19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 2 — New Zealand to Egypt
New Zealand to Egypt
To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
—R. L. Stevenson
Dawn on 5 January 1940 saw the unit packed up and waiting, and just after sunrise the tightly crammed railway carriages began to move. The first stage of a journey which would last almost six years had begun. Waving groups stood at each small railway station in the Valley, and despite the early hour cars packed with friends sped along the Hutt Road. But the train did not stop until it stood beneath the towering decks of His Majesty’s New Zealand Transport Z3.
Detraining on King’s Wharf, a kit-laden stream of men scrambled up the gangway. As each man passed the embarkation officer his name was checked off the roll. Seven hundred and sixty-eight all ranks, collectively called 19 Wellington Battalion, individually answering to four-figure numbers and army ranks, passed the sentry at the foot of the narrow gangplank route which bore no destination signpost and from which there would be no turning back. With them too, surreptitiously, went one dog.
The cipher Z3 and a grey wartime cloak were poor disguises for the lovely lines of the P & O liner Strathaird. Her palatial appointments were still unaltered and undimmed. Dumping their incongruous kits in surroundings designed for luxury-loving tourists, the troops untrussed themselves from their khaki uniforms, wiped sweat and surprise from their brows, and prepared to enjoy the journey ahead.
Grim stories of last-war trooping from veterans who had found their way by stealth born of the love of adventure into the ranks of the battalion were soon dispelled. On the Strathaird officers travelled first class, warrant officers and sergeants second, and other ranks third class. The 1350 page 9 New Zealand troops on board were little more than the ship’s normal passenger list. Accommodation problems were non-existent; never before or since have troops travelled in such comfort. The 19th Battalion, and the New Zealand Engineers who embarked with them, counted themselves most fortunate in their ship.
As soon as the last man was aboard, the ropes were cast off and the Strathaird moved slowly out into the stream to await the rest of the convoy. Anxious eyes of the thousands of friends on the Quay—denied closer contact with the ship —strained to catch the last glimpse of sons, husbands, and brothers among the waving, crowded figures lining her decks. On board, those fortunate enough to possess or borrow binoculars recognised briefly among the mass of upturned faces friends they were leaving behind.
While the ships were anchored in the still waters of Wellington harbour, the troops on board had time for reflection before sailing and many last letters went ashore on the small boats which cruised around the convoy. Brilliant sunshine and the promise of clear calm weather ahead were good omens for a perfect trip, but there was little sound sleep that night. At six o’clock next morning HMT Z3 sailed, and in the late afternoon Egmont’s peak disappeared below the sunlit horizon.
Even the turbulent Tasman was kind to the Strathaird’s cargo of landlubbers, who sailed in sunshine on flat calm seas. The second day, Sunday, was marked by a memorable church parade at which the spirited singing was in keeping with a virile service. The lesson was read by Colonel Varnham, who had been appointed Officer Commanding Troops on the ship. The sermon by the Rev. C. E. Hyde, CF,1 was a fitting message for a company of untried troops. ‘Never hit softly—when you must hit, hit hard’ was the theme. The Officer Commanding Troops followed it with an address on soldierly behaviour, pointing as an example to the reputation of the 1st NZEF, famed for its hard hitting in action and its gentlemanly conduct always.page 10
On the morning of Wednesday the 10th land was first sighted and from the Sydney Heads the ships of the Australian convoy emerged. Joining up, they moved into line as if on parade, and the complete convoy presented a sight which seven weeks at sea could not rob of constant interest. Even the list of names was imposing; each ship represented the best of Britain’s Royal and Merchant Navies. The grey battleship Ramillies, with the cruisers Canberra and Leander,2 escorted the Orion, Rangitata, Empress of Canada, Dunera, Strathaird, and Sobieski carrying New Zealand troops; the Strathnaver, Orcades, Orford, Otranto and the Empress of Japan (later renamed Empress of Scotland) carried Australians. The two contingents exchanged signals of greeting and eight days later, on the 18th, they met at Fremantle, the first port of call for the convoy.
The warmth of the welcome from the residents of Fremantle and Perth, extended to Aussie and Kiwi alike, will never be forgotten. The 19th went ashore at 6 p.m. with leave passes expiring at midnight. Their visit was marked by the generous hospitality of the citizens and by much fraternising between the troops; of this visit the voyage report records: ‘The behaviour of the men was very fair taking into consideration the large number of naval ratings, Australian and New Zealand troops ashore and the fraternising this occasioned. None missed the ship.’
On 20 January the convoy sailed, heading north-west into the Indian Ocean. The weather continued calm and the heat and the effects of vaccination combined to produce some lassitude. Training suffered, for the restricted space on board ship allowed little movement and many a martial lecture became nothing more than the preliminary lullaby to an afternoon’s nap. Some few members of the battalion, however, had constant duties to perform and all had their share of routine fatigues. No. 1 Platoon (Signals) kept twenty-four hour watch on ‘Monkey Island’ above the bridge, handling by Morse lamp the military traffic for the ship. Others did duty on lookout and anti-aircraft watches. page 11 One particularly busy man was the Gifts Officer, Lieutenant Danderson,3 who daily distributed largesse from a store of good things provided by the National Patriotic Fund Board.
So the days passed, with the convoy spread out across miles of blue unruffled ocean, headed no one knew where.
The first sign that the convoy was again approaching busy waters was the appearance of HMS Sussex, adding a cruiser to the escort. Then, on 30 January, land was sighted and, the Strathaird leading, the convoy steamed into Colombo harbour and moored close to a Japanese liner. Spick and span, black-and-white paintwork gleaming, she betrayed no sign of the sinister role she and her sister ships were to play a few years later.
Shore leave in Ceylon next day had a tonic effect and was a most interesting experience. Lightered ashore, the troops landed on the quayside then marched through the streets to the British barracks, where they were paid. What curious things those rupees bought! The native markets were well stocked, their wares were cheap, and bazaar shopping was a novelty to New Zealanders. With souvenirs of their first visit to the East tucked under their arms, the troops returned to the ship. The official ferries made the trip almost empty but the native boatmen reaped a harvest. Rickshaw to the quayside and bumboat to the ship were favoured modes of conveyance. Many overstayed their leave for an hour or so, but when the Strathaird sailed on 1 February ‘All present and correct’ was entered on each company parade state. Leaving the Charing Cross of the Indian Ocean the convoy headed out to sea, and the many eyes turned shorewards watched with regret Colombo’s famed sign ‘Ceylon for good tea’ fade into the distance.
The Arabian Sea crossing proved to be the hottest leg of the journey but all were becoming acclimatised to shipboard life in the tropics. With reviving spirits competition became keener. Some willing tournaments were staged: boxing, wrestling, tug-o’-war, even running, attracted teams from each company. The ship’s recreational facilities were in page 12 constant use and queues for quoits and deck tennis began to form at daybreak.
On ‘the first Saturday after Colombo (at CB plus 4 hrs)’ as the official programme put it, the officers, trained and directed by John Ledgerwood,4 YMCA representative with the battalion, staged a non-stop variety concert. The show kept the audience convulsed with mirth and proved to be the entertainment highlight of the trip. Ballets, clad in nondescript feminine apparel, made up in energy what they lacked in timing, and one member of the ‘Cascara Sagrada’ troupe yet bears scars sustained in a too enthusiastic rehearsal.
The days passed pleasantly. Drawing nearer to the final destination new escort ships joined the convoy, the aircraft carrier Eagle and the destroyer Westcott each doing a turn. In the Red Sea land-based aircraft appeared. From the comfort of the decks groups viewed the grim, barren shores with secret, shocked speculation. This was no white man’s country, and as the waves of heat from the Arabian Desert enveloped the ship there were some forebodings. The troops were neither clad nor equipped for life on those singeing sands. Through the years which followed the unit was to make its home in the desert on many occasions, and despite these early misgivings life in North Africa, once the men were acclimatised, was to prove not unpleasant.
Near Aden the Eagle left the convoy; passing slowly through the lines of ships she made farewell signals, the white-clad figures lining her flight decks answering the cheers from the troopships. She made a fine picture and each ship wished her well. Once abreast of Aden preparations for disembarkation began.
Mr Anthony Eden, bearing a special message from the King, accompanied by Sir Miles Lampson and the GOC, boarded the Strathaird on arrival at Port Tewfik, and in the early hours of 12 February the first lighters, each carrying two hundred troops, left the ship’s side. To quote from the cyclostyled newspaper published on board, The Z3 page 13 Frontliner: ‘What is before us none can foretell but all will remember forever the days when we were a self-contained community aboard one of His Majesty’s transports —well quartered, well fed and well protected.’5
5 The P & O liner Strathaird, 22, 281 tons, was built by Vickers Armstrong Ltd. and launched in 1931. The Master, Captain R. C. Dene, during his service with the P & O Company had previously commanded their well-known mail ships Rawalpindi, Naldera, and Majola. Captain Dene retired in 1941 and took an appointment with the Ministry of War Transport.
Staff appointments aboard the Strathaird for the voyage were: Officer Commanding Troops, Lt-Col F. S. Varnham; Senior Medical Officer, Capt H. T. Jennings, NZMC; Ship’s Adjutant, Capt G. P. Sanders, NZSC; Assistant Adjutant, Lt J. M. Elliott; Ship’s Quartermaster, Capt T. G. Bedding; Messing Officer, Capt C. L. Pleasants; Baggage-master, 2 Lt S. W. Chapman; Gifts Officer, Lt J. H. Danderson; Ship’s Sergeant-Major, WO I J. Malcolm, NZPS.
Other units and detachments on the Strathaird in addition to 19 Battalion included NZANS, NZMC, Divisional Postal, 10 and 11 LAD, Provost Company, HQ Divisional Engineers, 6 Field Company NZE, 5 Field Park Company NZE, Base Records, Base Pay, Base Post Office.