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18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 2 — The Orion

page 15

The Orion

There are well-defined differences of opinion about troopships. Some men can get a kick out of them, some can't. To the former, troopship life abounds in interest; to the latter it is deadly dull. Some can stand happily for hours gazing over tMhe rails into the swirling water; others think every moment wasted that keeps them away from their cards or crown-and-anchor. Eighteenth Battalion had its quota of both types, so it would be idle to try to prove that the voyage was interesting and enjoyable, or dull and monotonous. It was as each man found it.

There could be no doubt, however, that the accommodation was good. The Orion, fitted up to carry 1140 civilian passengers, had 1500 troops on board, mostly 18 Battalion and the ASC. She was not overcrowded. An old soldier of 1914 who had spent six weeks in the packed, airless hold of a rolling cargo tramp might be excused for reflecting on the degeneracy of the next age when he saw the Orion's cabins, most of them unchanged from peacetime. And if the men in the ‘tourist’ class cabins had little to complain of, what about the officers and sergeants in the luxury of the first class? They had every right to think that this war wasn't a bad sort of racket.

Messing accommodation was also palatial by any troopship standards, though meals had to be served in several sittings. The dining saloons were unaltered. The ship's stewards were there to supervise the waiting, which in the men's mess was done by fatigue parties. The food was good, and there was plenty of it, including supper of cocoa and ship's biscuits. It became somewhat lacking in variety after a while, but that is inevitable on a troopship, especially for men used to fresh New Zealand food.

The wet canteen was a very fine institution, with one snag— you had to wait in long queues for your beer. It was open twice a day and in the evening, and the official ration was two pints page 16 a day, though you could always get more, as there were a lot of men who didn't bother because of the queues. Prices were low— New Zealand beer at tenpence a quart bottle, Danish lager at eightpence a pint. For the officers and sergeants there were spirits at comparable prices. There was a dry canteen, too, where you could buy plenty of cigarettes at 15. 8d. for fifty.

On the first day out from Wellington there were naturally some who didn't take kindly to the unaccustomed motion, but thanks to the fine weather, they were not many. Vaccination, carried out on the second day, prostrated many more towards the end of the first week, but only for a day or two. On the whole, health was good throughout the trip.

On that first day out, 6 January, 18 Battalion's Routine Order No. 64 was issued.

Routine orders are one of the Army's standing jokes. As a rule they are most uninspiring documents. But this one, Routine Order No. 64, deserves to be quoted almost in full, as it covers much of the shipboard routine followed by the battalion on the Orion. Here are its items:

Unit For Duty. This Unit is alternating weekly periods as duty with the A.S.C., and will be Unit for duty until Reveille, 12.1.40. When we are Unit for duty, the Duty Coy. will supply the following details daily:—

Guard. 2 Officers, 1 W.O., 2 Sjts, 4 Cpls, 54 O.R.'s Mess Room. A fatigue of an N.C.O. and 6 men…. Washing Up. A fatigue of an N.C.O. and 10 men….

Guards. Guards will wear lifebelts during guard mounting. They will be carried to their posts and left in a handy position. In case of emergency they will don the lifebelt before taking the necessary action.

The guard kept fire and blackout watch from posts scattered all over the ship, and provided submarine lookouts and anti-aircraft posts, the latter armed with Lewis guns. A Lewis-gun post on the forward well-deck provided a purple patch one day, when an 18 Battalion crew, in stripping the gun for cleaning, inadvertently let a burst go in the general direction of the lookout in the crow's nest. Even 18 Battalion stood lost in admiration at the command of English employed by the lookout when he came down.

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Daily Routine. Until further notice the routine for this will be as follows:—

0900 hours Coy. parades.
1030 hours Dismiss and proceed to cabins for ship's inspection.
1100 hours Parade with pannikins for wet canteen.
Afternoon free for sports and games.

From the third day out, the working hours were mainly taken up with lectures in such things as signals, tactics, map-reading, first aid, and so on, to which nobody paid very serious attention. For variety there were physical jerks and short ‘route’ marches round the decks daily. Sunday church parades, of course. Nothing very strenuous. There is never room for that on a troopship, and even the work has a sort of holiday atmosphere about it. The most earnest business of life took place in the evenings, when the crown-and-anchor kings braved the threat of dire punishment to set up shop in the cabins, and the pontoon and poker schools flourished in the troops' lounge, vanishing miraculously when the duty officer hove in sight on his rounds. Whenever he entered the lounge only the legal ‘housie’ remained. Whether he was taken in by the law-abiding demeanour of the men nobody can be sure, but even duty officers are human.

Swimming Bath. The aft bath is available for swimming at all times. Costumes must not be worn in this bath.

The forward bath is reserved for officers in the morning until 0900 hours; it is then available to all. Costumes Must be worn in this bath.

These baths were a main centre of attraction. There was a continuous jam of troops in and round them; usually it was open slather, all in and no holds barred, but occasionally the exhilarating pastime of boom fighting was organised. The baths, unfortunately, were too small for serious swimming, but the battalion ran a ‘learn to swim’ campaign, and by the end of the voyage nearly all its members could at least keep themselves afloat. With the extra advantage of complete nudity, the aft bath was a rowdy, uninhibited place, more popular than the more sedate forward bath, which could be seen from the deck allotted to the officers and nursing sisters.

Mail. All outgoing mail will be censored from now on. This will be done under Coy. arrangements….

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There are two points of view about censorship of mail—that of the men, who imagine the officers rubbing their hands and gloating over every spelling mistake and every touch of sentiment, and that of the officers, who one and all consider it a most distasteful chore. To both officers and men, however, it served to emphasise the thought, ‘We're on active service now, all right.’

Alarms And Stations…. On the sounding of ‘fire’ or ‘Emergency Stations’, men will immediately don life belts and proceed to the muster stations. On ‘Man Overboard’ sounding, all personnel will remain quiet, those below decks remaining there.

Drop what you are doing, drag on your life jackets, climb up to your boat stations, and hang round there like a lot of dummies until you are released—that is boat drill. It is a drudgery common to all troopships, and everybody despises it until the day when it has to be carried out in grim earnest. For 18 Battalion, fortunately, that day never came. However, they practised it day and night. Lifeboat guards were detailed to attend the drills in full web equipment, with rifles and live ammunition.

Sunset. At sunset one ‘G’ will be sounded round the ship by bugles. Rubbish will then be dumped overboard. All scuttles and ports closed. Entrance doors from decks to accommodation rooms and passages closed. No lights to be shown at all. No matches struck on the deck. Use of torches is prohibited on decks. These orders remain in force until one hour after sunrise.

The safety of the vessel depends on darkness, and the severest disciplinary action will be taken against offenders….

The blackout was good, and was strictly enforced. Later in the voyage this made some cabins almost unbearably stuffy, but was overcome by ingenious souls who, before retiring, took the bulbs out of the lights and opened the portholes.

It was also forbidden to dump rubbish overboard during the day. At times, however, a prowling raider might have guessed at the identity of the troops in the convoy from the odd empty New Zealand beer bottle, or New Zealand felt hat, left irretrievably behind as the Orion ploughed on.

Footware [sic]. Canvas shoes will be worn throughout the voyage.

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Army boots are dangerous on the steep, slippery companion ladders of a ship. In this connection, dress for the whole trip was ‘easy’. Jerseys and denim slacks or shorts were the usual wear, and later on this was reduced in most cases to shorts or bathing trunks only, except at parade times.

Use Of Fresh Water. Great care must be taken to avoid waste of fresh water.

The need for going slow on the fresh water was a bit unpopular, but that is just another of the things that must be done on a troopship.

Rifles. All rifles will be kept in wardrobes in cabins.

You lugged your rifle up the gangway at Wellington with the rest of your gear, and down the gangway on arrival in Egypt; but in between it didn't see the light of day except for an occasional cleaning.

Discipline. Climbing into rigging, or boats, or sitting on the rails will be treated as a serious offence.

This order was relaxed as the convoy left Wellington, but at sea it was insisted on. It was a sensible precaution. A convoy can't stop, as a rule, to pick up a man who falls overboard.

Care Of The Ship. All ranks must exercise the greatest care to avoid damaging the ship in any way….

So they did, in most matters. But this rule did not prevent a certain number of men from carving their names on the ship's rails, just as happened on all troopships that carried New Zealanders.

And there, in brief, you have the everyday life of 18 Battalion on board the Orion.

The first day on board saw the birth of the 18 Battalion band, formed from scratch by Lance-Corporal Fred Bowes1 under Lieutenant-Colonel Gray's orders. Nobody could pretend that it was a first-class band, but it gave an extra fillip to the church parades and helped the battalion on its daily tramp round and round the decks. Its masterpiece was ‘Sussex by the Sea’; to this day many an 18 Battalion original cannot hear the tune page 20 without once more smelling the shipboard smells and feeling the deck under his feet again as he sets out on another lap. ‘Sussex’ for the time became the battalion's own personal property.

Some small but important items of equipment were issued to the troops during the first few days on board. Identity discs (or ‘meat tickets’), henceforward to be worn round the neck at all times. Field dressings, an omen of things to come. Lastly, the new, specially designed NZEF hat and collar badges, and distinguishing patches to be sewn on the shoulders of the serge jackets.

On 10 January the convoy was almost doubled in size by the appearance from the north of four liners full of Australian troops, escorted by HMAS Australia and HMAS Sydney. Yet another liner joined on the 12th, and the convoy that passed through Bass Strait into the Australian Bight had now grown to impressive size. The Bight didn't behave too well—the ships ran into cold winds and the heaviest seas yet, and some men who had prided themselves on lasting the distance found that they had boasted too soon.

During the night of 17 January the convoy rounded Cape Leeuwin and swung north up the coast of Western Australia towards Fremantle, which came in sight about 3 p.m. on the 18th. The men of 18 Battalion who lined the Orion's rail for the first glimpse of an overseas port saw nothing to be excited about—a low, dry-looking shore line, a few factory chimneys, a gasometer—but that was from a distance. On closer examination Fremantle turned out quite different.

After dinner that evening the first of many tidal waves of New Zealand troops hit Fremantle, swept through the town, carried on up the Swan river with slightly diminished vigour, and gatecrashed the defences of Perth.

The atmosphere in both towns that night was later described by the First Echelon's commander as one of almost hysterical goodwill and comradeship. There was general leave until midnight. Hotels were open, and though the New Zealanders found difficulty at first in changing their money, this eased up as the evening wore on and the bonds of international friendship were woven more tightly. The New Zealanders' behaviour could not be classed as excellent, but considering that the whole First Echelon was getting together for the first time, along with the Aussies into the bargain, it wasn't too bad.

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Next day (19 January) will live for ever in the minds of those who were there as the day of the Great Trek. The troops from the Orion had to turn to that morning, rip their nice new shoulder patches off their ‘giggle suits’ and sew them on the lighter drill tunics. Then at 10 a.m. they paraded and set out for Perth, 12 miles away. They marched in boots for the first time since leaving Wellington. Some of them were suffering from a re-vaccination, and many more from the effects of the previous night. The sun was blazing, the temperature nearly 100 in the shade; though there wasn't any shade to speak of.

Nearly four hours later a weary body of men came to a ragged halt outside the Anzac Club in Perth, and was dismissed with leave until midnight. Weary, but almost intact— wonderful to relate, out of more than 1400 men only eight had fallen out! The battalion band had given them an occasional boost along, and gifts of fruit and beer had been pressed on them by the people living along the route; but they were fit.

They had also made history, though they didn't realise it until later. Long after the sweat and discomfort of the march were forgotten, its honour remained, boasted of wherever 18 Battalion went, and recounted with more and more fearsome exaggeration as the years went on. It was an exclusive affair, too, entitling its participants to a certain deference from all other New Zealanders. Campaigns were danger and hardship shared by all; but the march to Perth was the monopoly of 18 Battalion and the ASC, and jealously they guarded its memory.

Controversy followed the march. The ineffable Smith's Weekly commented on it as follows:

March by the New Zealanders from Fremantle to Perth— 12½ miles—will never be forgotten, not only by the unfortunates who took part, but by the silent sympathetic crowd which lined Perth's streets watching the troops pass through the city. One hundred degrees in the shade it was that day, and the troops arrived in Perth at the peak of the heat—after 1 p.m. Some of them were reeling, and doggedly persisted, only to collapse in the main streets. These men had not had boots on for a fortnight, and then to trudge 12½ miles in the heavy unyielding military issue was asking too much of them. When the Enzeds had gone through the city and were allowed to dismiss, most of them did page 22 not worry about food. They were too eager to get to the nearest water-tap to cool their feet, on which blisters, the size of an egg in some cases, had formed. It was rumoured that the march had been a disciplinary one. If so, the troops paid not only by the sweat of their brows, but in weariness, exhaustion and blistered feet.

Not only the allegation of ill-treatment, but even more the suggestion that the New Zealanders' conduct might have been anything but exemplary, raised quite a storm in New Zealand. Parents deluged the Government with inquiries and requests to investigate, and the Government, concerned at this ‘undesirable publicity’, asked Australia for the facts behind the article, adding, ‘Our newspapers have not been allowed to mention the departure of the First Echelon—what is the idea letting Smith's Weekly do it?’

The soft answer came back. The editor of Smith's Weekly had been rapped over the knuckles for his indiscretion. As for the New Zealand soldiers—well, boys will be boys! ‘The only complaints made,’said the Australian Government, ‘emanated from temperance organisations and the Railway Department….At no time did the behaviour of the troops become vicious….No exception seems to have been taken by the general public to the conduct of the troops.’

Major-General Freyberg also said that the allegations of uncouth conduct were uncalled for, and that the march had not been disciplinary, but had been made to keep the men's feet in condition. This last statement would have been greeted with raised eyebrows by those with raw feet to show for it, but it was official exoneration for misdeeds committed in Perth and Fremantle.

To penetrate behind the scenes briefly, the march had been thought up by Lieutenant-Colonel Gray and Lieutenant-Colonel Crump2 of the ASC (commander of the troops on the Orion), officially as a training march, but also as a means of getting the men another day's leave ashore. Without it they would have had to spend the day aboard the Orion, on orders from the convoy commander, while the men from other ships page 23 had leave. As it was, nearly every New Zealander from every ship was in Perth that day.

We left 18 Battalion, tired and soaked with sweat, let loose in Perth until midnight. Tired, yes, but not too tired to let itself go. Like the rest of the New Zealanders, it was out to enjoy itself, and enjoy itself it did. The Australian soldiers in town joined whole-heartedly in the fun, and Kiwis and Aussies together proceeded to take Perth over, to ‘control’ its traffic, to commit mild mayhem on its movable objects, to souvenir advertising posters, and generally to fraternise with each other and with the citizens in the streets and hotels. Pot plants and furniture from the Wentworth Hotel were taken out and put up gaily for auction in the street. Some incidents, such as the carrying of a baby Austin car bodily up the steps of the General Post Office, undoubtedly caused some inconvenience, but even this sort of escapade was tolerated by Perth, which accepted the foreign invasion with the utmost good humour and hospitality. Some New Zealanders, looking back from the viewpoint of the next morning's head, may have considered the hospitality overdone; but it established Perth in the good opinion of the New Zealand soldier, an opinion that the experience of later contingents was to confirm and heighten.

Trains and buses took the men back to Fremantle that night, but there were many whose sudden affection for Perth made it necessary to drag them away. A picket went the rounds and removed the stragglers, and the last to be rounded up rejoined the convoy in the stream off Fremantle next morning, though there was nobody from 18 Battalion in this select band. Every member of the battalion was safe home on the Orion when she left the port at 9 a.m. on 20 January. There were even some who had finished the evening flat broke, and had to tramp the whole way back to Fremantle; but they made it.

A check parade held on deck that morning revealed some quaint international variations of costume. Some men had merely swapped hats with the Aussies, some jackets as well, while some, obviously unwilling to spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar, had included trousers in the exchange. Many of the new badges issued only a day or two before had vanished, replaced by a bewildering assortment of Australian badges. Naval headgear, both British and French, dotted the parade. Official page 24 recognition of the exchanges was given in the battalion's next routine order, where appeared the names of 84 men—HQ Company headed the list with 23, A and C Companies shared the wooden spoon with four each. The fine was a flat rate of 7s. 6d. for each missing article.

On went the convoy, north-west this time, straight out into the Indian Ocean. The Australian escorts were replaced by HMS Kent and the French cruiser Suffren. The heat increased daily, and clothing became scantier in proportion. Some men forsook their cabins and spread blankets on deck at night. The wet canteen and the swimming pools became even more popular places.

Journalistic collaboration between 18 Battalion and the ASC bore fruit on 21 January with the publication of NZ Abroad, Vol. 1, No. 1. Its eight cyclostyled pages embodied the usual ingredients of a troopship magazine—verse, serious and not so serious, sketches, topical allusions to events and personalities, mild pornography—nothing to distinguish it from scores of others. But it was a pioneering venture. The editors expressed their intention of publishing NZ Abroad twice a week while the voyage lasted, but this was optimistic, as it ran to only three numbers, the third on a grander scale printed in Cairo shortly after the First Echelon's arrival.

Highlights were few during the voyage across the Indian Ocean. The first flying fish caused a buzz of excitement as they leaped away from the Orion's forefoot. On 23 January the men were officially told (though it was already pretty widely known or guessed) that they were bound for Egypt. On the 25th Cocos Island was sighted on the horizon, and on the 28th, with none of the traditional ceremonies, the convoy crossed the Equator.

On board the Orion the troops celebrated their last afternoon in the Southern Hemisphere with a grand race meeting. The ‘nags’ were ingenious devices on the end of strings, wound in by the jockeys from start line to finishing post. Their pedigrees would hardly have been recognised in any stud book—Thirst (by Route March out of Fremantle), General Malaise (by Vaccination out of Emmo), Many Miles (by Cripes out of New Zealand), to quote a few of the brighter efforts. A sixpenny tote did brisk business. There were five races, after which the page 25 winners competed for the ‘Z4 Cup’—this trophy went to the ASC, but horses owned by 18 Battalion filled second and third places.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on 30 January the convoy filed in through the Colombo breakwater and anchored in the capacious harbour. Lighters were quickly at hand to take the men ashore. From the wharf 18 Battalion marched a mile and a half to Rifle Green, a small park in the middle of the town, where a hurried payout was made, each man getting 10.20 rupees, the equivalent of 16s.—they certainly were not to be allowed to squander their savings! Then they were turned loose with instructions to be back by 4.30 p.m.

The time was tantalisingly short for men having their first glimpse of the East, particularly such a colourful, cosmopolitan spot as Colombo. A look round the main part of the town, a little haggling for souvenirs in the native quarter, a rickshaw ride (nearly everybody had a rickshaw ride), and it was time to go back. A few roving spirits managed to get up into the interior of Ceylon, but most were content to stay in Colombo and see as much of the town as they could. Only three members of 18 Battalion missed the lighters back.

For the rest of the battalion's stay in port the main fun was provided by the bumboatmen, who swarmed round the Orion in their cockleshell craft, loaded down with fruit and curios. Trade and backchat were brisk. Both goods and money changed hands in baskets on the end of ropes, with invariable arguments as to which came first, the money or the goods. The New Zealanders, though new to the art of bargaining, were picking up its first principles well. Humour was maintained on both sides—the commercial ethics of the East were still a novelty, and the days were not yet when New Zealanders, soured by many bargaining defeats at the hands of ‘George Wog’, would lose their tempers and resort to boots instead of wits.

Shore leave on 31 January was limited to one man from each platoon, mainly those who had been on duty the day before. The officers and sergeants were taken over to pay a social call aboard the nearby HMS Sussex. They were shown over the ship, and stayed for dinner, but the visit was quieter than expected.

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Incidentally, it was in connection with HMS Sussex that the 18 Battalion band had its brief hour of glory. No sooner had the Orion arrived at its anchorage astern of the cruiser than Lieutenant-Colonel Gray ordered the band forward smartly, to show the Navy what it could do. The same activity took place on the Sussex, and the two bands played alternately, the New Zealanders going through their full repertoire, beginning and ending with their own ‘Sussex by the Sea’. They had not long finished when a resplendent naval officer boarded the Orion, thanked the troops on behalf of HMS Sussex for the compliment paid the ship, but expressed his wonder how the New Zealanders had recognised her, as her name plate had been removed. He was not enlightened.

At 11.30 a.m. on 1 February the convoy left Colombo, cheered on by crowds of natives from the breakwater and the pilot station at the harbour entrance. The Ramillies was still in attendance, but the other escorts had again changed, and now included the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. Due west sailed the convoy, towards the searing heat of Aden and the Red Sea.

The usual Sunday morning church parade on 4 February was violently interrupted when, not more than half a mile from the Orion, a plane from the Eagle crashed into the sea. Nearly everybody in 18 Battalion saw the crash, and the pilot's subsequent rescue by launch—for a time the church parade decidedly took a back seat.

Early on the morning of 8 February, off Aden, the convoy divided; most of the ships carried straight on into the Red Sea, while others, including the Orion, put into Aden to refuel. The stay was to be short, but not too short for a look round, so the troops were taken ashore by lighters just after midday and given leave until 4.30 p.m. They accepted the hospitality of the British garrison, heard all about the rain (the first for three years) that had fallen the day before, and took advantage of Aden's being a duty-free port to stock up with cigarettes and tobacco, although there was some difficulty in changing New Zealand money with the Jewish changers who abounded in the town. Apart from this there wasn't much to do but stroll around. By 5 p.m. they were back on board, and about breakfast time next morning away went the page 27 Orion on the last leg of the voyage. Through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb; up the Red Sea, with occasional glimpses of arid shores, Africa on the left and Asia on the right; then, on the night of 12 February, Tewfik, and gear packed for departure.

All that could be seen of Tewfik when the Orion first arrived was a line of twinkling lights low on the water. Next morning eager eyes looked on Egypt for the first time, and what did they see? A line of nondescript buildings and camouflaged oil tanks at the port, a few palm trees farther round to the left, a group of army tents; and between all these, and behind them, stretching away and away to the skyline—sand. Sand flat and shimmering, sand in long low ridges. That this sand was to play a dominating part in the whole existence of 18 Battalion for nearly four years was yet hidden in the future, but there it was, miles and miles of it, and more miles beyond the horizon. And near at hand, crowding round the Orion in their little boats, the Egyptians, shouting, spitting, filthy, holding up for sale oranges and cigarettes and wallets, brooches and bracelets. The troops, with lectures on the diseases and bad customs of Egypt fresh in their minds, mostly shied clear for the time being. It took some time to get used to the sight of George Wog in numbers, to his filth, his informal attire and wheedling ways.

Late that morning the battalion, for the third time in its life, piled into lighters and left the Orion. But this time the men weren't going off gaily for a few hours ashore and a return to their comfortable berths at night. This time they had all their worldly possessions on their shoulders; they were herded into rusty old lighters that had only too obviously been used for lime; they were deposited on the wharf, in this strange land, with even their immediate future a matter for conjecture. Another phase in the battalion's life was about to begin.

1 Capt F. Bowes, BEM; Auckland; born England, 5 Oct 1907; truck driver; wounded 18 Nov 1940.

2 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; comd 2 NZEF, Japan, Jun-Sep 1947; on staff HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948–49.