20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 2 — Journey from New Zealand to Egypt
Journey from New Zealand to Egypt
The battalion soon reached Lyttelton where, in spite of precautions taken to keep the move secret, a large crowd had gathered at the wharf gates. The two trains drew up near the transports Dunera and Sobieski. Twentieth Battalion and some 4 Field Ambulance personnel embarked on the Dunera, which already had on board the Divisional Signals which had embarked at Wellington. The men were marshalled in alphabetical order on the wharf and their names checked as they went up the gangway in single file. The battalion left with exactly its establishment, 801, the last man, absent without leave, being dragged from his home and hurried to the wharf.1 Once on board the men were shown to their quarters in the mess decks. The Dunera was a regular troop transport which before the war had carried troops and their families to and from India.
About 4.30 p.m., to the strains of ‘Now is the Hour’ and ‘He Careth for Me’, accompanied by a local band, His Majesty's Troopship Dunera pulled out to sea. It was the first transport to leave New Zealand in the Second World War and was followed, after a short interval, by the Sobieski. Some disappointment was felt that the public had not been allowed on to the wharf in time for final farewells. Out from port the naval escort, HMS Leander, was picked up. The troops paraded for boat drill, had a meal—a good one too—and then drew their hammocks. Many men took their hammocks up on deck and slung them in all kinds of unauthorised places: from pipes, rails, knobs—anything that would hold a knot. The bosun is reported to have commented: ‘I've seen soldiers, I've seen sailors, I've seen Boy Scouts, but I have never seen b—s like these!’
The ship steamed slowly north that night and out of the page 12 haze next morning appeared the squat bulk of the battleship HMS Ramillies, leading the rest of the ships—Orion, Rangitata, Strathaird, and Empress of Canada—from Wellington. With HMAS Canberra guarding the rear, the convoy passed through Cook Strait and up the west coast of the North Island before turning west for Australia. Patrol planes, flying low over the ships, dipped their wings in salute as the first echelon of troops to leave the Dominion in the Second World War began the long voyage to its ‘overseas destination’. All eyes were turned to the receding coastline and to snow-capped Egmont, never more beautiful than when viewed from the sea.
The trip across the Tasman was uneventful, the weather remarkably good, and the troops in excellent spirits. Everyone gradually settled down to life aboard a troopship. For some it was their first experience of being at sea. Unlike the luxury liners that comprised the rest of the convoy, the Dunera was adapted to carry the greatest number of people in the smallest possible space. After the manner of a transport long used to carrying regular troops, her passage-ways and decks were liberally plastered with ‘Out-of-Bounds’ notices and other signs strongly emphasising the distinctions in rank between officers, NCOs, and men. It took some time for Dominion troops to appreciate their full significance. Deck space for other ranks was deplorably small, this being one of the worst features of the ship's organisation. The other was the stowing of hammocks before a quarter past six each morning in the hammock room some six decks below.
Physical training, games, concerts, and lectures helped to pass the time during the crossing of the Tasman, and on 9 January the Empress of Canada left the convoy to allow the GOC to catch a plane in Sydney for Egypt. Next day the ship, accompanied by six transports carrying Australian troops and their escort, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra, rejoined the convoy.
Convoy manoeuvres, which had begun in the Tasman Sea, were continued on 16 January when a mock attack by the two cruisers, Australia and Canberra, was repulsed by the Ramillies. Warning of the attack was given by the Dunera with two blasts of her siren. The convoy closed in and increased speed, but at another long blast the ships scattered in star formation. Under cover of a thick blanket of mist which hung low over the sea page 13 and a smoke screen laid by the protecting battleship, the other transports in the convoy quickly disappeared from view. The troops crowded to all vantage points to watch the battle. The only ‘loss’ was the Dunera, the slowest of the convoy.
Issues of New Zealand hat and collar badges, field dressings, ‘housewives’, puttees, and unit sleeve patches (the last in short supply) were completed before arrival at Fremantle, which, after a slow trip across the Australian Bight, was reached on the afternoon of 18 January. The ships anchored in the roadstead, pulling into the port as berths became available. The Dunera was one of the last to tie up, but the period of waiting next morning was enlivened when the master of the ship allowed the troops to use the lifeboats for a row round the anchorage. The men enjoyed the exercise and, at the same time, took the opportunity to row across to other ships in the convoy. After being paid £1 Australian money, debited in paybooks as sixteen shillings sterling, the men were granted leave to visit Perth and enjoyed both there and in Fremantle the unlimited and unforgettable hospitality of Western Australia. There were the usual pranks that must be expected from high-spirited men who have been cooped up for some time in a troopship. As the result of one of these the stuffed, full-sized kangaroo from the ‘First and Last Shop in Australia’ found itself on board the Dunera and sailed all the way to Tewfik, where it was left with the ship's crew with the hope that it would one day be returned to its rightful owners. Three men from the battalion had not returned to the ship by the time it sailed.
At 12.30 p.m. on 20 January the convoy left Fremantle and began the long voyage across the Indian Ocean. The naval escort consisted of the battleship Ramillies, the cruiser Kent, and the French cruiser Suffren. Three days out from Fremantle the OC Troops, Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, addressed all ranks and told them that they were going to Egypt, where they would undergo about two months' training with new equipment and modern weapons before being considered ready to go into action. He stressed the value of discipline and the necessity for co-operation between officers and men.
In its turn as duty unit in the Dunera the battalion was required to provide men for guards, pickets, and fatigues, the last including duties in the ship's galley and butcher's shop and page 14 as deck-scrubbers. There were twenty-four sentry posts, requiring seventy-two men to man them. It was difficult for men who had been on duty during the night to get sleep in the daytime as they had to sling their hammocks up on deck over a hatch. Military training was largely restricted through lack of space, but physical training, signalling instruction, and lectures on a wide variety of subjects relieved the monotony of crossing the Indian Ocean. Recreational training was also hampered by cramped quarters but boxing and wrestling tournaments attracted large entries and created interest. Four footballs were popular for a time until they all went the same way—over the side. A less strenuous diversion was playing ‘Housie’ on the open decks, the caller perching on a hatch cover in the centre. Crown-and-Anchor had its usual followers until a few boards were confiscated. After this boards were chalked on the deck where they could be rubbed out quickly at the approach of authority.
Because of blackout restrictions all portholes were closed after dark, and to help reduce the consequent discomfort in the tropics men were allowed in turn to sleep on deck at night. Canvas awnings were erected on the upper decks for protection against the fierce heat of the sun. Wind sails with canvas shutes leading through the holds to the decks below were hoisted to catch every breeze.
Messing arrangements called for much organisation. Officers, warrant officers, and sergeants messed in dining-rooms in peacetime comfort, attended by Indian waiters clad in a picturesque uniform of flowing blue coat over a spotless white gown, complete with a broad waist-sash and corded blue-and-white turban. The men were allotted set tables for the voyage, two men from each table acting as mess orderlies. The food, generally, was good, although inadequate cool-storage accommodation early in the voyage caused an epidemic of diarrhoea and vomiting among a section of the troops. As the result of an investigation which substantiated complaints that the butter was tainted by refrigeration, New Zealand butter was issued for the rest of the voyage.
On 30 January the convoy reached Colombo, where the transports entered a harbour thickly congested with shipping of every conceivable size and nationality. In contrast with the grey camouflage of the troopships, neutral ships in the harbour bore in conspicuous paint their distinctive colours and the names of their countries of origin. A Japanese luxury liner, the Brazil Maru, with all her lights on made a brilliant sight amid the blacked-out convoy at night. While the ships lay in harbour they were surrounded by Arab dhows and bumboats from which native vendors sold their wares—fruit, nuts, cheroots, and ebony elephants—and clamouring boys dived for coins.
Next day shore leave was granted. The men paraded at 8 a.m. and waited on the ship for three hours before going ashore in lighters and marching to the Galle Face hotel, where they were dismissed. During this brief visit the men made their first acquaintance with eastern shopkeepers, rickshaw men, jugglers, fortune-tellers, and beggars. They went sightseeing in taxis and explored the bazaars.
After returning from leave one man fell overboard but was fished out safely. A number of men, some sixty-odd, had been absent from the parade at the Galle Face before the return to the ship, and for this offence were either reprimanded or given two or three days' CB. Others absent without leave received from two to seven days' CB, with some forfeiture of pay by the worst offenders.
On 1 February the convoy began the last lap of the voyage and was joined by a French ship, Athos II, carrying French colonial troops. The naval escort now included the Ramillies, the aircraft-carrier Eagle, and the cruisers Sussex, Hobart, and Westcott. Some excitement was caused four days later when one of the Eagle's aircraft crashed into the sea, the pilot being rescued by one of the escort vessels.
The troops manned ship on 3 February as a salute to HMS Eagle as she steamed down the line of transports, and again two days later for the Ramillies when she left the convoy in the Gulf of Aden. With the approach of their destination the men were given lectures on tropical diseases and other pitfalls of Egypt. page 16 Web equipment was fitted and checked, identification discs completed, boots stamped with regimental numbers, and water bottles disinfected. On 8 February some of the convoy called at Aden to refuel, but the Dunera carried on up the Red Sea. She berthed at Port Tewfik at 10.30 a.m. on 12 February after a voyage of thirty-eight days. During the morning the ship was visited by General Freyberg, who introduced to the troops gathered on the decks the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, the Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden, General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Forces, Lieutenant-General H. M. Wilson, GOC-in-C British Troops in Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson, British Ambassador to Egypt, and the Governor of the Canal Zone, representing the Egyptian Government. Mr Eden read to the troops a message from the King:
I know well that the splendid tradition established by the armed forces of New Zealand will be worthily upheld by you, who have left your homes to fight for the cause that the whole Empire has made its own.
Now that you have entered the field of active service, I send you a very warm welcome, together with my best wishes for your welfare.
(Signed) George R.I.
During the wait in port the troops were paid in Egyptian money. No leave was granted, but the unit was called upon to provide working and unloading parties, fatigue parties, and guards over dumps of stores and equipment on the wharf. The warnings given during medical lectures on the risks of disease in Egypt were borne out by the dirtiness of the Egyptian labourers and the filth on the wharf, which effectively deterred most of the men from buying any of the motley collection of oranges, cigarettes, wallets, Turkish delight, and toffee so importunately offered for sale. On the wharf small children begged for baksheesh with all the frenzy of the hungry and the greedy. ‘Gulli-gulli’ men performed on the quay, but their efforts soon palled on men who were weary of life on board ship and waited impatiently for orders to disembark.
Shortly after the Dunera had tied up at the wharf lighters were bringing ashore troops from the larger ships which had had page 17 to anchor in the stream. After reveille at 3.45 a.m., the battalion disembarked at 5.30 a.m. on 14 February, gave three cheers for the ship, and for an hour stood around in a cold, almost frosty atmosphere, waiting to depart in the high, hard, uncomfortable third-class carriages of the Egyptian State Railways which were to become a very familiar mode of travel in the years ahead. The battalion entrained at 6.30 a.m. and, passing through Zagazig, Benha, and Cairo, reached Maadi, where it detrained and marched to Maadi Camp. The band of the Cameron Highlanders piped at the head of the column at the unaccustomedly slow pace of ninety to the minute. The men carried most of their equipment, the road was hot and dusty, and few were fit after six weeks at sea. Their entry to Maadi could hardly be said to have made an impression on the GOC, who took the salute on the march of about two miles to the unit lines.
1 The strength of the battalion on embarkation was 38 officers and 752 other ranks, a total of 790, this including 133 first reinforcements. The two officers and nine other ranks from the battalion in the advance party made up the full strength of 801.