18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 3 — Maadi Camp
Eighteenth Battalion had little time at Tewfik to stand and speculate. There was time to take in the hordes of loafers who swarmed round with demands for ‘baksheesh’ and fought over a coin or a cigarette thrown in their direction, and to shudder at the dirt and the sores which were evidently quite commonplace sights. Then on to the train and away, through the town and its palm trees, out into the desert.
The Egyptian State Railways’ third-class carriages are very far from models of comfort, with wooden seats set close together, and no conveniences at all. But the first of these can be got over by sitting on your pack, and as for the second, well, what are the open platforms at the end of the carriages for? Especially when travelling over an unpeopled waste, with nobody in sight.
The rail trip between Suez and Cairo is not attractive, but it is typical Egypt, ‘miles and miles of…all’, in military language. Every now and again there is a station, planted in mid-desert with no visible means of support, inhabited mainly by children in galabiehs or dirty British Army shirts, who flock round the trains with the inevitable cries for ‘baksheesh’. That is what the battalion saw during its first three hours in Egypt. Then signs of civilisation began, and suddenly the troops were in Cairo, among wealthy homes and well-kept gardens in violent contrast to the squalor elsewhere. Then past the enormous army depot at Abbassia; the Citadel looming up on the hill to the left; the eerie ‘Dead City’ with its jumble of roofless, decaying hovels; then the train stopped, and out piled the men.
The spot where I8 Battalion found itself was literally on the edge of the desert. On one side of the railway were trees, green and cool; on the other side was hard, glaring desert. Towards the desert the battalion now marched, led by the pipe band of the Highland Light Infantry. This band had been waiting for page 29 the battalion at the stopping place, and it came as a pleasant surprise to find it there, like meeting a friend in a strange land. The march to camp was almost exhilarating after the monotony of the train, even though the road was covered with coarse metal and the men were laden with all their gear. Up a gentle slope and out into the desert a couple of miles; then before them lay Maadi Camp, journey's end, and a reunion with the advance party.
This advance party of 110 New Zealanders, including two officers and six others from I8 Battalion, had left New Zealand at short notice on 11 December. Its destination had been a dark secret; the rest of the battalion knew it had gone, but only Rumour could say where. Anyway, here it was. It had arrived in Egypt, via Australia, on 8 January, and half its number had at once been sent off on courses of various kinds, while the rest had been taken to this desert waste outside Maadi and told to prepare a camp. Not on their own, of course. An Indian sapper unit helped to lay a water-pipe system to the camp site, and permanent orderly rooms, offices, cookhouses, shower rooms, wash benches and latrines were built by a horde of Egyptian labourers. A few days before the main body arrived, detachments from British regiments put up tents and mess marquees for them—for 18 Battalion the job was done by men from the Highland Light Infantry.
Later reinforcement drafts would have found it difficult to recognise the Maadi into which the battalion marched. The camp occupied only a corner of the huge area over which it later spread. The tents were in tight rows, neatly laid out, with the officers' lines at the end and company orderly rooms at the side. The water system didn't function for some days after the New Zealanders arrived—at first it had to be brought in water carts. Eighteenth Battalion had a half-finished NAAFI canteen which was completed about a fortnight later; it included a wet canteen. There was no lack of accommodation—six to a tent, which is quite comfortable. Low plank beds a few inches off the floor helped to keep the sand out of the blankets. There were kerosene lanterns in the tents.
The camp was situated on gently undulating sand slopes, with here and there a steep rocky outcrop. It wasn't very high up, but from it you could see a long way—to the east the desert page 30 stretching away for miles up Wadi Digla, with unlimited room for route marches and manoeuvres; to the north the long ridge of the Mokattam Hills, with the Cairo citadel visible at the left-hand end, and below it, unseen, the teeming streets of Cairo; to the west the trees of Maadi village sloping down to the Nile, and beyond it more sand, with the Pyramids of Gizeh dim on the skyline. For over six months, and again for long periods later, this was to be 18 Battalion's home.
It was lucky that the battalion arrived in Egypt in February, not July or August. The winter days were warm, nearly as warm as an Auckland summer, but it was not an enervating heat. Early morning and evening were delightfully cool, and the nights unexpectedly cold, so that you were glad to pile all your blankets on to your bed, and your greatcoat on top. Every now and again, for variety, there was a decidedly cold day.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray didn't allow his battalion much time to get bored. Two days after its arrival it went on an all-day route march to the Citadel and on into Cairo, headed by the band. This was a combination of business and pleasure, for on reaching the centre of Cairo the men were released for a while to give it a swift inspection before marching back to Maadi. It was on this occasion that Colonel Gray, at the last halt before entering camp, put across his famous ‘This time you have done well—next time you will do better’, a phrase which became a sort of byword in the battalion. It was no idle threat, either. They did much better later on.
This private entry into Cairo caused a furore, for it was quite illegal. Armed troops are not supposed to march through capital cities without permission. However, official action was limited to explanations and apologies, but the strict warning went out that it must not happen again.
On 19 February training began in earnest. For the first fortnight much of it was repetition of the first steps in weapon training, bayonet fighting, signals, section tactics, parade-ground drill. There were sports, including rugby, once a week, all-day route marches on Fridays. Of more interest were the lessons on the new Bren light machine gun that was to replace the clumsy old Lewis, on the 2-inch mortar, and on the anti-tank rifle (later to attain dizzy heights of unpopularity). The page 31 battalion had been in Egypt only a few days when it received about half its establishment of these new weapons, and immediately set out to learn all about them in as short a time as possible. After about three weeks, too, it thankfully exchanged its antiquated web equipment for a new pattern with large pouches, made especially to carry Bren magazines, but just as good for a packet of biscuits or a cake of chocolate.
Considering the warmth of the days, working hours were long. Reveille at six o'clock, and training from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., with compass marches for officers and NCOs on two nights a week, and night manoeuvres for everyone on two more. In the third week the battalion was out in Wadi Digla for whole days and evenings, digging and wiring. In the fourth the companies went off one by one to the camp ranges with rifles and Bren guns, and the fifth was devoted mainly to platoon and company manoeuvres. At least, they were called manoeuvres, but they were actually glorified route marches. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray was pushing his battalion hard, and the emphasis was always on route-marching—longer, harder route-marching.
During the first month in Maadi a number of the battalion, both officers and men, went off on courses. Courses on the Bren gun, the anti-tank rifle, the 2-inch mortar, the Bren carrier; signal, tactical, cooking and drill courses. They came back from these with new knowledge and ideas, which they proceeded to put into practice and pass on to the rest. There was a lot to learn, and a lot of new weapons and ways in which the battalion had to become proficient before it could regard itself as a fighting unit. Its friends of the Highland Light Infantry helped, too. On 11 March a platoon of them came to live with the battalion for three weeks, to pass on their desert experience and give demonstrations in tactics, use of weapons, loading of trucks, and so on. You couldn't help admiring their drill and weapon handling, even though their tactics smelt of the drill book a little.
When 18 Battalion arrived in Maadi, of course, it had no transport save its own feet. There were numerous vehicles on its war establishment but their issue was not complete until many months later. Soon after its arrival it received about eight light trucks, a few motor-bikes and a water cart. After that the trucks kept trickling in, a few at a time, until by page 32 June the battalion had about nine-tenths of what it was supposed to have. Its fighting vehicles, the Bren carriers, came in still more slowly—three in March, no more for some months. Signal equipment was also very short, only a few telephones. It was early June before more arrived. After that the battalion had its full quota of telephones and exchanges, but suffered from a chronic shortage of telephone cable until the end of the year.
But this is looking too far ahead. In March 18 Battalion was still making do with very little, and learning as well as it could with what it had.
It had its share of ceremonial parades, too, along with the other New Zealand units. Within a month of its arrival the big parade ground beside its lines saw inspections by General Wavell (commander of the Middle East Forces), General Wilson (commander of British troops in Egypt), and the British Ambassador to Egypt. What these distinguished men thought of 18 Battalion we do not know. Towards them the battalion adopted what its members were already beginning to call a ‘maleesh’ attitude, plus a slight grievance at having to sweat out its Saturday mornings on the parade ground. For these parades the bands of 18 and 20 Battalions combined, the two of them together making up one good-sized band.
Life wasn't all work, though. There was plenty of leave into Cairo—from early March the official allowance was 50 per cent on week nights (if there was no night training) and 80 per cent on Saturday afternoons and Sundays after church parade. This meant in effect that everyone could have leave as often as he could afford it. A fast diesel train service ran from Maadi village to Bab-el-Louk station in the heart of Cairo. At first there was a three-mile walk from camp to Maadi station, but soon the units were given permission to run a truck service, and from early April the Maadi bus service began. This soon became a byword in camp. The buses were old rattletraps, held together apparently by prayer and string, which took you to and from the station for a piastre. Their load capacity was never accurately determined, as they could always cram one more on somewhere, even if it was on a front mudguard.
There was plenty to do in Cairo. You could explore the page 33 shops for presents to send home, or argue for bargains in the Mousky bazaar; the Egyptian money was easy to get the hang of, and you soon stopped thinking of the piastre (‘acker’) as twopence halfpenny and began to think in terms of the ackers themselves—a hundred of them to one Egyptian pound, which was a week's pay. You could relax at one of the British servicemen's clubs, or you could ‘do’ the bars and cabarets if you didn't mind risking a fight, an invasion by the provosts, or a sore head next morning. Less respectable still, you could head for the Wagh el Birket, where every imaginable vice was on display at varying prices.
The day after the New Zealanders' arrival at Maadi the Assistant Provost Marshal of Cairo gave them a talk on the city, with emphasis on the things not to do, and everybody was given a street map which looked like a sea of red with a small white island in the middle. The white was the ‘in bounds’ area, the red ‘out-of-bounds’, where it was regarded as unsafe to go. These out-of-bounds areas, despite the warning of disease, danger and drastic punishment, always had an irresistible fascination for some men.
The battalion's behaviour in Cairo was no better or worse than that of any other troops away from their own country. Every week brought its quota of men on the mat for drunkenness and other misdemeanours, most of them petty. On 9 March two privates earned the dubious distinction of being the first from the unit to go to the British detention barracks at the Citadel. It would be wrong, however, to think that the whole battalion proceeded to get drunk and take Cairo apart. As always, the majority behaved well, and managed to enjoy themselves every bit as much as the others.
Nearer home, that wonderful institution, the Maadi Tent, down on the outskirts of Maadi village, was opened on 24 February. You didn't need leave to go there, and you could get a snack or a cup of tea or a cold drink, or listen to a concert or just relax in a comfortable chair. The Maadi tennis and golf clubs were made available to the New Zealanders, too, and many of the British residents of Cairo and Maadi opened their doors to them.
If you didn't want to go even as far as Maadi village, there was always Shafto's picture theatre. This stark building in the page 34 centre of the camp, thrown together out of wood and sacking, was Maadi's best-known landmark. For three ackers you could get a seat on a hard wooden bench, and all the fun of the fair thrown in, reels screened out of order, breakdowns of the projector, audible comments from the audience, sound that vibrated round the theatre so much as to be often unintelligible. There was no doubt that you got your money's worth at ‘Shufti's’. Every now and then something really exciting would happen, like the April night when the whole front wall blew down, screen and all, in mid-performance. Or the celebrated occasion a week or so later when the audience, irritated by the evening's delays and breakdowns, got out of hand and wrecked the theatre.
The battalion's own social centre was the NAAFI canteen. You could go there in the evening for a game of ‘housie’, cards, or just for a ‘natter’ over a bottle of Stella beer, a plate of eggs and chips, pies or doughnuts. It was a noisy, friendly, smoky place, and although the building looked as if a good push would flatten it, it stood up to a lot of hard wear.
The meals in Maadi, after a shaky start, were plentiful, and surprisingly good. The cooking was still done centrally for the whole battalion, but there was little complaining. The men ate in big marquees at first; wooden mess huts (flimsy-looking edifices like the NAAFI) were built during the first two months, and came into use at the end of April.
In those days everybody was perpetually hard up. The pay wasn't much when there were all the delights of Cairo to spend it on. To relieve the position, there was a free issue of fifty cigarettes weekly, with chocolate for the non-smokers. Washing was collected and done free by a native contractor, if you didn't mind taking pot luck on getting your own clothes back.
Taken all round, 18 Battalion was comfortable enough. The main shortage was mail from home. The speedy airgraphs and air letter-cards that came in later had not yet been thought of. In 1940 mail came in once or twice a month on the average, and mail day was a special occasion.
During the early weeks the battalion was plagued by three things in particular—flies, a diarrhoea epidemic, and George Wog. In an attempt to deal with the first two, a great cleanliness campaign was organised, not only in 18 Battalion but page 35 right through Maadi Camp. Garbage cans and latrines were subjected to a new, stringent code of sanitation. Not only was the camp purified, but the desert all round was combed, and traces of the Egyptians' promiscuous presence removed.
The Egyptians themselves were not so easily removed. Hawkers of oranges and other delicacies were a curse to Maadi until banished, and after that they sat out in the desert just beyond the camp limits, or infiltrated inside if they could. News vendors bawling the virtues of the Egyptian Mail and Egyptian Gazette or proclaiming the loathsome diseases allegedly suffered by Hitler still roamed through the camp. The Egyptians' skill in quiet thievery was recognised early in March by the issue to every tent of a chain and padlock, with which all rifles were to be secured to the tent pole day and night. Rifles and other weapons were particularly beloved of the Wogs—they fetched high prices.
Easter was early in 1940, and 18 Battalion kept holiday from Good Friday to Monday. Nearly everybody went on leave, some on conducted tours to the Pyramids or north from Cairo to the Delta Barrage with its pleasant green gardens, others on a long weekend trip up the Nile to Luxor.
The training after Easter took a new turn. Not so much parade-ground stuff, more manoeuvres (company and battalion) away out up the wadi. In the first few days of April there were skirmishes, one company against another, and concerted battalion exercises in which the companies lived as separate entities (including cooking) for the first time. On 1 April, appropriately, 18 Battalion was caught by one of Egypt's rare rainstorms while on its way out to an all-night bivouac, and so thoroughly drenched that the night's work was abandoned. Then on 8 April the whole of 4 Brigade (18, 19 and 20 Battalions) marched out of Maadi for the first brigade exercise, lasting four days. Ten miles south to Helwan aerodrome by the main road running alongside the Nile, then off the asphalt on to the sand and stones of the desert for five more miles before the real manoeuvre began.
On its excursions up Wadi Digla and on this first brigade manoeuvre 18 Battalion learnt a lot. The lessons were no longer the elementary ones, but the more advanced aspects of living and fighting in the desert. The battalion had now page 36 been hammered into shape, and was getting its first polish.
From a tactical point of view the desert is no different from anywhere else. The battalion's tasks in the brigade manoeuvre were much as they would have been on a similar occasion in New Zealand. Occupation of an outpost line; reserve position in an attack; a night attack, withdrawal, and fortifying a defensive position. Not that the rank and file knew or cared that they were doing all this. All they knew was that they were shoved round over miles of hard, dry desert, marching till they nearly dropped and then digging holes. What they learnt was different. They learnt how hard it is, on a hot dusty day, not to drink deeply from your water bottle, and how fatal it is to succumb to the temptation. They learnt how tiring it is to march over soft sand, and how at night small wadis and bumps in the ground become traps for the unwary. They learnt that it is easy to lose direction at night, and how little you can rely on landmarks that look quite clear in the daytime. They learnt how to travel light, with food, toilet gear, rifle and ammunition, and as little else as possible. The truck drivers learnt (if they didn't know already) that driving across country at night without lights is difficult. The quartermaster's staff learnt something of the technique of getting supplies to a battalion out in the ‘blue’, and distributing them to the companies—the question of supplies is of the highest importance in the desert, and 4 Brigade tried to make this manoeuvre as like the real thing as possible in this respect. The 18 Battalion cooks did their cooking on patent oil-drip burners, long home-made iron boxes dug into the sand, with tall chimneys at the back. The battalion was proud of these burners, which worked very well on used engine oil and water.
For three days the battalion floundered in the sand, advanced six miles and retired again, something like the manoeuvres of the Grand Old Duke of York. Then for another day it sat in a defensive position, and next morning the whole brigade went back to Maadi.
On 22 April another full-scale manoeuvre, this time a divisional one, began away out beyond Helwan. For the men the procedure was much the same as before—rush round the desert, or bed down miles from nowhere, with no idea of the general picture. They only realised that they were hot, thirsty page 37 and grimy, and that they couldn't do anything about it in the meantime. This exercise ended at dawn on 25 April with a combined Anzac Day service out in the desert, after which everybody returned to Maadi. Those who had been on the manoeuvre had all-day leave on the 26th.
In both these exercises 18 Battalion was handicapped by another outbreak of diarrhoea far worse than the one in March. This ailment, elegantly known as ‘Gyppo tummy’ or ‘Wog guts’, was never far away while the New Zealanders were in Egypt. Strict sanitary precautions might lessen the hordes of flies and the severity of the epidemics, but they couldn't banish them altogether. It laid you out for three or four days if you got it badly, and even with a light dose of it you crept round like a ghost and were happy to leave all food alone for a while. The battalion was smitten in mid-April—from the 15th to the 21st 107 men were sent off to hospital, and many more to the battalion's own isolation tent, and thus missed the divisional manoeuvre, as all who had been ill within the last ten days stayed behind in camp.
Part of the blame for the outbreak was attributed, whether justly or not, to the first bad khamsin the New Zealanders had experienced. This hot desert wind, bringing with it fine sand which penetrated clothes, blankets and kitbags, eyes, mouths and noses, hit Maadi on 13 April. The battalion was to experience worse ones later, but at the time it seemed as if nothing could be worse. Egypt's stocks went down with a bump.
April in Egypt is a transitional month from the comparative cool of winter to the blistering heat of summer, and was therefore a month of changes in 18 Battalion's domestic arrangements. On the 13th, immediately after the Helwan manoeuvre, the battalion got its first issue of summer clothing. For a fortnight yet the men had to struggle into ‘giggle suits’ for dinner in the evening, and not until the end of April were they allowed to wear drill suits in the evenings, and shorts on leave. The drill was comfortable enough, but the original issue was now getting a bit the worse for wear; many of the men had had new ones made by a local tailor, who would fit you out with a drill uniform in under twelve hours for just over a pound.page 38
Of the new summer clothes, the light khaki shirts and underpants found immediate favour; the woollen hose tops and puttees not so much, because they were finicky to put on. The topees weren't as comfortable as the old New Zealand peaked hats, and were rather looked down on. The gem of the lot was the shorts, cut long and wide, the greatest possible contrast to the ‘snake-proof’ serge. Still, they were comfortable, and it was a great thing to have the air getting at your legs.
Nobody works all day in an Egyptian summer—it would be foolish to expect it. So on 29 April the unit changed over to a summer routine. Reveille at 5.30 a.m. from now on; work from 6 to 11.30 a.m., with a halt for breakfast; after lunch, no work until 4.30 p.m. You can't escape the summer afternoon heat in Egypt, but by staying in the shade of your tent you can make it a little more bearable. At the same time every tent was issued with that necessary instrument, a fly swatter.
It was about now that ‘zirs’ began to appear in large numbers in Maadi. These porous pots, bought from Egyptian hawkers, did great service in keeping water down to a drinkable temperature, and the tent without one was poorly off indeed. They had to be filled often because the water in them evaporated fast, but that was a trifling inconvenience to put up with for the sake of having a mouthful of cool water always handy.
The training wasn't so strenuous as it had been. Energetic stuff like physical training and bayonet fighting was kept for the beginning of the day, 6 to 7 a.m., before the sun really got fierce. Later in the day the battalion practised the more complicated handling of Bren gun and anti-tank rifle, or learnt how to camouflage itself away from the enemy's view. There was still the occasional night exercise, but not so much route-marching as before.
The summer was made much less unpleasant by the Maadi swimming baths, opened at the beginning of April. Inevitably, they at once became one of the camp's most popular institutions, a position which they held until the last Kiwi left Maadi in 1946. Their only drawback was their distance from camp—two miles down the road towards Maadi village, not far from the railway siding where the Kiwis had first arrived. But to immerse yourself in the cool water, to laze about with page 39 nothing on, that was worth the walk down. It was difficult sometimes to find a spare space in the water, and almost from the beginning the baths had to be rationed, different units using them at different times. Swimming became 18 Battalion's main recreation. At the end of May a relay team of twenty from the battalion won the divisional inter-unit championship and a cup presented by General Freyberg.
With the coming of May, the war moved closer.
Before this, though the New Zealanders were on active service, the war had been something remote. Now the possibility of Italy's joining in began to loom larger, and the British command in Egypt began to sit up and think how silly it would look if the Italians took it into their heads to invade Egypt by air. Egypt (Cairo in particular) was stiff with Italians and Italian sympathisers. Anything might happen. So the Army began to think up plans to counter this.
In Maadi Camp the precautions were mostly defensive. Blackout after 7 p.m.; an air-raid warning system; anti-aircraft and gas sentries; fire-fighting teams; first-aid and decontamination posts. Fourth Brigade Headquarters set up some anti-aircraft machine-gun posts, but the battalions had nothing heavy that could be used against attacking planes, and so their main role could only be to sit and take it, and clean up the mess afterwards. New gas masks were hurriedly handed out to everybody.
The first blackout practice was held on 5 May. You could still use a lantern, carefully dimmed with blue paint, in your tent, but all else was black. Truck headlights were also dimmed with paint. From 7 May there was a full week's try-out of the precautions. Most of 18 Battalion took a poor view of this, as they had nothing to do. There were active jobs for fewer than a hundred of its members, and the rest simply went about their normal business, with the great disadvantage that evening leave was cancelled. You could still go to Cairo in the afternoon if you cared to brave the heat, but you had to be back by 7 p.m.
For the time being there were no desert exercises, but while the week's try-out was in progress 18 Battalion (except for those on air defence duty) went up Wadi Digla, along with 19 and 20 Battalions, and dug. Digging in the May heat was no page 40 joke, but they dug, and wired, and laid stones to represent mines, until in five days they had a complete model battalion position, with full-sized trenches, dug away out there in the middle of nowhere. Then for a day and a night the battalion manned the position before moving back to Maadi. When the men came back they learnt that Maadi would only be a brief stopping place on their way into Cairo.
This was where the Cairo Internal Security Scheme came in. This plan rather optimistically entailed co-operation between British and Egyptian troops if the skies over Cairo suddenly began raining Italians. Egyptian battalions were made responsible for the city, and as their immediate support 4 Brigade Headquarters and 18 battalion were to move into town during the early hours of 16 May.
The move was made in good old army style, at very short notice. The battalion went to bed up Wadi Digla quite unsuspecting on the 15th, was roused from its dreams at 3.30 a.m., and by six o'clock was piled into ASC trucks at Maadi and on its way to Kasr-el-Nil, the big British barracks beside the Nile in the heart of Cairo. Only the Reinforcement Company stayed behind.
Not until 18 Battalion was in Kasr-el-Nil did it know what the fuss was all about. After seeing the battalion installed, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray went off to GHQ and was told the story—if trouble broke out, a number of known Italian agents in the city were to be rounded up. The battalion was to be on four hours' notice all the time, and nobody was to be on leave in the evenings. Liaison officers went off to live with the two Egyptian battalions in Cairo. The same day the men got their first steel helmets since leaving New Zealand.
Kasr-el-Nil was a come-down after Maadi, which by now was home to the Kiwis. Instead of the wide open spaces, the tents, and the comparative freedom, there was a gloomy old E-shaped brick barn built round a paved yard, with the Nile as the fourth wall. It seemed like a jail to 18 Battalion. The six days it spent there were long, hot, boring days. Nothing happened; not even one small Fascist made any trouble. After all the early morning rush and bustle, with its attendant rumours, this was an anticlimax.
Only the keg incident livened things up for a time. This page 41 began when a large keg of beer vanished off a truck unloading at the barracks canteen, and led to a fruitless full-scale search. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray told a poker-faced battalion that the whole thing was very mysterious, so much so that he would be pleased to be told at some future date just where the keg had been hidden.
Despite this brief excitement, the six days dragged badly; then, just at lunchtime on 21 May, more rush orders, more tumult and shouting, and an hour later the battalion was on its way back to Maadi. No drastic change in the situation, no spectacular action ahead, in spite of the rumour-mongers—the battalion was to stay on four hours' notice to carry out exactly the same job as before. No wonder it asked itself bitterly, ‘What does the Army think it's up to?’
Even this wasn't all. The battalion now spent nine days on edge at Maadi, doing a little sporadic training and taking day about with 19 and 20 Battalions to be on call in case things flared up. There was no leave on duty days, of course. The battalion was on 15 minutes' notice in the daytime, 30 minutes' at night, and during stand-to (3 to 5 a.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.) on five minutes' notice. This meant that for those two early morning hours, and again in the evening, the men packed all their gear, climbed into full web equipment, and sat in ASC trucks on the parade ground waiting vainly for something to happen. Then, as nothing ever did happen, they climbed out again and went about their lawful occasions. Training on duty days was pretty harmless; nobody who has been hauled out of bed before 3 a.m. can possibly get much kick out of a day's training. After the first day all the heavy gear, except what was actually in use, was left on the trucks, which stayed in readiness on the parade ground.
The rumours that flew during these few days were wonderful. The situation was made for rumour. The Germans had been pushed back in Belgium—the Germans had broken through in Belgium—the New Zealanders were going to France—Italy was in the war—the Italians had been knocked back on the Egyptian frontier—the Italians had pushed forward over the Egyptian frontier, and were advancing fast—the New Zealanders would be going up into the desert any time to stop them. This last was the favourite. Wishful thinking, of course. page 42 The last few weeks of playing round Maadi and Cairo had done much to glamourise the desert in the Kiwis' eyes. Also, 18 Battalion had responded well to the training it had been through; it was now fit to fight, and terrifically keen. ‘The blue’ was spoken of with a sort of wistfulness.
Then, on 30 May, another sudden call—everything had to be packed up right away, ready to move. Surely this was it. It must be. In a flurry the battalion packed, clambered on to its trucks, and away—where to? Back to Kasr-el-Nil. The comments were unprintable. Kasr-el-Nil was very far from being 18 Battalion's idea of a battleground. The only fighting to be done there was an inglorious campaign, not even against Italian agents, but against something one degree lower in the scheme of things—the bed-bug.
It is sad, but it must be recorded. To 18 Battalion goes the distinction of having introduced the bed-bug into the New Zealand Division. Out from the crevices in Kasr-el-Nil's bricks poured the invaders, infiltrated into blankets, clothes and packs, and there made the journey back to Maadi, where they established themselves, never again to leave. The story that they were planted by Fifth Columnists is quite groundless, but they might well have been, so much did they cost the Kiwis over the next five years in annoyance, wakefulness, bad temper, and time wasted hunting them. The honour of having brought them in is one that the battalion could well do without.
Six more days at Kasr-el-Nil, days of heat, boredom and parade-ground drill. The battalion was on two hours' notice now. Leave into Cairo was doled out two hours at a time, which is just enough to whet the appetite. Nobody was sorry when on 4 June the 18th was ordered back to Maadi again, its place at Kasr-el-Nil to be taken by 19 Battalion. It packed up next morning and left at 10 a.m., passing 19 Battalion's convoy on the way.
Back at Maadi the ‘duty battalion’ routine came into operation again, only now it was every second, not every third day. The situation was still uncertain, and anything was likely to happen any time, so the duty battalion had to be there waiting in its trucks for four hours daily. Leave was easier to come by this time, however. There was plenty of it after work on the off days.page 43
Better than any Cairo leave was the divisional ‘change of air’ camp at Sidi Bishr, Alexandria, which opened in May. During the month 18 Battalion sent two big drafts there for a fortnight, the first of 65 men and the second of 75. These drafts were made up by company quotas, with preference for men recovering from sickness. There was never any trouble filling up the numbers—the sea air and salt water of Sidi Bishr were much sought after.
However, 140 men is only a fifth of a battalion, and those who were not lucky enough to get to Alexandria had to make the best of the monotony of Kasr-el-Nil and Maadi. It seemed as if this messing round was going to last to doomsday—until 10 June.
At 6 p.m. on that day the battalion climbed into its trucks for the usual two-hour stretch. At 8 p.m. it morosely climbed out again. At 8.30 the telephone wires began to hum. The news was round the battalion with amazing speed. Italy was in. One more enemy to face—but for 18 Battalion this was a matter for joy, not gloom. Now at last, thank God, the messing round would be over. Surely something would happen now.
And so it did, for a few hours. The rest was anticlimax.
No sooner had the news come through than Maadi Camp went into feverish action. Announcements in Shafto's, the canteens and the YMCA brought the men tumbling out. The battalion's carriers were sent out in haste up Wadi Digla to recall Reinforcement Company, which was out there by itself acting the part of ‘the enemy’ for another battalion. The plan prepared weeks ago for this emergency now became reality. Tents were struck, moved out of their tight precise rows, spread far apart over a big stretch of desert, re-erected. Working like demons, the men had their tents ready for occupation again soon after 2 a.m. Then they fell into bed, to be up again early next morning digging slit trenches beside the tents.
In the meantime, A Company (now under Captain Kelleway1.) had been spirited away on some obscure mission, from which it reappeared the following afternoon. It hadn't gone far; only to Tura, two miles up the Nile from Maadi, page 44 where one of the biggest ammunition dumps in the Middle East was tucked away in caves in the hillside. Here it had reinforced the British guard until permanent reinforcements arrived.
From now on there was a palpable change in the air of Maadi Camp. The troops were on a war footing now. Officers had to carry revolvers wherever they went, and everybody had to have his field dressing with him all the time. The excitement certainly sagged as the days passed and nothing more happened, and the old routine was kept on for a few days more, but there was an expectancy about that had not been so marked before.
Then, on 17 June, the news arrived. Eighteenth Battalion was going ‘up the blue’.
There wasn't going to be any chance for the battalion to cover itself with glory yet. It was to be away only about a fortnight, along with 19 Battalion, digging defences in the sand several hundred miles from the battlefield. A useful role, perhaps, but not spectacular.
This was the battalion's first long-distance move in convoy— that is, with its own trucks carrying all its stores and equipment, and the men travelling in ASC three-tonners. Everything was to be taken, tents and all; except for Reinforcement Company, the Cinderella company, which was to stay behind, as it always seemed to do when anything interesting was on. The three Bren carriers with their crews went up by train.
To the question, ‘What was the most important manoeuvre an infantry battalion had to carry out in the Second World War?’ a likely answer might be, ‘Move in convoy.’ It was the usual way of getting a battalion about from place to place, and was to be 18 Battalion's normal mode of travel for over two years. It sounds easy—jump into your trucks and rush away over the countryside—but it is really a highly complicated proceeding, demanding accurate timing and teamwork from a lot of people. One of the marks of a raw or ill-disciplined battalion is bad convoy work. The 18th was now no longer raw, and certainly not ill-disciplined, and this was reflected in the smoothness of its convoy work.
A convoy's timing and route are usually laid down by ‘higher up’, and if they are not kept to, other bodies of troops on the move are likely to be inconvenienced, and there may page 45 be traffic jams. The battalion must arrange meals, contact with its ASC trucks, petrol supplies, packing and loading, and all this sort of detail so as to ensure that it gets away on time. It must decide its order of march, and see that the trucks are marshalled in that order without muddle or waste of time. It must move at a speed which will keep the convoy to time. Its provosts must patrol the convoy, and sometimes act as traffic policemen at places where drivers are likely to go wrong. Each driver must keep his truck in such condition that it will not break down on the way. An advance party must go on ahead to see that the night's bivouac area is clear, to meet and direct the convoy when it arrives. The cooks must be ready to go into action immediately on arrival, and have a meal ready quickly. If necessary, supplies of petrol, oil, water and so on during the move must be arranged beforehand. The mechanics and the medical section must be always ready to repair trucks or men. And many other details.
The move was a ‘tactical’ one—that is, organised as if the unit was in the battle zone, with protection against any untoward event that might happen. Not that any were expected this time. It was mainly for practice. So the battalion moved well spaced out, 175 yards between trucks (in army parlance, ten vehicles to the mile, or VTM for short), ten-minute intervals between companies, Bren guns with each company set up on top of trucks for anti-aircraft defence, signallers with each company, every man wearing web equipment, with rifle and ammunition handy, and gas masks at the ‘alert’ position. Everybody carried his own lunch for the day, and a full water bottle.
Through the outskirts of Cairo and past the Pyramids streamed the convoy through the June heat. North along the Alexandria road, with the cultivated Nile delta on its right, and on its left ‘the blue’. It travelled slowly, much too slowly for the drivers and the troops, who fretted somewhat at having to crawl along this lovely tarsealed road. By 3 p.m. it was at Amiriya, only 70 miles from Cairo. Here it turned left off the road, and bumped across the desert for a few more miles before stopping for the night just after 4 p.m.
During the day, as has been seen, the anti-aircraft platoon page 46 had kept its Bren guns ready for action. Now at the bivouac area its men dug pits and set the guns up in them for the night. They weren't so very far from Alexandria, which was already being raided every now and again by Italian planes. You never knew.
Nobody bothered putting up tents, which aren't necessary in Egypt in June. Some of the men slept in their trucks, some under the stars. They were happier than they had been for a long time, even though the cooks, not yet experienced at getting meals on the move, didn't have dinner ready until 9 p.m. Camp life, with its rules and regulations and its messing about, was left behind, for a short time at any rate. The time was to come later when every man in 18 Battalion longed for the comparative comfort of Maadi and the luxuries of Cairo, but now they were enjoying a release from all that.
At 8 a.m. next day the battalion was on the move again, across the desert for a few more miles and then on to the sealed road running west along the coast, a road which it was to travel several times later under violently different circumstances. Now, as always, it was full of traffic in both directions— you never saw that road empty. The convoy's speed was stepped up considerably, which pleased everyone.
The Mediterranean—long stretches of the road ran within sight of it—looked tantalisingly cool on a hot summer day, while 18 Battalion sat and sweltered in its trucks. So its joy can be imagined when at 4 p.m. it reached its destination 12 miles short of Mersa Matruh, and found that its camp site was right on the coast. Despite a vicious dust-storm, the men had their tents up in quick time, so eager were they to get into the water. For most of them this was the first swim in the Mediterranean, and its clean sand and buoyant, salty water were blessings straight from Heaven.
While this move was going on, 10 Platoon of B Company, under Second-Lieutenant Sutton,2 had gone off 1200 miles in the other direction, escorting a trainload of arms and stores to Khartoum. Its journey was a long-drawn-out one, ten days in tropical heat, by train, river steamer, and train again. Mounting guard on open railway trucks in that heat was no page 47 joke, but the men were cordially greeted wherever they stopped, and again at Khartoum, where the local British commander welcomed them as the first New Zealand troops to enter the Sudan. They rejoined the battalion on 1 July.
The move away from Maadi meant the end of 18 Battalion's band, which was looked on as unnecessary away from base. It was disbanded, and its members went back to the companies. Most of them went to 4 Brigade Headquarters to help form the brigade band early in 1941, but the battalion never again enjoyed the luxury of its own band.