trained to the limit; they were fighting fit. The Army was going forward in its own chosen time.

The regiment's principal appointments during the second Libyan offensive were as follows:

Commanding Officer Lt-Col A. J. Nicoll
Second-in-Command Maj J. T. Russell, DSO
Adjutant Capt J. L. Rayner
OC A Squadron Maj J. H. Sutherland, MC
Second-in-Command Capt G. H. Stace
OC B Squadron Maj J. H. Garland
Second-in-Command Capt E. R. Andrews
OC C Squadron Maj I. L. Bonifant
Second-in-Command Capt A. Van Slyke
OC HQ Squadron Capt R. B. McQueen
Medical Officer Capt J. R. J. Moore, NZMC
Padre Rev. H. G. Taylor, CF

1 Captain, Canterbury Mounted Rifles and OC NZ Machine Gun Squadron in 1914–18 War; appointed Area Commander, South Canterbury, 1941.

2 Maj P. S. Crisp; Blenheim; born Invercargill, 15 Nov 1913; local body officer; DAQMG, 2 NZEF (UK) Reception Gp, Sep 1944-Dec 1945; wounded 5 Nov 1942.

3 Radio Telephony.