4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 2 — First Desert Campaign
First Desert Campaign
DURING late November 1940 4 RMT, right away from New Zealand command and attached to Western Desert Force headquarters, was working for the genuine old British sweats, the original Desert Rats, who had their modest insignia, a red rat sitting up on its haunches, painted on their vehicles. RMT's Company Headquarters and Workshops were stationed at Fuka. A Section was working on supplies from Fuka forward. B Section was in the desert building up and maintaining a petrol sub-park below Garawla, and was also establishing a reserve dump of over a million gallons further south, with eight-gallon cases mostly buried to ground level and camouflaged with camel-thorn.1 C Section was at Bir Abu Batta, working with RASC7 Armoured Division, transporting rations, petrol, ammunition, and ordnance stores. At the end of the month C Section rejoined the company at Fuka.2 Then Headquarters, A, C, and Workshops Sections moved to Smugglers' Cove, near Mersa Matruh, and checked vehicles.
Something was in the air all right.
B Section, still busy around its petrol park, noticed three big straws in the wind. First of all stocks of diesel fuel arrived at the railhead at Qasaba for storage in dumps. Diesel oil could only mean one thing: tanks. Next the RQMS turned up from 7 Royal Tank Regiment to arrange for delivery of diesel fuel for I tanks—tremendous 25-ton marvels—15 miles an hour or so flat out—25-pounder shells just bounced off'em—invincible. They were moving up quietly each night and passed almost through B Section's lines. Drivers supplied them with fuel and oil daily.page 20
Finally, on 27 and 28 November, trucks carrying petrol up to forward positions were switched from the usual route because of manoeuvres with live ammunition. The men on these manoeuvres were Indian troops in Cypriot trucks with 7 Royal Tanks. They were rehearsing a battle sequence. Rumour had it that the live ammunition disconcerted the Cypriot drivers, who beetled off, and the battle was lost without opposition. Anyway B Section was immediately afterwards sent to rejoin the unit at Smugglers' Cove, arriving there about 1 December. This was the first time the whole 4 RMT Company had been together for many weeks. One truck in each sub-section (one in every six) was fitted with brackets to hold four stretchers. Everyone knew what that meant.
Quietly and without fuss in the afternoon of 5 December A, B, and C Sections moved from Smugglers' Cove along the road towards Alexandria. The 100-odd trucks left the road near Garawla and turned south into the desert to an area known as Naghamish. Here guides met sections and led them in groups through the dusk to battalion areas. Now, and for some memorable days to come, 4 RMT was dispersed among and entirely at the disposal of units of 5 Brigade of 4 Indian Division. A Section went to 1 Royal Fusiliers who, with years of service in India, had a wonderful store of yarns and experiences. B Section went to 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, C Section to 3/1 Punjab Regiment.
‘The place at first sight seemed to be deserted, and it was hard to find even traces of the existence of a camp,’ says George Sheddan.3 ‘Those boys knew their stuff with camouflage. The ground just opened up and disgorged Indian soldiers in their hundreds. They could hide themselves behind two grains of sand.’ When he and Cyril Spiers4 opened a bright conversation with a bunch of Punjabis by saying ‘Boukra Mussolini kullos’, one answered by drawing a bayonet and pulling it across his throat. The two gathered that the Punjabis’ one ambition was ‘to get into action and take somebody to bits to see how he worked’.page 21
In the dark and in the weird creeping grey of approaching dawn the fighting men embussed and the RMT moved off towards the world's first desert war between two fully mechanised armies.
The day came wrapped in cold and cloud. A raw wind drove stinging bits of sand into the faces of the troops. Once out of camp the vehicles travelled south and, later in the day, west, heading over open desert well inland from the comfortable coastal road. They covered some 50 miles before stopping for the night a few miles west of Siwa Track, and 30 or so miles south of the coastal road. All trucks moved in air formation, no truck nearer than 250 yards to any other. The RMT had often moved like this lately. As usual, while the front of the convoy quite probably was moving at a steady and sedate eight miles in the hour, the rear was alternately halted or belting along about 40 miles an hour, each driver mortally afraid of losing sight of the vehicle in front. This concertina action of convoys, never really mastered, seemed to be unaccountable. At times, one man remembers, it looked like a gold rush on the Klondyke. Drivers, flat out, avoiding bumps by quick twists of the steering wheel, feared springs would snap like carrots.
The host drove west. The Petrol Age was going to war. Describing a typical section move on this day, an RMT sergeant said:
During one stop I climbed up on the cab roof and looked around. The wind and sand had subsided and as far as I could see on all sides were vehicles moving—one can see a long way across a flat clear desert from a truck roof. Two other brigades were moving at the same time along parallel routes. I shall never forget that view. Some trucks were so far off they appeared stationary except that there was a tiny puff of dust behind them. All were moving westwards—Italianwards. There weren't sufficient supplies in the Western Desert to warrant a manoeuvre of this scope: we were obviously up to something shrewd.
After about 50 miles we just stopped. No one came near us or told us anything so my cobber and I investigated and found that the troops were here for the night. Further search revealed the Section cook's 30-cwt. truck. George Cashmere5 was No. 1 cook page 22 at this time and he heated up stew and tea. We set out to find the Section trucks—all 40-odd.6
We travelled miles feeding the brutes. Darkness fell with no stars. We received directions at each truck where the next one was. We wandered from one truck to another, 300 yds between, until we reached the last at about 10 pm. Then where were we? Where was George's cook truck? We lay on the ground trying to see the silhouette of something, but not even a snake stuck up its head. There was of course an issue of prismatic compasses to our Company but the officers had those—all three of them. So we drove off in the direction dictated by the average of our three instincts. The desert was cluttered for miles with transport but we saw none of it until much later we met of all people Captain Good, our own Section commander, within 100 yards of George's cook truck— amazing navigation!—but not ours.
Next day, 7 December, the news was out officially: a fullscale attack was to be made any time now on the Italian camps around Sidi Barrani. No advance took place this day. Sub-sections, with their companies of troops, practised movements required for the battle: ‘trucks to advance to within 500 yards of the perimeter of Italian Camps and infantry to debus and advance to positions on foot.’
The average RMT truck now looked something like this. The 20 Indian passengers (1 corporal, 19 privates) had puckered up the canvas and lashed it round the centre support. This left the framework bare. A Bren gun was slung above the cab roof, while rifles and assorted kit hung from all along the exposed canopy framework. This left room for anti-aircraft work by all hands.
The words two paragraphs back, ‘sub-sections, with their companies of troops, practised movements required for the battle’, cover a multitude of activities and explain something of the cocky ‘Up Guards and at ‘em’ air about Wavell's 1940 campaign. As the war developed, to co-ordinate manoeuvring infantry, RMT trucks, and so on, sheaves of plans and reports page 23 and diagrams and lectures would pile up. Days would pass on patient and not-so-patient manoeuvres. Excruciatingly detailed arrangements would be made about lights, rendezvous, signposts, guides, engineers, military police, movement tables (or charts), bulldozers, flags, radio, precise times, and so on. For our first desert attack the RMT was given exactly one day with its infantry to practise ‘movements required for the battle’.
The manoeuvres, a bare 48 hours before the battle, and now described by Sergeant Thomson,7 would have sent General Montgomery reeling in his caravan. There would never again be anything like this in the Desert. The untried RMT was about to establish in battle the first foundations of the 2 NZEF's reputation for initiative, dependability, and honest-to-God common sense.
None of the Indians with us could talk a word of English and none of us knew any Hindustani (or whatever it was).8 There were six 4 RMT trucks carrying B Company. The only other vehicle was an Austin company truck with a driver and two Indian officers. They knew no English. B Company had no white officers at all. When it came to practising our manoeuvres the Subedar (Indian officer) explained it to the Rajput corporal riding on our truck and then, for our benefit, drew a diagram with chalk (which we supplied) on our front mudguard. He could write numbers our way and he used up his complete English vocabulary: ‘This my platoon truck,’ pointing at his sketch of it. We then passed on what we reckoned he had said to the other drivers in our subsection. When he used up our supply of chalk we managed the diagram in the sand with our fingers. The whole thing looked something like this:
Incidentally for the next few days we received no orders at page 24 all in English. Various patterns of the above cropped up almost hourly; distances and formations were constantly changed for no reason apparent to us.
For the manoeuvres we in the leading RMT trucks had a hazy idea of what was wanted. We were to follow behind the Subedar in his ‘This my platoon truck’ according to the chalk plan on the mudguard. The desert here, not far west of the Siwa Track, was flat and hard and pebbly. So we set off at a very sedate speed. There was no flying sand, the sun was shining cheerfully; we were feeling pleasantly warm for once; we were relaxed and cosy—until ‘This my platoon truck’ stopped suddenly! The Subedar sprang to earth facing us and flapping his wings like a demented duck. The passengers began attacking the cab roof with fists and rifle butts so we stopped. I got out to see what the hell was up. I stepped back alongside the truck and was nearly brained. Rifles, picks and shovels, boots and tin hats with Rajputs sandwiched between, all hurtled over the side and the tailboard. They ran violently in all directions for some yards, dug ferociously, and in no time at all were all down off the horizon, peering along rifle sights. These Indian troops certainly trained well, seriously and thoroughly—everything done strictly according to the book.
Eventually we got going and did it again. This time we were ready. As soon as the Subedar sprang ashore flapping, I put on my tin hat for protection, dashed round the back and let down the tailboard, only to find they had pulled the pins and let it go with a rush. So I stood there and handed some out. One wee man reached down both hands to me and I lifted him down. Another tall stiff specimen gravely handed me his shovel and insisted that I steady him in his descent. We did this pantomime several times and then, quite unexpectedly, the demented duck was replaced by a penguin impersonation.
This time the troops bailed out as before but without shovels. They set off ahead over the sands with fixed bayonets at a steady, determined pace for a few hundred yards. This was the final assault apparently. They looked good and reliable to me. As before everything was correctly and conscientiously done. After capturing the enemy's camp a couple of times we drove back to our bivouac area for the night. One disconcerting factor was that we drivers of B Company never knew what was likely to happen next. There were no English officers to tell us if, for example, we would be halted long enough to do some minor adjustment to the truck, or at what time we would need to be ready tomorrow. The Indians would all leave without a comprehensible word, and would as page 25 suddenly return and want to be carried on. This isn't the best way to treat New Zealand drivers, who give of their best when they know all that is required of them and, if possible, why.
So 7 December got us nowhere positionally, but we certainly had moved along technically to establish teamwork.
Two instances illustrate the rapid New Zealand-Indian settling-down process. One was a fluke. An RMT NCO saw a horned viper, a sandy-coloured snake about a foot long with a large triangular head. This snake, usually seen curled up and poised threateningly, leaps diagonally, jumping just a little higher than the top of a man's half-puttees. On a sudden whim the RMT man took a flying kick at the snake, luckily half-stunned it, nipped it behind the neck and, with its tongue still flickering, showed it to his truckload of Indians who, far from being interested, all cringed away. Surprised, he told an Anglo-Indian warrant officer and received the reply: ‘So'd you cringe if you came from a country where thousands die from snakebites every year.’ After this the Indians would do anything for the RMT man. The RMT man would do anything to avoid more vipers.
The other instance concerns Driver ‘Nugget’ Parnell9 who, after driving many weary miles, became increasingly vexed because the Indian corporal would pound on the roof of the cab and shout angrily and unintelligibly when he swerved a mite off course to miss a great bush, rock, or hole. It eventually became too much. Nugget at length stopped his truck (and the following convoy), clambered out and addressed the passengers passionately. If they left him alone, he said in effect, he would get them to their battle in good order. He had been driving trucks for a very long time. He was only considering their comfort and the well-being of his vehicle in not charging great mountains of rock. And if they didn't shut up their bloody caterwauling and their crashing in of the roof, he'd drive the blasted truck into the next damn hole he could find and leave them there to rot! The Indians recognised not a word but they grasped the idea, and Nugget was left for the remainder of the campaign to navigate in peace.10page 26
On 8 December, the day before battle, the whole division moved undetected about another 50 miles, heading for the gap between Alam Nibeiwa Camp and Bir el Rabia Camp.
No supplies—not a crumb of food, not a drop of petrol, not a mouthful of water—had reached several of the RMT lorries since they left Smugglers' Cove. This was a brigade fault; once attached to the infantry, each RMT section became part of the battalion for all purposes. Fortunately RMT's early training in desert-craft (or ‘desert-graft’) paid off handsomely now for these forgotten men. Each truck had its extra built-in lockers groaning with tins. In the past no truck had ever gone out on a job without two spare cases of petrol (16 gallons), but on this advance all drivers had tucked away four extra cases. Each truck had an official emergency ration (almost a petrol tin full of tinned stuff and biscuits), and every man had his store of illicit grub. For months the RMT policy had been: any emergency rations used up on a job had to be replaced at the first chance, and no silly questions asked. RMT men seldom missed a chance to relieve bulk ration dumps of a case here and there. This mostly went into cooks' stores to supplement the meals, or was spread among reserve food in the trucks. Explaining the RMT attitude a driver says: ‘For months we had been handling rations but the only stuff ratted was bulk. No man tampered with food broken down for a specific number of men in a unit up front. That got to its destination complete to the last dried pea, and it stayed that way. So although on our first advance our own HQ vehicles were unable to find all of us, scattered for miles as we were, we existed OK due to our earlier training.’
The day was dull and cold and sandy. The RMT moved in fits and starts. Trucks tore madly across rough ground for a few miles, drivers worrying over front springs, only to halt for varying and unspecified periods nowhere in particular. The page 27 expected enemy attack from the air did not come, except for one or two negligible sallies around the Tummar camps. The most cautious air formation in the history of desert movement was not tested. Drivers were full of admiration for their passengers, huddled together for warmth, thrown and bashed about as the trucks bounded from hummock to boulder, and exposed to flying sand whipped up by the icy wind. By the end of the day, when they were about 15 to 20 miles southward of Nibeiwa, Fusiliers and Indians were so stiff they could scarcely walk.
Before bedding down for the night regimental officers addressed the New Zealand drivers, showed maps of the proposed battle areas, outlined the complete operation, gave detailed requirements, and made plain that everything depended on trucks being able to get troops up to battle. Major Whyte, with three battalion commanders, attended the Brigadier's conference. The operation was discussed in full. The leading battalion (in A Section's trucks) had to debus 500 yards from the perimeter. Trucks would have no trace of cover coming or going. When the troops left, trucks would turn about in groups of two, one ahead of the other, to reduce the target. The front truck would get some protection from the one behind from small-arms fire.
B Section drivers were rounded up and paraded before the Rajput's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel L. B. Jones. A man present wrote:
We looked a motley crew. Every driver had four days' growth of beard. Our uniforms were anything but uniform. This was a sore point at the time. We'd been attached to the British for months. When we sent to Maadi for clothing replacements they said: ‘Get your gear from the British’ and the British said, ‘Oh, but we can't supply New Zealanders.’ So we scrounged what clobber we could, and air raids while carting to Field Ordnance Depots were always helpful. Colonel Jones, not seeming to notice anything peculiar, made us sit down, put us all at our ease immediately, and explained his problems very patiently.
He told us A and C Sections were concerned with the Italian camp, Tummar West. He told us that we were to take the Rajputs in to the attack on a neighbouring Italian camp, Tummar East. He outlined the general plan of the whole attack on Sidi Barrani and surrounding outposts—he showed us everything on an outline page 28 page 29 map on a blackboard. He gave us an estimated timetable of the operation, and told us what ‘Intelligence’ knew of the enemy strengths and placements. He explained our own special task in the assault and mentioned he was greatly understaffed with ‘white’ officers. He was relying on us drivers to give the required example to the Indians when things warmed up. He said: ‘Would you give them a cheer when they go into the attack? You will find them very steady and good soldiers once they get going. So would you give them some vocal encouragement as they leave the trucks?’
We all felt very bucked, very honoured, and rather important. We all thought very highly of Colonel Jones and his understanding of New Zealanders. We couldn't possibly fall down on the job now we had been entrusted with virtually the success of the whole operation.11
That night was particularly dark, cold, and at times noisy. An uproar flared ahead. This was merely a diversion. Some Indians had sneaked up on the eastern side (or front) of Nibeiwa Camp to fire a few shots, and the Italians had supplied enough panic and tumult to cover the noise of our tanks and truckloads of other troops passing round the south and up to the western side (or rear) of this perimeter camp ready for the early morning attack.
The last flares died in the distance. Total blackness pressed down over all the machines of war and over all the sleeping soldiers. All became calm and still.
But Corporal Tinker,12 who on the way up had eaten a tin of spaghetti, a tin of beans, oranges, a tin of sardines, a tin of M and V, a tin of herrings, a tin of milk, and one and a half tins of pineapple chunks, wrote in his diary next morning: ‘Up several times during night—crook guts.’
Expectant, tense, each driver hugging his own secret thoughts (wondering Will I be any good, will I do my block, will I get killed, will I get hit here, here, or—worst of all—here?), A, B and C Sections sneaked with the dawn south, west, then north out of page 30 range past Nibeiwa, the Italians' southernmost camp, 18 miles from their stronghold of Sidi Barrani. Drivers and passengers waited, but not for long. From the east they heard a sudden roar of attack—the Empire's first offensive—as tanks and 7 Armoured Division troops fell upon the unsuspecting Italians at Nibeiwa and seized, after a short clash, the surprised camp with over 2000 prisoners. Drivers stood around watching the artillery bombardment raising the dust and smoke on a distant mound. Then they saw an astonishing sight. Down one end of the low skyline moved a dark green wall—a solid unbroken endless mass of Italian prisoners, hundreds upon hundreds of them, marching out. A great caterpillar of humanity.
Hell, eh! Here's something to write home about!
On now to the same treatment at Tummar West. Every time the trucks stopped the Indians leapt out and dug themselves in madly all round each truck. The area, pocked with a mass of slit trenches, added to the natural hazards of desert driving. Sand began to move early in the day, the wind whipping the churned-up surface. From time to time squadrons of tanks passed through the RMT, or waited with the trucks in a shallow wadi before their next venture. An I tank cruising along through the sand threw up a bow wave like a battleship; all you could see was the heavily armoured turret and upperworks, with the squat, menacing gun. One tank had the barrel of its gun peeled back in four strips like a banana—probably a premature explosion.
And so to the assembly point, and the first New Zealand charge of the Second World War. A Section would lead the attack with the Fusiliers; C Section would follow with the Punjabis; B Section was reserved for another task.
A Section's lorries formed up facing the Tummar West camp, about three miles away. Some NCOs went from truck to truck, chatting with their drivers, ready to change any man who might be jittery. ‘Unnecessary precaution,’ reported one NCO. ‘All were as steady as though on parade, and only showed their excitement by their eyes and a desire to be on the move.’
Every man knew the story. Our artillery would lay down a barrage at 12.30 p.m., as the new I tanks, interspersed with lorry-loads of infantry, moved off to attack Tummar West. Cap- page 31 tain Fisher, of the Fusiliers, would lead, with A Section loaded with Fusiliers following immediately behind him, the lorries staggered and slightly dispersed. Platoon commanders would ride in the cabs with the No. 1 driver, and the No. 2 driver would sit on the edge of the body of the vehicle next to the driver's door. If the driver stopped one the emergency driver (No. 2) would open the door, tumble out the stricken man, and take his place.
At last the tanks were in position and I made a last check of the vehicles, wishing all the drivers ‘Good luck!’ The tank crews stood up and gave the ‘thumbs up’ sign which was returned by our troops. Then the lids of the tanks closed and we began to move forward in huge extended line. As this massive mechanised fleet moved into attack huge dust clouds rose and almost immediately the Italian artillery let go with everything it had. As we got closer the fear of minefields became uppermost in our minds but not one vehicle was blown up.
The air was now filled with howling, screaming shells and bursting shrapnel. Fountains of sand rose up. I looked at the Tommies who were yelling something about ‘Look at the bloody fireworks!’ I looked at my driver, a veteran driver from Gisborne, and thought to myself: ‘All hell won't stop Nick.’
We were now in sight of the Italian camp. The enemy could see us clearly and fired madly with everything he could bring to bear, including anti-aircraft guns and small arms. Our tanks were returning the fire now. They would lurch to a standstill and after a second's pause the whole forepart of the tank would appear to belch orange flame. No individual shot could be heard because the thunder of guns and exploding shells and the roaring, clanking tanks merged into just one terrific inferno of sound.
An Indian lorry [near us] was hit but still kept moving although casualties on board were obviously heavy. Suddenly one of our own lorries, to my immediate left, was enveloped in a cloud of smoke and dust. ‘God!’ I thought, ‘they've got poor Clarky.’ He was only a boy, not yet 21 and a favourite in the sub-section. Then almost immediately I saw his lorry lurch out of the dustcloud, and on.page 32
The leading vehicle, increasing speed, looked as if it was almost going to charge into the enemy rock fortifications. Suddenly this lorry stopped and out sprang Captain Fisher armed with rifle and bayonet. Our vehicle slithered to a standstill. Troops poured out and charged while the lorries sat like sitting birds…. After a while, the second phase of the attack came, and the second wave of attackers, Indians from C Section's trucks came through, to be joined by armed drivers who were keen ‘to go in and get an Eyetie, too'…. When the firing died down and before we moved our lorries we paced the distance from the nearest Italian guns to our position: exactly 120 paces. God must have been with us that day. It's almost unbelievable gunners could have missed our vehicles at such a short range.
Probably the Italians, totally unprepared for attack in the rear, in their panic completely forgot to lower their sights.
Major Whyte, moving up in the attack, noticed about 2000 yards were passed before the enemy woke up. Enemy artillery landed a salvo wide on the right, then another wide on the left, and then camc uncomfortably close to the target. At about 1000 yards rifles and machine guns lining the perimeter opened fire. The major, now most anxious—and later, most proud—reached a point he thought was the line to debus, 500 yards from the perimeter. In his own words, ‘Instead of stopping, every lorry speeded up to its maximum and kept on for at least another 400 yards. This was an anxious moment but nothing could be done. At last the halt came, and on the perimeter guns of all calibre were still in action … then I saw, dammit, RMT drivers grab their own rifles and go in too over the low stone breastwork…. During this operation the RMT did not suffer a single casualty. Some tyres were burst, many of the lorries were scarred and one had 68 holes in it.’
C Section, also driving through heavy fire without casualties, quickly brought up the second wave of attackers. The Punjabis climbed out, chanting weirdly. This eerie chant or wail made Driver Beaton's14 hair stand on end. Then he heard sobbing from the back of his lorry and found a sick Indian, broken- page 33 hearted because his comrades had left him behind. ‘He almost cried his heart out and I could not pacify him,’ said Beaton.
Meanwhile ‘Lead was flying thick and fast,’ said Sheddan, ‘and we no sooner got our heads up to see what was going on than we had to flatten out again. Until the Punjabis reached the Eyetie lines the enemy kept up a fairly steady fire, but then the tune changed, and through a pair of field glasses belonging to Sergeant Gay15 I plainly saw Eyeties dropping their rifles, deserting machine-gun nests, and running down the slope in hundreds with their hands up.’
Among some of the RMT men who disobeyed orders, left their trucks, and followed in behind the Indians, was one of the youngest members of the company, ‘Ginger’ Wingham,16 of Christchurch. Ginger had collected an automatic pistol in his travels, and with this firmly in hand he entered a dugout occupied by five Italian officers. Flourishing his revolver superbly, Ginger ordered them out. One officer eyed him up and down, cleared his throat, and said in Oxford English: ‘Don't worry, sonny, we won't hurt you.’ Ginger, piqued, got them out—at the double.
The attack had begun at 12.30 p.m., to synchronise with the Italians' lunch period when, it was hoped, the defences would be lightly manned. Intelligence assumed the camp would be taken completely by surprise. They were right. The Fusiliers had pressed hotly into an alarmed and confused enemy expecting and prepared for an assault from the east. The Fusiliers did not take long to clear the first half of the camp. The Punjabis, following up, found resistance in the remaining half of the camp much stronger, for the Italians had rallied to some extent. The Punjabis (an RMT man with them here and there) pushed on doggedly, rooting Italians from dugouts, rounding up prisoners and surrendering parties, and silencing one by one various strongpoints. By about four o'clock Tummar West was ours, except for some isolated strongpoints and a few machine-gun posts on the eastern perimeter.
As resistance faltered and faded, B Section's turn approached.page 34
This section was not concerned with Tummar West and had kept on to the north, to halt west of and just above the besieged camp. These drivers were to take the Rajputanas past the north flank of Tummar West, once the camp had fallen, and carry on to seize Tummar East. Little did they know that the enemy, equally startled, would meet them half-way. The start line was within sight of Tummar West, but some distance from and out of sight of Tummar East. Some shells from Tummar West fell disconcertingly, but harmlessly, among the convoy during the move up to the start at 2 p.m. Don (‘Shortie’) Sutherland's17 truck vanished clean out of sight in sand and smoke, apparently having received a direct hit, until, unharmed, it bounded out of the dust cloud, still holding formation. The trucks moved off to the attack at 4.20 p.m., covered one and a half to two miles, and then ran slap-bang into Italian infantry on foot. The RMT had hit a counter-attack coming out from Tummar East to the relief of its sister camp. While three companies of Rajputanas and their RMT drivers smartly debussed to engage the force from Tummar East, the fourth company entered Tummar West from the north-east to help quell resistance centred round some Italian light tanks. By 5.30 p.m. all resistance was quietened. It was then too dark to continue to advance, so trucks and drivers laagered with their companies.
While B Section had been passing Tummar West, the subsection on the southern flank, in danger of running into an anti-tank ditch, was forced to break formation and drive in line, almost nose-to-tail. Directly on the other side of the ditch three or four light Italian tanks suddenly appeared, fired at point-blank range, and merely nicked a Punjabi in the heel. These trucks ran into a curtain of fire from the last strongpoints by the camp's eastern perimeter. The Subedar stopped his truck, ‘This time imitated a pelican,’ and vanished completely. On his own initiative, Sergeant Thomson organised an attack and led his Rajputs until they linked with the Punjabis. For this brave act Thomson (backed up by most of his drivers) received the DCM.page break page 35
Thomson, later finding one of his drivers missing, searched anxiously, and finally discovered him in a bottle-strewn dugout arm-in-arm with an Italian. The two were singing unsteadily ‘Stormy Weather’.
From late afternoon until well into the night various parties of RMT men picked their way through the conquered camp while ponderous Io-ton lorries filled with ammunition blazed and exploded. A huge dump of fireworks made ironic carnival. Dense clouds of smoke hung over the camp and dead men, documents, abandoned weapons, and equipment lay everywhere. Pitiful cries came from the wounded and the dying. Among the shambles delighted mules gorged away at stores of forage. One greedy beast, partly treading on the remains of his ex-master, wrenched eagerly at a bale of straw.
A party from A Section, finding its weary Fusiliers and learning that the cooks' truck was lost as usual, brewed up and gave them tea and food. An A Section corporal joined them, deeply distressed at what he had just seen. There was one bunch of Italian officers under guard, he said, and another bunch was marched over to them. They recognised cobbers and wept and embraced and started kissing each other! Tinker, in B Section, treated his suffering stomach to a tin of Italian fruit salad, while others, pocketing Italian cigarettes and putting aside bottles of mineral waters, sampled tinned Italian tunny fish, sardines, a jellied meat which was probably horse, and a pleasing mess of macaroni with tomato sauce and cheese. And, of course, wine and more wine. More ambitious loot included neat-looking pistols and watches, but the fountain pens were deplorable affairs. Set aside as curiosities for air-mailing home in the non-censored green envelopes were 50 and 100 lire notes, bearing the picture of a rather apologetic Italian king, and only later did many a driver realise with a curse that these notes were worth real money in Cairo. Sheddan, with another C Section man, flashed a torch into a dugout and flushed two prisoners. Offered a smoke, one prisoner gave in return a fine photograph of himself.
But souvenir collecting was only part of the story. Drivers also turned their hand to first aid and helped gather wounded.page 36
Lieutenant Allan Lomas,18 a New Zealand medical officer attached to 4 RMT Company, assisted by his medical orderly, Driver Jack Prichard,19 worked for twelve hours without food or rest. Part of the time they were under fire. They attended to the wounded of both sides, and for their work Lomas received the MC and Prichard the MM.
Shocked at the sight of some of the wounds and realising for the first time what a mess shell fragments and grenades can make of a human body, a New Zealander later wondered about the people in war factories who made these things. Perhaps they made them with the radio playing dance tunes, music-while-you-work stuff, ‘Run Rabbit Run’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrel’.
For a while drivers helped the Indians guard great mobs of Italian and Libyan prisoners.20 It was impossible not to feel pity for these wretched, swarthy little men with their battered cardboard suitcases and their thin, inferior uniforms. The dull rumble and murmur of their talk got monotonous in time. Against this background nearby prisoners could be heard calling out, and into the night cries continued, strangely similar to sheep bleating in a shed: Santa Maria … Bruno! … Antonio … Acqua, Acqua! … Presto … Antonio, Antonio, … Mamma mia….
Bigger actions by far were to follow. ‘But this was our first action and we are proud of it,’ writes a driver. ‘There never is another battle like your first.’
Next morning B Section grouped together and with the Rajputs resumed the interrupted advance on Tummar East, entering the almost deserted camp unopposed. The Indians rounded up the stray Italians and the trucks were dispersed page 37 inside the perimeter. But all was not over yet. The enemy still held out at Point 90 Camp, about three miles south-east. From there he ranged his artillery on Tummar East. After undergoing nearly three hours of almost continuous shelling, the RMT section was ordered back a mile, to be joined by the infantry. Only one Indian had been wounded and not a truck was hit. In the late afternoon the Rajputs moved towards Sidi Barrani. Next day, 11 December, in a fast move, the section took off with the Rajputs to assist the attack on Point 90 Camp, which fell with almost no opposition. This was the last spot of trouble.
In the meantime trucks were taken from A, B, and C Sections for a further move after dark. The idea was to take Sofafi Camp, to the south. The way led through enemy minefields in pitch darkness. After about a couple of hours' travelling news came through that the Italians had abandoned Sofafi. Drivers pulled up and parked for the night, revelling in the first decent sleep for nearly a week.
While this was going on a second RMT group, together with vehicles from other companies and several captured lorries, had loaded prisoners (including several hundred officers and one general) and set off for the cage at Mersa Matruh, with Captain Broberg navigating. The route lay south of Nibeiwa. The convoy, heading cautiously along a much-used track, spotted a recently mined lorry. Major Whyte, suspicious, investigated the track and found three mines. While these were being removed, two Italian officers under guard came up from an RMT truck in a big hurry. One said breathlessly in English: ‘This area is mined. In our interests as well as yours, it is right that we should tell you.’
‘You put’ em in, you take ‘em out,’ answered Major Whyte. The Italians did, and then led the whole convoy safely through the minefield.
‘I later yarned with the English-speaking officer and questioned him about Tummar West,’ said the Major. ‘He told me they were completely taken by surprise, and the boldness of our attack in transport caused a panic effect which accounted for us getting off so lightly.’
‘The trip was tough and we were all dead tired,’ said a page 38 driver. ‘Half the time I was nearly asleep and at each goodsized bump—and there were plenty—my head hit the roof of the cab with a wallop. That's where the tin hat came in handy. We reached the prison camp about three in the morning darned near done, eyes full of sand, a week's beard on, and a good crust of dirt all over.’
The Sofafi column returned to Tummar West next day, 12 December. The Indians set about cleaning up the mess while the RMT waited in an intense sandstorm, a gritty curtain coming down over Tummar West's last act in the war. Later the Indians moved out on foot, their destination Sudan and Abyssinia. Drivers hoped transport would turn up for their gallant ex-passengers for at least part of the journey. ‘I was very sorry to say goodbye to my lot of Indian troops,’ wrote one driver. ‘I will always remember their kindness and good-fellowship.’ The Fusiliers were on the way too. The riflemen, the excitement, had gone. The New Zealanders' job was now carrying more Italians back to Matruh—a rough ride by way of the desert, for the Sidi Barrani-Matruh road was still damaged and mined.
The 4th RMT was well represented in the battle honours. Major Whyte received the OBE ‘for most valuable service’, the citation also paying high tribute to his company's efficiency. Captain McAlpine, who already had been awarded the MBE for consistent good work and devotion to duty, received the MC for controlling and supervising debussing at Tummar West ‘with great coolness and courage’. Lieutenant Muller won the MC for displaying courage and leadership during the engagement; Sergeant Wilson21 received the MM for bravery and ‘complete disregard for danger’ during the prolonged shelling of Tummar East, and Driver Corp22 was awarded the MM for driving his lorry to within 30 yards of the enemy parapet, entering an exposed position under heavy fire, and carrying out a wounded soldier.
On 16 December Italy's three-month occupation of the fringe of Egypt ended. Nearly 40,000 prisoners were in the bag for page 39 fewer than 1000 British casualties. Bardia, the first important post inside Italian territory, was the next objective. It was less than ten miles past the Egyptian frontier. The next day orders arrived for the RMT to pick up Australian troops and take them ten miles west of Sidi Barrani in preparation for the New Year attack on strongly fortified Bardia, ‘the bastion of Fascism’, according to Bari radio. Lean, laconic, superbly confident, the Australians sauntered aboard. Insisting on navigating the convoy themselves, they got off to a bad start by circling Matruh, and promptly got lost in desert the RMT knew like the back of its hand.
During the third week of December 4 RMT moved to Sollum. Any trucks in particularly bad shape were exchanged for Bedfords from a newly arrived British reserve mechanical transport company, X RMT Company. This unit had removed the glass from the windscreens of its trucks to prevent reflected sunlight from flashing away their positions to enemy aircraft or patrols. The New Zealand drivers took a decidedly sour view of this uncomfortable precaution. With the glass gone, sand drove into faces and cabs, and the cold, biting wind of the desert winter cut with increasing force into faces and hands. The Kiwi system was to smear the windscreens with oil and throw on sand, leaving a small strip clear to look through.
Snub-nosed barges from ships out in the bay were now bringing war materials into Sollum's little port, and 4 RMT's job was to help carry this material from the stone pier up hairpin bends to dumps scattered along the dreary escarpment. The company worked the clock round, sections taking turns with the night shifts, for with the advance in the desert supply problems had increased, especially with food, water, and petrol. Tanks alone in one action needed between 20,000 and 25,000 gallons of petrol a day. ASC drivers ‘worked against great difficulties of time and space,’ says a War Office publication, Destruction of an Army, ‘and these men, hardy, tough and enterprising, deserve to share in the triumphs of the campaign as much as the men who drove more spectacular vehicles.’
Sollum, bombed regularly by enemy aircraft, was also troubled by a big gun in Bardia—‘Bardia Bill’. It paid not to waste time around that narrow wharf. Warnings came from page 40 an old mariner who would emerge from a hut and shout ‘Air raid!’; from small naval gunboats opening fire out in the bay; and from the stampede of wharf workers, Cypriots and Palestinians, heading for the caves. On the day before Christmas 4 RMT met with its heaviest air-raid casualties in Africa. The men, all from B Section, were anxious to speed up the work and had four trucks loading at the same time. At 12.40 p.m. a flight of 17 Italian aircraft caught everyone by surprise. Bombs straddled wharf and barges. In the ruins (and among the red oranges intended for the troops on Christmas Day), lay Second-Lieutenant Wallace,23 Lance-Corporal Norrish24 and Driver Ted Reynolds.25 Corporal Pussell and ‘Scotty’ Hurst26 died of wounds. The wounded included Sergeant Mulligan,27 Drivers Davis,28 ‘Bounty’ Quintal29 (a descendant of a Bounty mutineer), Ian Appleton,30 and Ted Boosey.31 The five deaths sent a shadow of sorrow over the first Christmas away from home, and the day passed without any celebrating by the hardworking drivers. They made up for it though when a Naafiship came in for unloading before the New Year. Thanks to the ship's crew, the barge men, the Cypriots and Palestinians, the wharf MPs and the RMT, much of the original cargo failed to reach the Naafi tent.
Bardia, yielding no fewer than 40,000 prisoners, was ours on 5 January. Even before the bypassed fortress fell, the RMT sowed dumps of petrol, food, water, and ammunition—all for page 41 the well-advanced 7 Armoured Division—in open desert beyond the frontier and on the way towards Tobruk. Promptly on 6 January that sober old aircraft, the Lysander, perhaps best described as a threshing machine gone air-minded, circled an ammunition-carrying RMT convoy and dropped a message. The company was to leave everything and report to Headquarters 6 Australian Division immediately. Loads were flung out on the spot. By nightfall 4 RMT was rolling into Bardia.
Near Bardia Major Whyte overtook some thousands of prisoners, a Bren carrier idling behind them. ‘An Aussie was strolling slowly backwards and forwards behind the prisoners,’ writes the Major. ‘He wasn't carrying a rifle, but had in his hand an unsheathed bayonet, with which he occasionally flicked the tops of camelthorn bushes. “Everything OK, Aussie?” The Australian spat. “I joined the army,” he drawled, “because I was tired of my old job and wanted a change, but here I am bloody well droving again.” ’
The victorious Australian riflemen climbed into the Bedfords and the company was off again, heading west into the night along the tarsealed road to the garrison port of Tobruk.32 There was practically no moon (and of course no headlights) and, in places where the road narrowed or was still being repaired, a number of trucks went over the side. Tidying itself up, the convoy halted at 3.30 a.m. Drivers quickly dozed off within their cabs. Trucks got under way again at dawn, and the Australians debussed a few miles east of the now encircled town. Two lines defended the township and the harbour; the inner line stretched about 19 miles, and the outer 30 miles. Drivers had just enough time to brew up and bolt a breakfast (or dinner) of stew before about-turning for Bardia again. The following night, 8 January, the RMT drove a second lot of Australians to Tobruk at 3 a.m., and at once set off for the final load of riflemen. The third party of troops was driven to its destination next night. Within four nights, with practically no sleep or regular meals, 4 RMT had carried some 5000 Australians over the 70 miles between Bardia and the outskirts of Tobruk. Once again the company had taken a vital page 42 part in the campaign. Tired out, drivers returned to wharf work at Sollum, where a number of new engines were fitted into lorries, and Archie Jeff33 presented an astounded Corporal Tinker with a pair of Italian boots, size 28.
With the fall of Tobruk, 4 RMT at once moved up to the garrison port. ‘Our first sight of Tobruk was a harbour filled with sunken ships and seaplanes, two liners ashore, petrol tanks blazing, and a cruiser, the San Giorgio, on fire,’ noted one RMT man. Drivers heard firsthand accounts of the spectacular victory. Attacking at dawn on 21 January, British and Australian troops, with fewer than 500 casualties, had seized all of Tobruk's defences by the evening of the 22nd. Over 15,000 prisoners were taken, including an admiral, together with 200 guns and much booty. Tobruk's water supply had broken down, and the infantrymen had seen many pitiful figures lying on the ground gnawing the edges of their coats, while others staggered about like sleepwalkers mumbling ‘Acqua, acqua’.
From Tobruk RMT lorries at once pushed on, carrying Australian troops a hundred miles up the coast, to leave them under shellfire preparing for the attack on Derna, which fell on 30 January. In the interval RMT went back to wharf work at Tobruk. This included a nasty fright at dusk when three bombers, thought to be ours, coming in low over the sea with their lights on, bombed and strafed angrily. Sergeant Maurice Browne,34 All Black hockey player, ‘and he could really run,’ had 15 yards start in a 100-yard charge for the caves, but the Mediterranean wharfies trampled him down.
Three days after Derna fell the RMT had set up its headquarters in the little seaside resort. Men gave the Italians full credit for road-building, and only a couple or so bends of the zigzag road above the town had been blown. A driver wrote: ‘We came upon Derna, a little white town nestling under the escarpment and extending to the seashore. It was great to see green trees, grass, and gardens of vegetables and flowers…. Given three hours’ leave. Had a scrounge around some of the buildings. Some lovely buildings, but not much left as Wogs page 43 had been ratting through the place. Had a bath in a flat.35 A beautiful bathroom, blue tiles and chromium fittings. Broke up coathangers and furniture to put under geyser. Had a shave too. It was great; I am white now and really feel clean again.' Feeling pleased too was Company Headquarters, set up in modern, furnished flats in the hastily evacuated town. Such luxuries as radios, crockery, table linen, spring beds, mattresses and bed linen helped the quick recovery of physically and mentally tired men.36
‘The Aussies had been through so fast that even they hadn't had time to do-over much—but they certainly made a job of the Governor's residence,’ said one driver. ‘You'd find houses with whole libraries available to the more cultured looters: Italian-English dictionaries for example, and oh yes, a man could be seen listening to his engine with a stethescope. Some men were up to their gills in grog. A certain Italian brandy was vicious stuff. It was probably this brandy that sent two drivers, with .303 rifles, stalking one another at night in grim earnest by Derna airdrome.’
Eric Broberg, now in charge of Workshops,37 got an Italian garage working. His men detected a false wall and uncovered a magnificent lathe. A hefty sewing machine which sewed leather was also found. This was ideal for repairing truck canopies and leather buckles and straps.
While drivers loaded petrol at the Derna wharf and carted it to a dump on top of the escarpment, a British flying column in a famous ‘left hook’ cut deep inland over punishing country, page 44 passed Fort Msus and completely trapped near the coast on 5 February Italian forces withdrawing south from Benghazi. This Italian host, ten miles long, was avoiding the Australians who, not fjar from the coast, were thrusting west towards Benghazi. After a 36-hour battle the flying column captured at Beda Fomm over 20,000 prisoners and 1500 lorries.
With the Italians now thoroughly routed in Libya and the threat to Egypt (and the vital Suez Canal) removed, our advance halted. Between 9 December 1940 and 8 February 1941, in 62 days, 133,295 Italian prisoners had been taken, together with enormous stocks of equipment, armour, and some 1300 guns. The 4th RMT, which had been in at the opening of the campaign, was represented (but in a different role) in this final blow. Following up this inland striking force on 6 February came RMT lorries laden with precious petrol. These lorries moved back from Derna to Bomba, to cut inland and join up with a vast convoy of supply vehicles. The going over the desert was extremely rough, and choking clouds of dust checked progress. Trucks closed up, yet still the one ahead was difficult to see. ‘For mile after mile the vehicles had to plunge over and plough through a desert surface covered with rough boulders and slabs of rock, lurching and bumping over the billowy ground at about 4 mph,’ says Destruction of an Army. ‘An added difficulty was the lack of accurate maps of the country from Mekili onwards. Parties of supply lorries disappeared into the curtain of dust and lost contact with the main column; hours later they would be seen looming out of the gloom again.’ The dust continued next day, and again rough country lay across their path, but at times the surface had packed hard and travelling was better than on bitumen. In the evening and early next morning the RMT safely delivered the petrol to an enormous dump rising near (it is thought) Fort Msus. This was the company's last hectic dash of the campaign.
On the way back it wasn't dust—it was mud, red mud. The trucks, pushed and towed laboriously over the worst parts, finally made Derna, where the storm had left giant hailstones which lay about for four days. The bitter cold at this time, when RMT drivers were still in summer dress, partly accounts page 45 for the company's motley dress on its return to Egypt. Drivers had seized any warm clothing they, could find (B Section particularly) and returned to the New Zealand fold dressed in all sorts of Italian finery—high-ranking naval uniform (and swords), peaked hats, generals' tunics and privates' jackboots —a fantastic sight.
Derna soon became a terminus for supply columns operating from Tobruk and further east. ‘It was amazing the amount of transport that poured into Derna,’ said one NCO. ‘British 10-ton diesels, commandeered Italian lorries, and other NZASC units would turn up in convoys with supplies.’ From Derna onwards the RMT worked, operating along supply routes to fertile Barce (about 110 miles west of Derna on the road to Benghazi) and to Magrun, 50 miles south of Benghazi. There were roads here and they were good. Three trucks from A Section were attached for a time to supply an anti-aircraft unit near El Agheila, the farthest west Wavell's Army advanced.
But this work was soon interrupted. Early on 25 February 4 RMT, tried and tested veterans now, the most experienced unit in 2 NZEF, moved off laden with souvenirs on its long journey of over 500 miles eastwards to Helwan where, during a complete refit, a new section, D Section under Captain ‘Scotty’ Veitch,38 would be added, bringing the company to full strength at last.
One by one the big three-tonners got under way. The strings of war next month would jerk these men and trucks across the Mediterranean to Greece. Most of them would never see the little white villas of Derna again. Out and away they went on the road to Egypt, Derna disappearing behind the tailboards in the west.
But they were leaving a desert where there was now one difference. Out of the morning haze, at ten o'clock on Saturday, 22 February, 15 planes swept low in three waves, machinegunning an RMT convoy returning from dumping petrol at Magrun. Three trucks were hit and one driver, Steve Tripp, was slightly wounded. These planes, tenacious, daring, meant business. The bold, black swastika was making its first appearance over Africa.
1 CSM Rhodes helped B Sec start this dump, which L-Cpl V. L. Norrish completed, together with map and key plan showing the exact location of every case. This brilliant young NCO was killed a month later.
2 Sgt R. A. Walker, of C Sec, estimated each vehicle now had travelled about 8000 miles. The average truck mileage at the end of the campaign was about 16,000.
6 ‘The Indians,’ writes Dvr T. M. Cumming, ‘carried most of their own rations consisting of dried fruits (apricots, prunes, etc.) and chapattis or, as we knew them, the Egyptian pancakes. “Bully” disgusted them; they thought it pure “dog”. They were great tea drinkers, and at every stop thick sweet tea was brewed, and my mug was always filled first. They loved strawberry jam—and got it.’
8 Thomson's difficulties were those experienced by B and C Secs; A Sec had no trouble with the Fusiliers' English.
10 For the average driver the normal driving routine was tiring enough, with difficult going, flying sand, and biting cold. No winter dress had been issued officially, and a great many drivers still wore skimpy shirts, shorts and, mercifully, the good thick New Zealand greatcoat. One man lived in his greatcoat for 10 days. Maintenance had to be fitted in during any spare time; to the nagging of back-seat drivers had to be added (in the case of B and C Sections) language difficulties. Some drivers also drove late into the night on odd local errands, and sleep for everyone was very precious. One driver, who had endured all this and a boil on the cheek without complaint, was roused by an Indian at 3.30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. move. At sun-up the Indian was still looking pale.
11 Brig. W. L. Lloyd, commanding 5 Ind Inf Bde, told Maj Whyte afterwards: ‘I am certain the whole operation would not have succeeded as it did had it not been for the co-operation and efficiency of your unit.’
18 Maj A. L. Lomas, MC, m.i.d.; New Plymouth; born Wanganui, 30 Jun 1916; medical practitioner; RMO NZASC Jan 1940-Jun 1941; 4 Fd Amb Jun 1941-Jun 1942; OC Maadi Camp Hosp Jun 1942-Apr 1943; 3 Gen Hosp Apr-Aug 1943; DADMS 2 NZ Div Aug 1943-Apr 1944.
20 Tummar West yielded 3000 to 4000 PWs and a large number of vehicles and stores. The three captured camps yielded some 7000 PWs, about 100 guns, several hundred motor vehicles, and vast quantities of stores and ammunition. Over 40 enemy tanks had been destroyed.
35 ‘Nugget’ Parnell and some comrades found a bath in a deserted hotel, but water was not running in the taps. They broke into the packed cellar, carried crates to the bathroom, and bathed contentedly enough in champagne. Even Cleopatra managed only asses' milk.
36 In Derna Alf Beaton would park himself down on a doorstep with a pound or so of tea and a small ‘spot’-sized glass. The gathering natives learned they could have a spot glass full of tea-leaves for a couple of eggs. While bartering Alf always slyly managed to fill the glass with his thumb stuck inside it. A thumb inside a little glass takes up a lot of space. Then when the native handed over two eggs and demanded baksheesh, Alf, all in one cunning and concealing flourish, added an extra pinch, tipped out the measure of tea-leaves, and removed his thumb. That extra pinch put the Arabs in high good humour, and Alf's reputation soon became unexcelled for generous trading.
37 Maj Whyte, ill, left the company before Tobruk; Maj Woods, returning to the company at Derna, took his place, Capt McAlpine acting as OC in the meantime. CSM Rhodes had left the company before the attacks on the Tummar camps, and Thomson became CSM at Derna.