CHAPTER 1 — Mobilisation and Despatch to Egypt
Mobilisation and Despatch to Egypt
DOWN from the Greek hills came a straggling, weary line of Australian infantrymen. One company was missing, and they were all more than twelve hours overdue at their rendezvous with the trucks that were to carry them back down the road of retreat. It was now late afternoon, and twenty-seven New Zealand three-tonners had been waiting since shortly before the previous midnight. As the khaki platoons assembled, there began a deep chorus of motor engines, and soon hot tins of meat and vegetables were handed out to the troops. The stoves were the exhaust manifolds of the trucks. Then the convoy went twisting along the road, while the sprawling men under the canopies nodded into semi-somnolence, their minds blanketed under fatigue and the rhythmic whirr-whirr of engine and transmission. For them this was a pause between one losing battle and the next, a few miles gained towards escape from indefinite captivity.
It was still a young war on this April day in 1941, a time when the greatest virtue was valour in defeat. The battles then being fought would be recorded with pride, but shadowed in the memory by the towering victories of later years. Yet here, in defeat, those victories were born. Here, less than a year since these men had been scattered civilians in a thousand different jobs, they were knitted together in a joint enterprise against overwhelming forces. Here, without favour or prejudice, the clear mirror of adversity reflected their qualities and disclosed the nature of the battles to come—hard battles, made so by the spirit shown in Greece.
All this was clear enough from the fighting man's point of view. Fighting is the business of war, and it is in these terms that people think. But fighting is sustained only by a myriad of minor, unsung, often half-forgotten tasks; by such things as twenty-seven trucks waiting patiently for missing troops; by a hot meal, welcome and unexpected, thrust into page 2 the hands of the dog-tired soldier; by steady, skilful driving into the dusk along a strange road. That is the story of this history. Not precisely these things, because although these were trucks of 2 New Zealand Divisional Supply Column (later renamed 1 Supply Company), it was not the duty of the Column to carry troops or, directly, to feed them. But as part of the Army Service Corps, its duty was service, and service is a liberal word. This is a story of service.
Throughout the war Supply Column's job was to assemble food, carry it and issue it—just that. A simple task to define, more complex to put into practice. In terms of people, a division represents a fair-sized town—15,000 men or more. To these men for the greater part of six years, 365 days of each year, the Column brought three meals a day; they brought it across deserts, over mountains, through enemy fire, past prowling tanks. They brought it, and then in business-like manner set up shop and apportioned it out to the quartermasters, whatever the weather or the closeness of the enemy. This was their job, and like any soldier's job it took no account of difficulties and dangers. It was there to be done; it was done. If the Column stopped at all, it was to fight or to shoulder another task.
For this work they were known, with the soldier's irreverence, as ‘jam jugglers’, and for the early part of their life in the army there may have been a lurking suspicion that wizardry of some sort was going to be needed if their unit was ever to operate in the field. When Supply Column came into being at Burnham in October 1939 there was not even a skeleton to clothe: there was one permanent staff instructor, little transport to speak of, even less idea at first of what was expected of the unit, and certainly none of how it was really going to perform its task when it finally caught up with the war.
For that matter, it was not known in the beginning whether the unit would ever catch up with the war, because when the first volunteers of the 2 NZEF were mobilised on 3 October 1939 they were drafted into what was known as the Special Force, which had no specifically designated purpose, or none that was disclosed. Feeling its way through this haze of uncertainty, Supply Column gathered knowledge as page 3 it went along, and when it emerged into a clearer light found itself charged with the task of victualling the Division, or at any rate the First Echelon. Its guiding principle was: ‘The troops must be fed.’ It was, in effect, the last link in the supply chain to the forward troops, and as such it was one of the services that in part governed the mobility of the Division.
Though Supply Column was formed in October, a month after the outbreak of war with Germany, it came into being officially in November, with the issue that month of a provisional war establishment. On 8 December this provisional establishment was superseded by a new one providing for 280 officers and other ranks, plus four attached other ranks. It was split into headquarters, two echelons and a workshops section. Headquarters, which included supply details and tradesmen, had a strength of 38; Nos. 1 and 2 Echelons, each with a strength of 107, consisted of echelon headquarters, with supply details, and two sections, which in their turn were divided into sub-sections; Workshops Section, or J Section, was divided into section headquarters and a subsection. In theory, each echelon would carry one day's rations to the Division on alternate days, drawing from a railhead or a depot and distributing to units at a supply point. It was the task of Workshops Section to keep the vehicles on the road.
This strength, of course, was only for the First Echelon, as the Special Force became, and Supply Column was added to as the Second and Third Echelons were sent overseas. Later, when its name was changed, its composition was also revised.
So, as the Army drew up establishments and converted them into intricate tables of strengths of men, weapons and vehicles, Supply Column took form and began to scrape about for its knowledge. Staff-Sergeant Pullen1 was the sole Regular Force instructor, and in their technical training the men were led through training manuals by instructors who kept one jump ahead of their pupils. Although the unit's operations were based on motor transport, there were in page 4 the camp only ten training vehicles, of which two were artillery tractors. These few trucks were shared with 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, and until impressed vehicles improved the situation, technical training was confined mainly to lectures at which instructors were bombarded with questions, and not infrequently, to the satisfaction of the questioners, had to refer to the manual for the answers.
There was, of course, ordinary soldiering to be done as well. The Army Service Corps must be able to fight, and with the other units suffered gas lectures, tedious drill and weapon training, map reading and compass instruction, and all such things that to the soldier's regret go into his making.
Burnham in those days offered few of the off-duty comforts that later drafts enjoyed, and the ASC—‘still very much the Cinderella of the Division’, remarks Staff-Sergeant Pullen—was living in bell tents while most of the camp enjoyed the comparative luxury of hutments. But there were some comforts. The YMCA and Church Army provided their cups of tea; concert parties visited the camp; and eventually there was a bar, at the opening of which a clamorous mob, led by a piper, marched past the orderly room and the parade ground.
In all fairness it should be acknowledged that this was something more than just alcoholic exuberance, for there was among these first volunteers a natural buoyancy of spirit which often found its outlet in boisterous conviviality. This, for instance, is a mess parade, described by Sergeant Conway:2
Late comers held up the queue, and those first in line would heap abuse on their heads. Although a reasonable amount of decorum was required in the mess rooms, no person within half a mile could possibly mistake the arrival of dixies from the kitchen, for this event coincided with the lusty singing of ‘He Careth for Me’.
An influenza epidemic, colloquially known as the ‘Burnham bot’, knocked some of the exuberance out of the troops in November, and for about a week the active strength of the ASC was reduced from about 550 to 200.page 5
These were the beginnings. With these limitations and interruptions, training went ahead with nothing more definite in view than a possibility that the men when trained might be dismissed to their occupations on indefinite leave without pay. Doubt was resolved on 23 November, however, with an announcement by the Prime Minister, Mr Savage, that the Special Force would be sent overseas.
Training, for so long like a futile game of war, assumed a new significance, and though still hampered by the shortcomings of equipment, was carried out with more purpose. There was range practice at Redcliffs, an expedition that gave the motor-cyclists, at least, an inner glow of satisfaction by allowing them to deploy ahead of the convoy and hold up traffic at a busy Colombo Street intersection in Christchurch; there were unditching exercises with the diminutive fleet of transport, carried out in a state of high tension under the critical eye of the Commander NZASC, LieutenantColonel Crump;3 and, more fondly remembered, there was a night manoeuvre that ended, happily, near a country hotel, where impecunious drivers made good use of officers' higher rates of pay.
Training came to an end. The Advance Party of the Division sailed from Wellington on the Awatea on 11 December. With it, after three days' special leave, went Captain I. E. Stock4 (not to be confused with the OC, Captain E. J. Stock5), Staff-Sergeant Polson,6 Sergeant Boanas,7 and Drivers MacShane8 and Hinchey9 of Supply page 6 Column. The party disembarked at Port Said on 7 January 1940.
Meanwhile arrangements at Burnham for the embarkation of the main body were marked by the legendary clerical error through which, cynics hold, so many gain promotion. The victim was Captain E. J. Stock, who celebrated his promotion to major only to find in the morning that it was a mistake.
Those still in New Zealand went on fourteen days' special leave on 11 December, enabling them to spend Christmas at home—for many of them the last for at least four years. ‘Home for Christmas’ was to be a phrase that was to echo through the years. But in those heady days, when calamitous failures and bitter struggles lay unseen in the future, no one was thinking a great deal about coming home.
On the men's return to camp final preparations were made, and there was a farewell parade through Christchurch. The Column embarked at Lyttelton on 5 January 1940 with other units on the Polish ship Sobieski. The unit consisted now of nine officers, fifteen warrant officers and sergeants, and 265 other ranks. The Lyttelton group, Sobieski and Dunera, with HMS Leander as escort, sailed at 4.30 p.m. Cheering followed the ships as they drew away. ‘The people of New Zealand were eager to see their troops going to the help of Great Britain,’ was how it seemed to a Polish doctor on the Sobieski.
The following morning they joined the transports Orion, Strathaird, Empress of Canada and Rangitata outside Wellington. The convoy converged into formation, and under the escort of HM Ships Ramillies, Leander and Canberra, steamed westwards three abreast: Strathaird, Orion and Rangitata followed by Sobieski, Empress of Canada and Dunera. The three warships were ahead, Ramillies in the centre, and the other two on the flanks and a little further advanced. Low-flying aircraft dipped their wings in salute. At 6 p.m. those still watching New Zealand dwindle away between the blue sky and the bluer sea saw the last vestige of their country—the peak of Mount Egmont—go from view.page 7
In impressive array, the convoy carved through the Tasman towards Australia. The men settled in—not very difficult in those early days when ships were still equipped for peace and most men had cabins. The cabins, in fact, had been the centre of a great deal of SYSTEMity before the ships left New Zealand. Only the poor old Dunera, which had been a trooper in the India service, was without luxury. She had little to commend her to soldier or mariner. Plodding along in the rear, she managed to keep station during the day, but at night invariably fell behind and at dawn would be some distance astern. The whole convoy would have to slow down to allow her to regain her position.
A spell of rough weather gave stomachs a fair test, but the convoy approached Australia across a glossy sea. On the 10th an RAAF Avro Anson droned overhead. Off the southern tip of Australia the convoy was joined first by four transports with Australian troops, Orcades, Orontes, Orford and Strathnaver, and later by a fifth, the Empress of Britain. Two more warships, HMAS Adelaide and Australia, came with them, and in three rows of three abreast, with Orford and Empress of Britain pairing off astern, the convoy passed through Bass Strait and into the storms of the Great Australian Bight.
The ships reached Fremantle on 18 January, and there was a brief pause and a chance to look over Perth. The convoy put out again on the 20th and plodded north towards the scorching heat of the Indian Ocean. Heat and limited space curbed any ambitious training, but if one observer is to be believed the daily physical drill, signalling and lectures were attended and performed with incredible enthusiasm.
‘It please me to see the soldiers doing their physical exercises and executing their orders cheerfully,’ the same Polish doctor wrote in the ship's magazine, The Transport Z6. ‘It is clear they carry out their duty as an order from their King.’
The doctor remarked on the ‘sympathy of the officers for the men, showing care for their well-being,’ and on the ‘great respect of soldiers for officers.’ This, he said, agreed with his mental picture of the English Army and the English people.page 8
The convoy split while approaching Colombo, and the second half, which included the Sobieski, passed through the breakwaters on 30 January. There was leave on both days of the two-day stay, and a cricket match was played with a university team.
Nine days out from Colombo the convoy broke up before entering the Gulf of Suez. On 12 February a slender wedge of land became visible ahead to those on the Sobieski. It resolved itself into a crumbling escarpment, lying like a great wedge-shaped cheese tapering away to the south-east. At the north-western end it ended abruptly in a sheer bluff, at the foot of which was a long sweep of sand on which sat Tewfik.
At 9 a.m. the ship dropped anchor outside the breakwater. Across the water lay the jumbled town, and flanking it dunes of sand—a yellow-brown that became a most familiar colour over the next few years.
At 10.30 a.m. the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Mr Anthony Eden, accompanied by Major-General Freyberg, came aboard. Three-quarters of an hour later the Sobieski picked up her anchor and was towed in to the wharf near the Dunera.
With sleepy reluctance, the troops turned out next morning at half past four, breakfasted at five, and set about cleaning up the ship. At 8.15 a.m. the ship began to disgorge troops, and the train standing at the station to absorb them. Two hours later Supply Column men were watching the changing scene of a new country: streets, shops and houses of a foreign style but all passing too quickly to be seen closely; clay hovels, clustered together in primitive villages; flat infertile fields; and miles of sand.
And at last to Maadi Camp, near the rim of the Nile Valley, just beyond where the flourishing green of the Maadi township ends and the coarse yellow desert begins. The land rises here in massive undulations to where a page 9 towering escarpment, gashed and scarred by time and weather, walls off the spreading miles of arid country beyond. Here at the beginning of 1940 the First Echelon of 2 NZEF made its camp—a camp that was to be ‘home’ for the Division through the crucial years ahead.
3 Brig S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born Wellington, 25 Jan 1889; Regular soldier; NZASC 1915–19; Commander NZASC, 2 NZ Div, 1940–45; commanded 2 NZEF (Japan) Jun-Sep 1947; on staff HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948–49.
4 Maj I. E. Stock, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 24 May 1914; clerk; OC 4 Res MT Coy 26 Jun 1941–12 Sep 1943; OC Sup Coln 12 Nov 1940-5 Mar 1941; OC NZ Admn Gp Oct 1942-Sep 1943; OC NZ VRD, Bari, Sep–Dec 1943.
8 2 Lt A. N. MacShane; born NZ, 24 Jul 1915; storeman timekeeper; killed in action 5 Nov 1942.