CHAPTER 2 — To Egypt and the United Kingdom
To Egypt and the United Kingdom
At 9 a.m. on 4 January 1940 Divisional Signals evacuated its lines and handed in barrack stores in preparation for the move to the railway siding at Trentham. The unit marched out at five minutes to ten and entrained shortly afterwards. The officer in charge of the train had been instructed by Major Allen to inspect the carriages and allocate accommodation in accordance with the marching-out state. Armed with a piece of chalk in one hand and a copy of Field Service Regulations in the other, he had assiduously set about the task of marking each carriage with the number of officers, warrant officers and staff-sergeants, or sergeants and rank and file it was to hold. Having done this and carefully numbered each carriage from 1 at the front to 12 (the baggage van) at the end, he was horrified to observe that a shunting engine had detached the three leading carriages and was attaching them to the rear of the train. The guard and the engine driver, both stolid and unimaginative men, were not moved by the subaltern's appeals. There the three stood in debate while the unit turned the corner and marched resolutely along the dusty road towards the mutilated train. When the CO arrived he took in the situation at a glance, turned a frosty stare upon his unfortunate OC Train, and instructed him to get the men aboard.
And so the train moved off, with the men surging through the carriages searching for a vacant space in which to deposit their sea kits and other impedimenta. Glass tinkled musically as some soldier, manoeuvring for position, inadvertently thrust his rifle through a carriage window; sergeants cursed and the men replied suitably in inaudible undertones.
The train ran to the ship's side and the unit embarked immediately on the Dunera, a specially constructed troopship chartered by the British Government before the war to transport troops and their families to and from India and other page 15 eastern stations. She had cabin accommodation for officers, warrant officers and sergeants, but all other ranks were quartered on troop decks. Here the men were divided into messes, each of which, consisting of about eighteen men, was accommodated at a long wooden table. At night the men slept in hammocks slung above these tables. The hammocks were stowed away at reveille, Navy fashion, in lockers in the ship's hold.
Six ships were to carry the First Echelon to Egypt—the Orion, Rangitata, Sobieski, Empress of Canada, Strathaird, and Dunera. Except for the last, they offered the comforts and facilities to which peacetime tourists were accustomed. The Dunera lacked the spacious promenade and sun decks of the passenger liners, with the result that the space available on her for training and recreation was limited.
The Dunera sailed at 1.30 p.m. on 4 January, arrived at Lyttelton at daybreak next day, embarked 20 Battalion, 4 Field Ambulance, and 4 Field Hygiene Section from Burnham Mobilisation Camp in the afternoon, and sailed again at 4 p.m. to rendezvous with the remainder of the New Zealand convoy in Cook Strait. When the ship pulled away from the Lyttelton wharf, Captain Vincent hoisted to the foremast yard- arm a unit flag which had been presented to Divisional Signals by the Regimental Association of the Central District Signal Company. The flag was in the colours of the New Zealand Corps of Signals, with a figure of Mercury—the Corps' insignia throughout the British Empire and affectionately known to all signalmen as ‘Jimmy’—embroidered in the centre.
The Dunera was accompanied by HMS Leander, which had sailed with her from Wellington, and by the Sobieski, which had embarked 27 (Machine Gun). Battalion from Burnham Camp. The three ships joined the remainder of the convoy early next morning, and the six ships then steamed westward in formation, with the naval escort lying far ahead and out on the flanks.
The snow cap of Mount Egmont was still showing above the mist on the horizon at 6 p.m., and as dusk fell the escort vessels closed in on the transports and took up their stations along both sides of the convoy. When darkness came no lights page 16 showed anywhere, except for the occasional blinking of Aldis lamps on the bridge of the Commodore's ship, the Orion, and the answering signals of one of the other ships. To most of the men aboard the Dunera an ocean voyage in a large ship was a new experience, and here and there along the rails and in little groups about the darkened decks could be seen men in earnest discussion. Some stood silently, heads bent over the rail, listening to the soft swish-swish of the water along the ship's side and watching the faint fluorescence which glowed momentarily in the broken wave tops. Occasionally the serenity of the evening would be broken when the double curtains which formed the light traps screening the entrances to the ship's vestibules were thrust aside as someone stepped out onto the deck, and from within would come the sound of animated conversation and laughter.
On that first night at sea ship's routine orders carried a number of appointments and promotions. Major Allen was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and appointed to command 2 New Zealand Divisional Signals, and Captain Agar became a major with the appointment of second-in-command of the unit. Captain Vincent was appointed Adjutant 2 New Zealand Divisional Signals, his previous appointment having been Adjutant Divisional Signals, Special Force.1
At sea ‘Jock’ Vincent was in his second element. In his early youth he had served in sail, and his conversation had never quite lost the salty tang of the sea. He was probably the most colourful figure that served in Divisional Signals, and the men were inclined to show him more deference than they did more senior officers. He was a veteran of the First World War, during which he served in Egypt, France, and at Gallipoli in the signal platoon of 1 Battalion, Canterbury Regiment. At the battle of the Somme in 1916 he was awarded the MM, and at the third battle of Ypres in October 1917 he earned the simultaneous award of the DCM and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Jock's reticence about the double row of ribbons on his tunic was, like that of most soldiers, difficult to penetrate, but on rare occasions when the conversational bait was page 17 cunningly offered, his reserve would recede a little. On one such occasion, when a group of soldiers had just been ‘blown up’ by Jock for some minor defection, one of them skilfully steered the conversation round to the Ypres battle. From there it was an easy course to the Croix de Guerre, which Jock proudly stated had been presented to him by the Belgian Commander-in-Chief himself. When another soldier ventured a question about the DCM, however, Jock said abruptly, ‘Picked it up over a counter in London’, and walked off. In May 1918, after passing out from the Officer Cadet Training Unit at Cambridge, Vincent returned to France, but after a short period there was sent back to England to take up the appointment of OC Signal School at Sling Camp. When he returned to New Zealand at the end of the war he went back to civilian life, but joined the Army again in 1924 and served in the Regular Force until the outbreak of the Second World War.
As the ships crossed the Australian Bight the weather turned very cold. To add to the discomfort, the wind freshened appreciably and the motion of the ship began to make itself felt. One by one, and sometimes by twos or threes, the training groups began to diminish as men went below ‘to put their heads down’. The uneasy motion of the ship continued until the run across the Bight was completed, but when the convoy rounded Cape Leeuwin and turned north towards Fremantle, the sea lost its choppiness and attendances at training classes returned to normal. At this stage, however, the vaccination of all ranks was commenced, and the discomfort experienced by many was much more acute than that caused by seasickness a few days earlier.
Training programmes were now running smoothly, although they had to be curtailed to some extent to allow all units aboard a fair share of the limited deck space available. Shifts of operators were doing duty on the ship's bridge, where they received some useful practice in visual signalling in inter-convoy signals. The same limitations of space also restricted physical and recreational training, so that sports meetings were limited to tugs-of-war, medicine-ball games, and wrestling and boxing. Early in the voyage a series of preliminary boxing bouts was staged and some very satisfactory and enjoyable performances resulted.page 18
Early in the afternoon of 18 January the convoy arrived off Fremantle and approached the port in a long line, in which the Dunera was almost last. She remained in the stream and did not enter the port proper until next day. Next morning the ship's boats were lowered and numbers of the men rowed around the transports to exchange greetings with other troops. Only the Australian vernacular can do justice to some of the good-natured banter that greeted the visitors. By the time the excursionists had returned to the Dunera and the boats were hoisted in, some impatience was being displayed by most of those on board at the protracted delays in the pay and shore-leave arrangements. Shortly afterwards, however, the ship tied up at her berth, and after the long-awaited pay had been issued, parties started making their way ashore. In a remarkably short time the streets of Perth were being turned into a soldiers' playground, and after the visitors had ranged the city for a couple of hours, traffic control and other municipal arrangements were beginning to show signs of strain. Some of the business places suffered too, but the depredations were confined mostly to the acquisition of souvenirs, some of which —pot plants, cane chairs, and articles of household utility— disclosed an unusual taste. The citizens of Perth were extremely tolerant of all these happenings; indeed, some of them brought out their cars and took parties of the less exuberant for sight- seeing trips.
Shore leave expired at 12.30 a.m. on the 19th, and for half an hour after midnight parties of roysterers straggled across the wharf and onto the ship in noisy confusion. Most of the souvenirs had long since been cast by the wayside, but there were some notable exceptions. One of these was a magnificent stuffed kangaroo mounted on a handsome wooden stand. It had been removed bodily from a shop in Perth during the afternoon and was brought aboard and deposited on one of the mess decks, where it remained until the ship reached Suez. Acting under instructions from Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, the Adjutant and the RSM assembled the men as they came aboard at one side of a cleared space on one of the decks. Together with the CO, Adjutant, and RSM stood Sergeant Thomas,2 armed with a complete roll of the unit. When each page 19 man's name was called he was to step smartly across a clear space on the deck to the place allotted for the ‘sheep’. Captain Vincent, an old soldier, knew a thing or two about methods of ‘rigging’ roll-calls, so the procedure on this occasion was designed to be foolproof. As each man passed across the deck under the watchful eyes of the Adjutant and the RSM, the former would pass the word to Sergeant Thomas, who carefully ticked the man's name on the roll.
The CO silently watched the proceedings and gave no sign that his equanimity was disturbed in any way by the unusual garb and bearing of some of his men. One sat on the deck and played happily with a mechanical toy, while nearby another clutched his felt hat, through the crown of which the juice of mangled fruit dripped stickily onto the deck. All went well until the name of Signalman Keane3 was called. Keane, standing close beside the CO, drew himself up, threw out his chest with a deep breath, thrust his shoulders back and opened his mouth. An ear-splitting roar rent the air: ‘HERE, Sir!’ The CO, who had not seen Keane standing so close, jumped like a shot stag. The Adjutant stepped close to Keane and spoke some well-chosen and prophetic words.
The convoy sailed from Fremantle next afternoon and, as the ships swung into formation outside the port, police launches brought off those who had overstayed their leave. As these men climbed the rope ladders at the ship's side they received a tumultuous welcome from the soldiers lining the rails. Here and there among the latecomers could be seen some unconventional attire, consisting of curious combinations of Australian slouch hats and tunics and New Zealand serge trousers.
Next morning the unit orderly room was the scene of unusual bustle as delinquents were haled before the CO to answer for their misdemeanours of the previous day. Some had overstayed their leave, while others were charged with ‘not being in possession of their regimental necessaries, to wit, hats felt, badges hat, ditto collar, etc.’ One case concerned WO II ‘Sandy’ McNab,4 CSM of No. 1 Company, who had not page 20 answered his name at the memorable roll-call the previous night, and therefore was deemed to have been absent without leave. Actually Sandy, owing to a slight indisposition not connected in any way with the potency of Australian beer, had come aboard early in the afternoon and, at the time of the roll-call, was asleep in his cabin. When he was asked by the CO if he could call any witness to corroborate his statement, Sandy named Lance-Sergeant Harry Hodgson,5 who shared the cabin. After a swift search an orderly found Hodgson taking a short nap in his cabin. To put Harry in the picture the CO read the charge again and recounted McNab's statement. He looked up and said, ‘What have you to say concerning this charge, Sergeant Hodgson?’ Harry, having been roused suddenly from his sleep, was still a little confused and bewildered by the proceedings; he stood rigidly to attention, fixed his eyes on the wall about three feet immediately above the CO's head, and burst out, ‘Not guilty, Sir’. The CO contrived to smother his amusement at the unsolicited plea and explained the situation more clearly, whereupon Harry regained his composure and tendered the required testimony.
As the voyage continued north-westwards towards Colombo in fine weather and calm seas, the men began to find the daily routine irksome and monotonous. Training was being continued, but the programme was upset by the large number of men who were required for ship's duties and fatigues. For the purposes of administration, discipline and organisation, a ship's staff had been appointed for the voyage from the military personnel aboard. The OC Troops was Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger,6 CO 20 Battalion. There were also a ship's adjutant, a ship's quartermaster, a ship's baggage officer and other appointments, including a ship's RSM, who was WO I Stevenson, of Divisional Signals. Ship's standing orders were issued by OC Troops at the beginning of the voyage and page 21 covered daily routine, parades, bounds, special instructions for the safety of the ship, and other matters of organisation and discipline. Besides the duties of ship's guard, submarine lookouts, anti-aircraft LMG posts, lifeboat guards and ship's police, units aboard were required to supply orderlies and fatigues. As the Dunera was a trooper and therefore in a different class from the other ships in the convoy, more men were required for more duties than on those ships. For the voyage Divisional Signals was called upon to supply 102 permanent fatigues, including 30 mess orderlies, 13 men for the galley party, 10 for signal duties on the bridge, details for deck scrubbing, bakehouse, butcher's shop, canteen stores and armoury, and a number for cooks' assistants. In addition Divisional Signals was ‘unit for duty’ one week in every four. This involved the provision of 60 sentries, 28 deck scrubbers, four fatigues for the hammock room, and two for the sergeants' mess. This brought the number required for fatigues and duties to 196 out of the unit's total strength of 287.
With the exception of some diarrhoea and vomiting and the usual discomforts which accompany the initial vaccination for smallpox, the health of the troops on the Dunera was good throughout the voyage. The most common illnesses were tonsillitis, mild influenza, measles, and diarrhoea. The last was attributed by the medical officers on board to tainted butter and the excessive consumption of sweets from the ship's canteen. The tainted butter was a sore point with the troops, who had complained about it earlier in the voyage. Scant notice was taken of these complaints at first, but they persisted and finally it was found that they were justified. Inadequate cool-store accommodation on the ship was found to be the cause, and for the rest of the voyage New Zealand butter was issued to the messes.
In their leisure time the men found various occupations. There were books from the ship's library, card games, the popular Tombola—or housie, as it is universally known—and the surreptitious and pernicious Crown and Anchor schools. In spite of the threats published in ship's routine orders of severe penalties for the operators of this game, the schools persisted. A few boards were confiscated, but the operators page 22 turned to the device of chalking their ‘boards’ on the decks. On the approach of the ship's police these ‘boards’ were quickly rubbed out and the operators scuttled to safety.
As the convoy approached the tropics the weather became very hot and the conditions on the men's mess decks almost intolerably uncomfortable. Arrangements were made for the men to sleep on deck, and awnings were rigged for this purpose. The one bottle of beer which each man was entitled to each day was a pleasant solace in the comparative cool of the evening, but later in the voyage supplies of New Zealand beer were exhausted and a Scotch draught beer carried on the ship was issued at fourpence a pint. This beer was a poor substitute and was disliked by the men on account of its flatness and strong taste of vinegar.
At noon on 30 January the convoy arrived at Colombo, and advances in pay in Ceylon currency were made to all ranks in preparation for shore leave. As at Fremantle, there were irritating delays in getting the leave parties away, and it was not until 11 a.m. next day that the men got ashore. Leave expired at 4.30 p.m.
The convoy sailed at 11 a.m. on 1 February. A large number of cases in which men were charged with being absent without leave during the short stay at Colombo were dealt with on the basis of a punishment scale devised by OC Troops. As a result of their unofficial extension of leave many men of the unit sustained uncomfortable gaps in their paybook balances. Others went to swell the number of those available daily from the defaulters' parade for duties and fatigues. This number was now embarrassingly high and the ship's RSM was hard put to it to devise means of employment.
Escorted by the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle and three other ships, Ramillies, Sussex and Hobart, the convoy made its way in calm seas and fine weather across the Arabian Sea on the final leg of the journey to Egypt. Preparations for disembarkation commenced, and excitement began to run high. Late in the afternoon of 10 February the convoy increased speed and left the Dunera to proceed alone. With a speed of between nine and twelve knots, she was the slowest ship in the convoy, and her position far astern of the other ships as each day dawned page 23 had often been the subject of some derisive but good-natured comment from the Commodore's ship, the Orion.
The Dunera arrived at Port Tewfik on 12 February and berthed during the morning. The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Mr Anthony Eden, who had flown from England to welcome the New Zealand and Australian contingents, came aboard with Major-General Freyberg and addressed the troops. Disembarkation commenced at 5.30 next morning and the troops entrained immediately on the quay. The journey took them through Moascar to the outskirts of Cairo, where the train was diverted to a branch line running to a siding near Maadi village. The troops detrained at 1 p.m. and marched to the divisional area in the desert on the outskirts of Maadi.
Maadi Camp, as the troops saw it for the first time that day, was a comfortless sight. From the fringe of the Nile Delta it sprawled out into the desert for a distance of two miles, to melt into the edge of an arid and desolate wilderness which stretched eastwards towards the Gulf of Suez. The camp itself sat on top of a plateau overlooking the Delta, and in the middle rose a rocky knoll which was in later years to be known to the irreverent as ‘Bludgers’ Hill'. Owing to the late start that had been made on the construction of the camp, the hutting was not completed when the First Echelon arrived, but the work was being pushed ahead rapidly so that there would be only the minimum interference with the troops' comfort. More than 150 huts were to be built for cookhouses, messrooms, canteens, and shower houses, but not all of them had been completed and for the first few days the men had their meals in marquees. The troops slept in tents, one NCO and seven men in each. Each man was provided with a low plank bed, a bolster and a mattress, and after the hot meal which was served immediately the unit arrived in the area, the work of settling in began.
Later that afternoon Divisional Signals' members of the two advance parties which had left New Zealand in December returned to the unit. Since their arrival in Egypt on 9 January the advanced instruction party had been attached to 4 Indian page 24 Divisional Signals at Mena, a British camp near the Pyramids, some miles to the west of Cairo. Since 7 February they had been employed, together with some Royal Signals men, in erecting tents in the New Zealand Divisional Signals' area at Maadi. According to their account, which was later amply confirmed by the experiences of the newcomers, this work had been extremely arduous, each tent-peg hole having to be drilled with a pneumatic drill in the hard rock shelf which lay only a few inches beneath the sand.
It was the end of the Egyptian winter, but the days were pleasantly warm in this arid land. The early mornings and evenings, however, were very chilly, and the men spent that first night in fitful sleep. The sudden drop in temperature at nightfall was frequently the cause of chills, but the men soon learned to don heavier clothing when the sun went down. These chills were a common cause of a minor malady, known locally as ‘Gippy tummy’. In reality it was a mild form of dysentery. Rheumatic affections were fairly common in Egypt and there were odd cases of malaria. Typhoid, not uncommon amongst the natives, was relatively rare in European communities.
Between the months of March and May, but rarely at other times of the year, the prevailing north wind veers to the south-west, producing the hot, dust-laden khamsin, beside which the Canterbury nor'-wester is a mere zephyr. During the summer months, from May to October, the temperature is sub-tropical, and in April it can be very hot. Spells of great heat do not often last long, but a shade temperature of over 110 degrees is occasionally reached.
In a remarkably short time the men were settled into their new camp, and by the early morning of their second day in Maadi order was beginning to emerge from the apparent chaos and makeshift arrangements which had greeted their arrival. The CO, with his Adjutant and headquarters staff, and the Quartermaster and his myrmidons were ensconced in their offices and stores in two of the few completed huts, and there page 25 was much going to and fro between the company lines and unit headquarters.
During the afternoon of this second day in Egypt Divisional Signals began to operate the Divisional Headquarters telephone exchange and signal office. On the same day the unit took part in a parade which was addressed by the Assistant Provost Marshal of the Cairo Area, who spoke about the city and the pitfalls there which beset the unwary. It was a friendly talk in which official edicts concerning the standard of behaviour expected of troops on leave, the respect that was to be accorded the religious customs of the country, and other matters relating to correct soldierly deportment were expressed in a pleasant and tactful manner. He was a pleasant fellow and his eyes twinkled as he spoke discreetly of the frail sisters of the great city and the wiles with which they might seek to snare the newcomer in their raucous and tawdry haunts. The troops who listened attentively to the address, which concluded with a special warning about the sanctity of the Egyptian tarboosh and the prevalence of counterfeit money, were suitably impressed, and many of those who expected to go to Cairo on leave that evening already saw the pits of Hell yawning at their feet.
That day, also, the unit received thirty-six motor vehicles with which it was able to commence training immediately. These vehicles included six 15-cwt Morris wireless trucks and, to the elation of the despatch riders, twenty Norton motor-cycles. The sixteen despatch riders of D Section, who had had no training in their trade owing to the complete lack of cycles in New Zealand mobilisation camps, now commenced riding practice in the desert with great enthusiasm and zeal.
By 16 February the signals organisation was taking shape. Besides the Divisional Headquarters telephone exchange operating in the unit area, two satellite exchanges were now in use, one in 4 Brigade's area, towards the eastern end of the camp, and the other in 4 Field Regiment's area, on the flat below Divisional Headquarters. A despatch-rider letter service from the Divisional Headquarters signal office served Headquarters 4 Infantry Brigade and all units on four daily runs. A similar service to Headquarters British Troops in Egypt, in Cairo, was also inaugurated.page 26 page 27
Arrangements had been made for parties of officers, NCOs, and men from Divisional Signals to be attached to various British units and formations to receive some advanced training in the tactical handling of Signals in the field. The first party, consisting of Lieutenant McFarlane7 (OC C Section) and twenty-nine other ranks, marched out to Egypt Command Signals at Abbassia Barracks on 16 February. Four days later Second-Lieutenant England8 and five other ranks of 14 Light Aid Detachment, an Ordnance unit which had been attached to Divisional Signals very shortly after the First Echelon's arrival in Egypt, and which was to remain in close and happy association with Signals for the duration of the war, marched out to a British unit for a special course of instruction in the work of light aid detachments.
Until the end of the month small parties from Divisional Signals continued to move out on similar attachments, the two largest consisting of Captain Grant9 (OC No. 1 Company), Lieutenant Pryor10 (OC J Section), and twenty-two other ranks who went to 4 Indian Divisional Signals, and twenty-two other ranks under Lieutenant Dasler11 (OC B Section) and Lieutenant Fletcher12 (OC E Section) who were attached to a Royal Signals unit at Mersa Matruh in the Western page 28 Desert. The party under Captain Grant participated in a number of exercises carried out by 4 Indian Division and 7 Armoured Division, which were at this time the only complete divisions in Egypt. The experience gained by Divisional Signals personnel during these attachments and the contacts they made with their opposite numbers in Royal Signals units later proved of immense value to the New Zealanders.
At Mersa Matruh the other party, which included ten linemen from B and D Sections and a number of operators from E and J Sections, was attached to 22 Infantry Brigade, which comprised the Matruh garrison. The linemen were supposed to be undergoing a course of instruction on the mechanical cable-layer, but saw very little of this equipment as much of their time was spent in assisting Royal Signals in the repair and overhaul of the garrison's underground cable system. This consisted of 12-pair DCLC (dry core, lead covered) cable, which had been laid about 1936 but had never worked very satisfactorily. The 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment was among the units of the Matruh garrison, and the arrival of the New Zealanders immediately stimulated old Rugby rivalries, especially as the Welch battalion had in its ranks two or three international players. Captain Dasler managed to scratch up a team of sorts from his men and some New Zealand Divisional Engineers who were also at Matruh at the time. This team accepted the Welch challenge and was soundly beaten by thirty points to three.
Meanwhile, at Divisional Headquarters in Maadi Camp, the completed phases of the Division's work and its future tasks had been surveyed by the GOC at a training conference on 15 February. The preliminary training of the First Echelon and its concentration in Egypt having been completed, the second stage, the organisation and administration of the force on a tactical or war footing, was about to begin. The third stage was to consist of collective training in the form of exercises on a divisional scale. The policy of training was to be a short-term one, as the aim was for the force to be ready to take the field in two months; it was recognised that there was little use in embarking on a long-term policy of preparation which might have to be abandoned in the face of a sudden necessity.page 29
By this time most New Zealanders had made several visits to Cairo on leave and were becoming comfortably familiar with the streets, principal shops and cabarets. It was clear, too, that a considerable number of the more curious-minded had pushed their reconnaissances fairly deep into the less salubrious quarters of the city. Their experiences on these adventures, however, rarely emerged into the light of open discussion, but were reserved for the discreet confidences of their own particular cronies.
It had not taken the average New Zealander very long to size up the predatory instincts and technique of the wily Egyptian, and within a few weeks most soldiers were able to pit their cunning against that of the long-practised vendors of curios and other interesting commodities, without losing too many points. In the cabarets and dance halls, the New Zealand soldier appeared to have got the measure of bartenders and proprietors, and after the first verbal exchanges, which were conducted in a curious mixture of ungrammatical English and kitchen Arabic, containing some flowery passages in recriminatory profanity, the soldier continued to enjoy the liquor of his choice at a price which suited his modest income. To many officers it was one of the war's unexplained mysteries how a soldier could draw his twenty shillings every Friday and go off to town and lurch back into camp in the early hours of the morning with his skin full of grog and his pockets filled with several pounds' worth of curios and souvenirs.
They were happy warriors, these New Zealanders, and although many taxi and gharry drivers suffered rudely at their hands at times, there was a spirit of exuberant goodwill between them and the Egyptian city-dweller which continued without any really serious rupture throughout the war. Each called the other ‘George’—a sobriquet adopted by both parties—and each slapped the other's back while both roared with laughter at each other's sallies.
At the time of the First Echelon's arrival in Egypt five service canteens—known as Naafi (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes)—were established in Maadi Camp. Four of these were in permanent wooden buildings and the fifth was housed in a large marquee in Divisional Signals' lines, immediately opposite Divisional Headquarters' offices and buildings.page 30
They were built to a standard plan: large wooden buildings bordered by a wide verandah and roughly L-shaped in layout. Each Naafi was divided into three sections: a corporals' bar, a men's bar with a central canteen and kitchen where light meals could be bought, and, attached to the foot of the L, a smaller annexe which served as a writing and recreation room and library. Naafi was a service institution which worked in peacetime as well as in war and was really a club for the men run for the benefit of the three services. From the gross sales of the institutes a rebate of 6 per cent was paid to the regimental funds of units, but in practice it was found that the cost of breakages reduced this rebate.
Contracts were let in the camp for conservancy—the collection of waste and rubbish–and for laundry, boot repairing, tailoring and swill collection. Native contractors in evil-smelling and ramshackle trucks collected table and kitchen waste from bins placed outside messrooms and kitchens.
There was little to relieve the tedium, and as March came there appeared signs of restlessness and indiscipline among men whose interests and energies had been spent in the first flush of enthusiasm of the early days in this strange land. Training had settled down into a regular routine, and officers and NCOs were polishing company and section organisation in readiness for the expected divisional exercises. Perhaps some of these younger and less experienced officers were too strict, because much of the dissatisfaction of the men was traced to the relentless application of the disciplinary code. Another cause, although less important, was the irregularity of mail from New Zealand.
With April came the official summer season in Egypt, and the issue of shorts, shirts, and hose-tops to the men. The warmer weather brought with it the first khamsin, which caused a good deal of discomfort and some minor damage in the camp. With the heat, too, came the fly—the filthy, pertinacious Egyptian fly, beside which the New Zealand variety is a timid weakling.
Early in the month interest developed into speculation as rumours of the arrival of the Second Echelon began to circulate. Certain preparations for the move of the Division to Helwan Camp had not passed unnoticed.page 31
The first divisional exercise began in the El Saff area, south of Helwan, on 22 April and continued until the early morning of the 25th, Anzac Day. On the following day, which was a pay day, the troops were in a slightly elated mood, and there was a good deal of harmless horse-play in the camp. That evening the camp cinema, which was filled to capacity with men who had just returned from the rigours of the four-day exercise in the desert, came in for some rough treatment. Screenings at this cinema, which was owned and operated by a gentleman named Shafto—or ‘Shufti’ as the men called him—were seldom satisfactory owing to frequent breakdowns and long delays while the film was being mended. Often after such an interruption the screening would be resumed with a large piece of the reel cut out, with the result that the continuity of the story would be completely lost. Usually the audience would greet such treatment with nothing more harmful than loud booing and cat-calls, but on this particular evening the stoppages were much more frequent than usual and the gaps in the story more exasperating, with the result that the usual more or less good-natured raillery changed quickly into a concerted outcry for the repayment of the patrons' money. As the uproar increased the manager took fright and ran for refuge to the operating box, where he locked himself in. The angry troops surged around inside the crazy building, breaking up chairs and hurling some of them through the screen. Outside, a part of the crowd was wreaking its displeasure on the building itself. They strained mightily at the walls, and in a few minutes the building collapsed inwards like a house of cards. It was a tumultuous affair, in which it is feared that many Divisional Signals men lent their willing support.
After three months of the heat and tedium of camp life, the troops listened again to the persistent voice of rumour. The tension between Italy and the Allies seemed to be working up to a climax, and when the news was received early in May that Britain was diverting her shipping to the Middle East by the Cape route to avoid the passage of the Mediterranean, it seemed that the possibility of action was drawing near. Many British units were moving to stations in the Western Desert, and speculation was rife as to the possible movements page 32 of the New Zealand Division in the very near future. In Egypt the news at this time was scanty and confused, and there were conflicting reports of the battles being fought in France. Rumours were current that the New Zealand Division was to be sent there, and when at the end of May news was received that the Second Echelon had been diverted to England, speculation and conjecture flourished with renewed vigour.
Early in the year, on 12 January, the main draft of men for the Second Echelon had moved into the various mobilisation camps in New Zealand, Divisional Signals being drafted to Trentham. The signals component of the contingent, consisting of four officers and 108 other ranks, made up the establishments of one infantry brigade signal section, one field regiment signal section, and a number of linemen to augment the cable section then with the First Echelon in Egypt; it included also the number required to form H Section, which would provide communications in the field for 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, part of which was being recruited from New Zealanders resident in the United Kingdom. Three of the officers, Lieutenants Robins,13 Frame14 and Paterson,15 had been called up during the previous November, but the senior signals officer of the contingent, Lieutenant Fry,16 did not enter camp until the end of January.
Revised training syllabuses, based on the training programmes laid down for the militia in the United Kingdom, replaced those issued in 1939 for the First Echelon. As it was expected that the time available for training in New Zealand would not be likely to exceed eight weeks, the new programmes were so designed that specialists arms would receive a good grounding in their work so that they might take advantage of more advanced training at an overseas base. In Signals a satisfactory standard of individual training was quickly attained. page 33 Although the only wireless equipment available was some No. 1 wireless sets and two No. 9 sets, operators were given some very valuable training organised on an intelligent basis. Despatch riders received very useful instruction, which was to stand them in good stead in England towards the end of the year. Throughout the training period evening classes in a variety of subjects were held, but these, especially the Morse operating classes, were not received at all favourably by the men.
All ranks were despatched on final leave on 14 March. When they returned to camp at the end of the month, however, it was learned that the Second Echelon would not embark for at least another month, and plans were made for more advanced training to be carried out. This took the form of brigade signals exercises. Headquarters of units and formations were represented by wireless and line terminals, and much good work was done by the linemen with the aid of an improvised cable wagon. Fifth Brigade staff took a keen interest in these out-of-camp training schemes, most of which were carried out in the Tauherenikau area, and Brigadier Hargest17 made frequent visits to the various sections during the exercises.
On 27 April the Second Echelon marched through the streets of Wellington and was given a civic farewell at Parliament Buildings. Relatives and friends were admitted to the camp on the 27th and 28th, and the troops embarked on 1 May. The convoy sailed next day, but even at this late date its destination was still in some doubt.
Towards the end of April the Admiralty had mentioned the possibility of diverting the convoy to the United Kingdom via the Cape of Good Hope because of the uncertainty of Italy's intentions. During May, while the convoy was on its way, its destination was the subject of a long exchange of cables between the United Kingdom and New Zealand Governments, and it was decided that the uncertainty of developments in the Mediterranean made it undesirable for the convoy to pass through the Red Sea. Finally the New Zealand Government agreed that the Second Echelon should, if the circumstances required, be diverted to the United Kingdom.page 34
During the voyage the usual difficulties of shipboard training were encountered, although Signals on the Empress of Britain was not hindered by the same space limitations that had so hampered the training of the First Echelon signals on the Dunera. On the Empress the ship's tennis court, allotted to Signals, provided sufficient space for a company parade. Rifles were on issue to most of the other ranks, but other training equipment, which consisted mostly of telephones D Mark III and some cable, was hopelessly inadequate. On the ship's bridge Signals obtained a good deal of useful training in the exchange of inter-convoy messages by Aldis lamp. On two occasions during the voyage TEWTs (tactical exercises without troops) were organised by the brigade staff, and these provided additional training for Signals. Cable was run between all exercise headquarters on the ship and much written signal traffic was handled by the operators on the telephones.
On 10 May the convoy reached Fremantle, where the troops were given shore leave. Perth resounded again to the glad cries of visiting New Zealanders, ably assisted in their revels by a large number of young Australian soldiers bent on making the occasion a celebration. The citizens showed their hospitality to the visitors in traditional Australian style but were a little too lavish with their liquor. The convoy sailed again on 12 May and within a few hours normal shipboard routine was resumed. Two delinquents from Signals failed to rejoin the ship at Fremantle, but they turned up in England a few weeks later.
Except for minor complaints such as colds, sore throats, and some other slight ailments, the health of the troops during the voyage was good. Messing arrangements were very satisfactory —indeed it would have been surprising had they not been, as the men were waited on by the ship's regular staff of stewards.
In the late evening of 15 May, at a point south-west of Cocos Island, the convoy suddenly changed course and steamed westwards. This did not pass unnoticed, and there was a good deal of excited discussion and speculation. The voyage continued towards Cape Town, and now the cooler temperatures allowed the men to infuse a little more energy into recreational page 35 pastimes, which included boxing and wrestling contests, tugs-of-war, and other deck games. On 25 May, as the convoy approached the South African coast after having made a wide sweep to the south to avoid minefields reported to be off Cape Aquelhas, news was received that one of the ships, the Empress of Japan, could not proceed beyond Cape Town owing to the refusal of her Chinese crew to venture into the Atlantic. The troops which she was carrying were to be redistributed between the Empress of Britain and the Andes, and by the time the convoy reached Cape Town on the morning of 26 May most of the transhipment arrangements were complete. The transhipment took place on the 30th while the convoy was at Cape Town. Much readjustment of accommodation on the Empress of Britain was necessary as a result, but most of the extra space required was found by using the lounge and enclosed promenade deck.
During the five days the convoy lay at Cape Town the troops were granted frequent shore leave and, as at Fremantle, were given a warm and hospitable welcome. The convoy left Cape Town on the morning of 31 May and headed north into the South Atlantic. Freetown was reached on 7 June, but troops were not given shore leave there and the convoy continued its voyage the following day. On 14 June it was met by HMS Hood, the aircraft carrier Argus, and six destroyers. Early next day the ships passed a large quantity of wreckage, and at midday the bow of a large tanker blazing like a huge torch was sighted. During the afternoon there were three submarine alarms but no attacks developed. Land came into view on the morning of the 16th, and at two o'clock that afternoon the convoy anchored in the Firth of Clyde off Greenock, after a voyage of forty-six days in which 17,000 miles had been covered.
Disembarkation began on the 17th, but Signals did not go ashore until two days later, when they entrained for a destination in the Aldershot Command. They arrived at Mytchett Place on the 20th and marched to their camp. The area allotted the unit was timbered grassland where tents had already been erected under the trees, and as the men marched silently to their new camp they marvelled at the cheerfulness in those dark days of the civilians who had gathered to welcome them.page 36
Assisted by a British unit, the New Zealanders were soon comfortably settled in the camp and began to take stock of their new surroundings. It was beautiful summer weather, and the trees provided a pleasant shade from the heat of the day. Near at hand Mytchett Lake provided a popular swimming place.
A few nights after the Second Echelon's arrival an air raid alarm caused a mild stir. Men awoke from a sound sleep to the wailing of sirens, and some of them, clad only in steel helmets and shirt tails, rushed around in the darkness, colliding violently with tree trunks and searching vainly for the slit trenches on which they had expended so much energy during the day.
Signals was kept together in 5 Brigade Headquarters' area as a Divisional Signals pool, and no attempt was made to farm sections out to their respective units and formations. The unit was required to provide men to operate the telephone exchange installed at 2 NZEF (UK) Base Camp at Mytchett, while the remainder were organised into skeleton Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Companies to provide signal communications for a divisional headquarters, a brigade headquarters, a field regiment, and an anti-tank regiment.
At this time no signal equipment had arrived for training, so towards the end of June all hands went off to London on forty-eight hours' leave to see the sights. Even Signalman Theyers18 went because there was no one left in the camp to cross his Crown and Anchor board with silver. On this first London visit the lads stepped out very bravely with their tunics freshly brushed and brass buttons glittering in the sunlight. All arrived back at Mytchett safely, although some who had made a lightning tour of London's hostelries in order ‘to view the relics’ were a little the worse for wear.
Soon after the unit's arrival in the area the CSO Aldershot Command, Colonel Neale, of Royal Signals, paid a visit and arranged for the loan of some training equipment, including Fullerphones Mark IV, telephones D Mark V, and some cable and tools, which enabled preliminary training to begin. Later a Royal Signals liaison officer was attached to pass on the page 37 latest information about training and equipment. Towards the end of June signal equipment began to arrive in greater quantities, and the first battle dress to be worn by the Second Echelon made its appearance.
The work of getting the sets and other instruments into operating order was begun immediately, and for a few days the unit's few instrument mechanics and electricians were very busy. To add to their worries, instruments began to return from the training squads for adjustments as a result of the rough handling by heavy-handed operators. On numbers of D Mark V buzzer units the perspiring electricians found the contact screws turned down so tightly that they could not be loosened except with pliers. Finally, in desperation over the appalling rate of destruction of such delicate instrument components, Lieutenant Fry threatened that any soldier below the rank of sergeant who had the temerity to touch a buzzer unit would be placed in irons. As a result of this surprising departure from Fry's usual patience and tact, the men began to exercise a little more care with the equipment, and the destruction rate fell sharply.
On 6 July King George VI visited Mytchett and inspected units of the contingent. The royal party arrived in Signals' area about 3.30 p.m. and, as His Majesty had previously requested that no parade should be called for the occasion, training squads were quickly arranged in preparation for the informal inspection.
Later in the month 2 NZEF (UK) was absorbed into 7 Canadian Corps, which was formed on 16 July, and shortly afterwards Divisional Signals was visited by Colonel Genet, Chief Signal Officer of the Canadian Corps, who arranged to lend the unit three Canadian Signals NCO instructors for a short period.
About this time a mild flutter occurred between certain staff officers and Signals over delays in completing priority telephone calls. There were few experienced operators in the unit, but those who took their turn on duty at the exchange strove manfully with the huge volume of traffic that the signal system was carrying. This matter of priority calls began to assume the proportions of a major dispute, and when some of page 38 the operators were threatened with disciplinary action because of their failure to complete immediately certain priority calls that were known to be merely private calls, Lieutenant Fry thought that authority should be asked to define just what constituted a priority call, and who should or should not have authority to originate such calls. The result of this was that Headquarters 2 NZEF (UK) reduced arbitrarily both the number of private calls and the number of officers authorised to make priority calls. This kind of dispute was by no means confined to the Second Echelon in England. From time to time the same sort of trouble occurred in Maadi Camp, where abuses of telephone privileges by impetuous young officers occasionally incurred the displeasure of authority.
Air raids were now becoming more frequent, and almost every evening the sound of sirens and the droning of enemy planes were heard. The enemy's objective in this area was the important RAF experimental station nearby at Farnborough, and the odd sticks of bombs that fell occasionally in and around the camp caused some interruption to the men's rest at night.
The amount of signal traffic being handled was increasing rapidly, and in addition a vast amount of administrative traffic was beginning to flow out from Headquarters Southern Command at Aldershot, about one and a half miles from Mytchett. Most of this traffic was being handled by despatch-rider letter service, and the despatch riders, who had a particularly difficult task at first trying to find their way in the immense network of roads, from which all signposts had long since been removed for security reasons, soon began to burn up the miles within the command and between Mytchett and London. At night there were many dangers from unlighted traffic and the ingenious road-blocks with which enthusiastic local Home Guard units bestrewed the countryside.
An operation instruction issued by 2 NZEF (UK) on 9 August set out the arrangements that were to be made in the event of a move. At that time the force was at eight hours' notice to move; on receipt of a warning order all men on leave were to be recalled. Except when absent on duty, all troops were confined to their camps and all base kits and surplus equipment were returned to store. A divisional exercise to test the efficiency page 39 of these arrangements was carried out from 27 to 29 August.
The 2nd NZEF (UK), now in an operational role, left the Aldershot Command on 5 September for Kent, where it occupied positions covering the Folkestone-Dover area. This was the month when the German Air Force commenced its mass raids on the south of England in an endeavour to open the way for an airborne and seaborne invasion attempt. The War Office now decided that the strength of Divisional Signals 2 NZEF (UK) should be increased by posting to the unit Royal Signals men from British units. In addition to the 15 Royal Signals despatch riders already attached, there were to be 2 officers, 40 operators, 18 linemen, 5 fitters, 5 instrument mechanics, and about 20 drivers. Additional equipment to be supplied included cable stores for a B Section detachment, two No. 9 wireless sets and six No. 11 sets. Other equipment enabled an infantry brigade signal section to be almost completely equipped, while D and M Sections received approximately half of their normal war equipment scale. Additional transport was also supplied, and the unit now found itself with eleven 8-cwt wireless trucks, seven 30-cwt trucks, three 15-cwt trucks, one 3-ton lorry, and an additional twenty-four motor-cycles.
On 9 September Major P. G. Goodeve-Docker, Royal Signals, from 2 London Division Signals, assumed command of 2 New Zealand Divisional Signals (UK), and Lieutenant Fry became Adjutant. The following day Captain D. Mansel, Royal Signals, was attached to the unit from 12 Corps, to which the Second Echelon had now passed. A teleprinter and No. 9 wireless set terminals, together with men of Royal Signals to operate them, were provided at the New Zealand Divisional Headquarters by 12 Corps Signals. The arrival of additional men, transport, and equipment created some difficult administrative problems, but in a remarkably short time the company and section organisations began to assume the appearance of a conventional signals establishment.
Divisional exercises, with the signal sections providing the normal communications within units and formations, were continued into October. At first a number of weaknesses in intercommunication were disclosed, but as the training progressed page 40 it became very noticeable how the brigade commanders' control of battle exercises was improved by the use of radio telephony. The experience gained by the various signal sections in these exercises was very valuable and realistic. One particular incident that occurred in 5 Brigade towards the end of October served to bring home to the staff and Signals alike one very important lesson in the employment of wireless. Very early in the morning of 25 October a message received at Headquarters 5 Brigade from Divisional Headquarters ordered a stand-to, which was to commence at 3 a.m. The message also asked that a reply be sent as soon as the brigade was ready to move. Later another message stated that the stand-to order was only a practice exercise to test the brigade's state of readiness for a sudden move. The principal weakness disclosed was the failure of one unit to open its WT set immediately it received the warning order.
This failure to open wireless communications in similar circumstances was a lesson that had to be learned and relearned again and again in Divisional Signals, not only in the Second Echelon, but later in the unit as a whole when the three echelons had been concentrated for some time in the Middle East. Indeed, it was not until late in 1941 in Libya that the ‘drill’ of automatically opening wireless terminals immediately upon the failure of normal line communications, or in other circumstances likely to require the instant use of all forms of communications, became one of the most important principles of signal communications in the field.
By the beginning of November the Battle of Britain was drawing to a close with the ignominious defeat of the German Air Force, and the possibility of invasion had receded. It had originally been intended that the Second Echelon should have been relieved of its operational role during September, and arrangements were then in hand for its departure for the Middle East. These arrangements were cancelled early in September and, although the postponement was not intended to delay the echelon's departure beyond the end of October, it was not until November that the New Zealanders returned to the Aldershot area.
Major Goodeve-Docker relinquished command of Signals on page 41 13 November, and was succeeded by Captain Mansel, who in turn was succeeded by Captain MacSweeney, also of the Royal Signals, on 9 December. The unit was inspected by the Princess Royal, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Signals, on 26 November. This was no cursory appraisal but a searching and critical inspection, such as any zealous commanding officer might envy for its thoroughness. During the inspection Her Royal Highness detected an unfastened pocket button on the battle-dress blouse of one soldier. Flicking the unfastened pocket flap with her finger she turned a cold and inquiring stare upon the section officer accompanying her. Fortunately the soldier had the wit to step back smartly, restore his dress and then regain his place.
By this time all sections were occupied in the bustle of preparation for the long-awaited voyage to the Middle East. The first of the unit to move was the transport of H Section, which left for the embarkation port early in December. The suddenness of the movement order caught H Section with its embarkation arrangements incomplete, and technical stores and equipment had to be hurriedly dismantled and packed. Wireless sets were left in their rigid mountings in trucks in accordance with the CSO's instructions, but the commanding officer of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, during his inspection of all vehicles before embarkation, insisted that they should be removed from the trucks and shipped separately. The protests of Lieutenant Paterson, OC H Section, were unavailing, and a last-minute rush to dismantle the sets ensued before the trucks were sent off.
The section vehicles, together with those of the regiment, reached Glasgow after a four-day journey. The drivers had one night and a day to see something of Glasgow before they embarked on the Rangitiki on 13 December. The convoy was attacked by the German raider Admiral Scheer on Christmas morning, but the ships dispersed and left the naval escort to deal with the intruder. There was no other unusual event during the voyage to Suez, which was reached on 16 February 1941 after a long run around the Cape. The remainder of H Section and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment sailed from Avonmouth, near Bristol, on 17 December, and F Section with 5 Field Regiment from Liverpool the following day. K Section, with page 42 Headquarters 5 Brigade, embarked on the Duchess of Bedford at Newport in Wales on 3 January and sailed on the 7th for Belfast, where the convoy lay at an anchorage off Bangor in Belfast Lough until the 12th. Early that morning the convoy left Belfast on the long voyage to Suez.
Back Row: D. C. Mundy, J. C. Clark, J. A. Hannigan, R. W. Minett,
K. J. Hayes, K. E. Gallagher, F. W. Sell, E. R. McPherson
Front Row: F. L. Oakley, A. Heseltine, F. L. W. Stubbs
A flood outside the orderly room at Burbeita
Technical maintenance work at Katerini. E. B. Ross, W. McKay, J. M. Lowe and R. C. Ashby
North-east of Mount Olympus
1 These promotions and appointments dated from 14 Dec 1939, when 2 NZEF was placed on active service.
6 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916-17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; commanded 10 Inf Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943 and 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
7 Capt D. M. McFarlane; Hamilton; born Invercargill, 2 Dec 1914; P and T engineer; OC C Sec Sigs Jan-Jun 1940, Nov 1940-May 1941; Tech Maint Officer Western Desert Force Signals Jun-Nov 1940; OC K Sec May-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941.
9 Col R. L. C. Grant, OBE, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Leeston, 25 May 1906; telegraph engineer; OC 1 Coy Div Sigs 1940-41, 1943; HQ Coy 1942; 2 i/c Corps Sigs WDF Aug-Sep 1940; CO Creforce Sigs May 1941; comd Sig School Base Dec 1941-Apr 1942, Apr-May 1943; CO Div Sigs 21 Sep-26 Nov 1942, 4 Jun-29 Dec 1943, 27 Mar-28 May 1944, 28 Jun 1944-17 Jan 1945; OC NZ Corps of Sigs 4 Jun-29 Dec 1943, 19 Mar 1944-17 Jan 1945; CSO NZ Corps 19-27 Mar 1944; served in United Nations Military Observer Group, Pakistan.
10 Col C. G. Pryor, OBE, m.i.d.; Whangarei; born Beckenham, England, 2 Aug 1907; telegraph engineer; OC J Sec Sigs 1940-41; HQ, 1, 2 and 3 Companies 1941-43; CO Div Sigs 29 Dec 1943-27 Mar 1944; OC NZ Corps of Sigs 29 Dec 1943-19 Mar 1944; CSO NZ Corps 9 Feb-19 Mar 1944.
17 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament 1931-44; Otago Mounted Rifles 1914-20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); commanded 5 Bde May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.