Chapter 4 — The Canal Zone
The Canal Zone
ALONGSIDE the battalion train was another loaded with Naafi stores, mainly beer. This was too much of a temptation to the troops, who quickly transferred case after case into their own carriages before anyone in authority could stop them. Expecting the battalion would have to meet the bill, officers saw the beer was evenly distributed. Soon afterwards the train moved off for Qassasin, where transport was waiting to carry the men to the huge El Tahag transit camp. Companies were directed to tented areas and straw palliasses and clean blankets were issued. Everyone was wearing the filthily dirty battle dress which they had slept in and worn constantly for over six weeks, and there was a concerted rush on the shower-house.
Four days elapsed before the unit moved to more permanent quarters. During this period Greek currency was collected and changed for piastres and each man was given ten shillings to replace personal gear lost in Greece. The Naafi store near the lines was run by a bunch of cheeky Egyptians, and after some trouble over change and prices it was wrecked. After this a marked improvement was shown in other Naafi establishments in the camp. It was extremely hot during the day, particularly in battle dress and after the cooler conditions experienced in Greece. Everyone was still pretty weary and many men were suffering from some form of dysentery. On 6 May the battalion returned to Helwan, travelling by rail from Qassasin and moving into a tented area in the south-west corner of the camp.
Back in more familiar surroundings the men quickly settled down to normal camp routine. Mail and parcels which had accumulated during the later stages of the Greek campaign were distributed. A start was made with re-equipping the unit. Summer dress was issued for the heat was terrific, often exceeding 110 degrees in the shade. In the messrooms sweat poured off the troops as they ate and butter melted away at an alarming rate. Training was confined to short route marches, section exercises, and lectures on the recent campaign. Many page 69 of the men were under medical treatment at the RAP and others had been sent to hospital. Reboardings and subsequent re- gradings forced quite a number to leave the battalion for less rigorous duties. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, arrived at Helwan on the 18th and congratulated the battalion on its showing in Greece. Amongst the men genuine disappointment was felt that 6 Brigade had not been chosen to serve in Crete alongside the rest of the Division. Various reasons were given for the return of the brigade to Egypt, but these did not lessen the interest shown in the battle for the island. Almost everyone had friends or relatives amongst the defenders.
On 28 May the battalion, in company with the rest of 6 Brigade, left Helwan for the Canal Zone to take up a mobile defensive role with the purpose of opposing any enemy paratroop attacks. It was thought that the Germans might attempt to seize the Suez Canal by this means. Positions were to be taken up on the western side of the Canal. The battalion was ordered to move to Spinney Wood, a small tented camp close to the town of Ismailia, from which, using borrowed transport, it could speedily move to any threatened area.
The rail journey from Helwan was uneventful, and a short march from the station at Ismailia brought the battalion to its new quarters. The camp, previously occupied by Free French troops, was in a dirty and disgusting state. It took several days to clean up the mess, dig trenches around the tents, and improve the almost non-existent sanitary facilities. Fortunately water was laid on and fresh-water showers were always available. Swimming parties were taken to the Canal. The heat was very trying. During the next fortnight there were a few route marches, which invariably left everyone exhausted and in a lather of sweat. Various methods of dealing with paratroop landings were practised. The battle for Crete was over and the danger of an airborne attack on the Suez Canal was thought considerable. However, the greater part of the time was spent working with picks and shovels preparing defences around two nearby aerodromes—not a very acceptable task in hot weather.
The camp contained few amenities for entertainment. Company canteens and the YMCA stocked a wide range of goods. page 70 The beer supply, although better than expected, was never enough to meet the demand. Patriotic Fund parcels which arrived about this time served to supplement the hard rations, but the fresh fruit and vegetables of Maadi and Helwan were sorely missed. The Padre organised lending libraries within companies to while away the evenings. Very little leave was granted. A six-day leave scheme to Cairo or Alexandria, which had been started at Helwan, was continued but only small parties were permitted to leave each week. Troops visiting Ismailia had to carry rifles and bandoliers in case of a surprise enemy attack. This town with its white, cool-looking homes and tropical gardens was in direct contrast to its surroundings. Two clubs, the YMCA and the Blue Kettle Club, the latter run by the ladies of Ismailia, were popular.
On 13 June the battalion moved to another camp at Geneifa, from which it was better able to carry out its role in the brigade defence scheme and continue with its immediate task of preparing aerodrome defences. Unlike Spinney Wood, Geneifa camp covered a huge area stretching for miles around the Great Bitter Lake. Besides New Zealanders it contained thousands of troops of other nationalities, including Free French, Cypriots, British, Australians, Indians, Palestinians, Greeks and Italians. The last were prisoners of war living in a large compound not far from the lines, and a party from the battalion detailed to strengthen the wire around it found them a happy and contented lot. Models of famous buildings made from sand and shells with crude instruments were amazing proof of their craftsmanship.
The battalion was again under canvas. Tent floors consisted of a layer of fine sand, and as the lightest of winds was sufficient to stir this up everything was continually covered with dust. The cooks had the same problem to contend with and each meal served contained a quota of sand, the quantity depending on the strength of the wind. Flies, too, were very troublesome and there seemed to be no way of combating them. The water supply was poor and only at infrequent intervals were showers available. Those who went for a swim in the Great Bitter Lake found the water warm and salty and the shells on the sea bed very sharp. Cuts from these shells often caused poisoned feet. page 71 Although over a hundred men were evacuated to hospital during June and July the general health of the troops was good. Most of the sickness was of a minor nature and was caused by the extreme heat or dysentery. Ninety-four reinforcements were posted to the battalion and a number of changes made in unit appointments. Captain McKergow was transferred to 20 Battalion and Capt Thomson given command of C Company. ‘Doc’ Little and Padre Scott1 were both transferred and were replaced by Capt Jennings2 and Father Kingan.3
In addition to its task at the aerodromes and prisoner-of-war camp, the battalion dug air-raid shelters around 19 British General Hospital. These duties left little opportunity for organised training. Leave continued much as before, except that on 18 July the first party of about eighty men left to spend a week at the Port Fayid rest camp. Others followed later. Despite the sand and the flies Geneifa supplied better amenities than Spinney Wood. Fresh fruit and vegetables reappeared on the menu and there were several Naafis in the vicinity. Air letter cards were introduced and proved very popular. Shafto ran a very dilapidated theatre near the lines, and one evening an English concert party, the Melody Makers, gave an excellent performance. Officers and NCOs attended two lectures at Moascar by General Freyberg and Brigadier Miles,4 the CRA, on the lessons of Greece and Crete. Both campaigns were discussed in some detail and an indication given of the future development and role of the Division.
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Towards the end of July arrangements were made for the battalion to change places with 25 Battalion, stationed 32 miles page 72 away at the Kitchener Barracks, Moascar. At 3.30 a.m. on 30 July the troops set out along a hard bitumen road on a two-day march to the barracks. By 10 a.m. they had reached the half- way point, and the rest of the day was spent bathing in the Canal or nursing sore feet under the shade of nearby trees. Another early start was made next morning and the journey was completed before midday. The Brigade band led the sweating men over the last mile. The barracks were much different from the quarters at Geneifa. Platoons occupied roomy buildings with tiled floors and electric light. Straw-filled palliasses were issued. Sanitary and messing arrangements were good and cold showers were always available. The duties were much the same as at Geneifa. Working parties were sent daily to the nearby aerodrome, 54 British General Hospital, the wharves at El Kirsh, and later to ordnance depots.
At this juncture enemy bombers were raiding the Canal Zone almost every night. Several times while the battalion was there Moascar and nearby aerodromes were bombed. The night of 4–5 August is one that few men of B Coy will forget. Enemy bombers came over in force and heavily bombed the town and its environs. The raid lasted nearly two hours, during which time all ranks lay hopefully in their slit trenches. No New Zealanders were hit but a British unit in a nearby tented area suffered some casualties. After the ‘all clear’ sounded, B Coy was sent into the town with picks and shovels. In the dim light of the approaching dawn fires seemed to be blazing everywhere. The town and townspeople presented a pitiful sight. Frightened natives whimpered in the doorways as the troops went to work in the hope of rescuing some of those buried under the ruins. An old man was brought out minus his legs. Three small children were uncovered, all dead. In one house the only living thing found was a duck. Each time a body was brought out the watching crowd surged forward, moaning and wailing. Over a hundred had been killed and many more injured. About 8.30 a.m. the Company QM arrived with a breakfast of bacon and tomatoes but few of B Coy wanted it.
Nine days later there was another heavy raid on the area. This time the bombers concentrated more on military establishments. The railway station was badly knocked about, a page 73 supply train going up in flames. Parts of the camp received direct hits and the theatre, the officers' mess, and several supply stores were damaged. The nearby aerodrome, hospital, and convalescent depot were also damaged. The British were again unlucky, a bomb landing in their lines. The duty company had a hectic time cleaning up and trying to restore some semblance of order in the town.
About the middle of August 5 Brigade relieved 6 Brigade of its duties. The 23rd Battalion arrived in Moascar on the 16th, and late that night 26 Battalion entrained for Helwan. Over eight hours later the train reached its destination and the men, stiff and tired, marched from the siding to their old quarters. A surprise awaited them. Huts had replaced most of the tents and the amenities and entertainment facilities of the camp had been improved. Training began almost immediately. During the early stages while the battalion was short of equipment and without transport, there were many long route marches and plenty of squad drill. Almost every day new equipment arrived. The Mortar Platoon was increased in size and equipped with six 3-inch mortars. Motor cycles were issued to specialist sections and Company HQs. The two-inch mortar became standard equipment for platoons. New Bren carriers arrived and No. 18 wireless sets were issued. Last of all came the unit transport—new 15-cwts. and three-tonners, nearly all of American manufacture.
After the first fortnight small-scale exercises were introduced into the training syllabus. These were increased in size and scope as the days went by. On 26 August General Freyberg inspected the battalion, and after this date comprehensive exercises using transport were carried out. Considerable emphasis was placed on a new method of travelling over desert country— desert formation—the purpose of which was to provide tactical formation while on the move. The sight of a brigade moving across country in this formation was truly magnificent. An exercise frequently carried out at this time involved the move of a company or battalion in desert formation by day or night towards an objective. The trucks would stop and the infantry would advance on foot with air, tank, artillery and mortar support.page 74
Not every evening was spent on night exercises. The troops were able to enjoy performances by several concert parties or attend the nightly shows at the Pall Mall cinema. Everyone realised that the training carried out over the past weeks had been to fit the battalion for a more active role. During the second week in September advice was received that 6 Brigade would return to the Canal Zone and take part in divisional exercises. An advanced party under Capt Wilson left for the new area and took over from 20 Battalion only to learn that plans had been changed. The Division was now to concentrate at Baggush, about 150 miles east of the Egypt-Libya frontier.
When the news of the change of plan reached Battalion HQ everyone was certain that the future role of the Division would be bound up in a desert campaign. The assembly area was already known to New Zealanders as Baggush Box, or more commonly as the Box. It was a fortress area on the sea coast and included the Sidi Haneish railway siding. The battalion left Helwan by train on the morning of the 18th. The journey occupied a full day, a stop being made at Amiriya for a hot meal. Everyone was glad to leave the dirty, smelly carriages with their hard seats and floors. Trucks carried the troops from Sidi Haneish to Baggush, each vehicle stirring up thick clouds of yellow dust which permeated everything. The unit transport column had already reached the battalion sector, which lay in the north-east corner of the Box close to the sea.
Company areas were allotted—C, D, and HQ Coys near the beach, B Coy inland, and A Coy on a hill about a mile away and not far from 24 Battalion. Everywhere there was sand; but the ground was by no means level, easy-sloped wadis stretching up from the beach to sharply defined ridges. A small oasis of palms and a few stunted bushes were the only vegetation in the area. Elements of an Indian division had previously occupied the sector and had dug numerous deep dugouts, many of which were reoccupied by the men. By morning they were aware that the dugouts abounded with lice. The first task of the battalion was the same as that of all other units in the area, namely to take every precaution against enemy air observation. So the battalion went underground.
Before long the Box was an amazing sight. Thousands of New page 75 Zealanders were encamped within an area which from the air appeared to be just another part of the desert. From ground level the effect was almost as good. Here and there were a few funnels and mounds. The only blot on the landscape was the latrine which, open to the four winds of heaven and crowning some barren ridge, defied all schemes to drive it underground. Orderly rooms, cookhouses, and stores were all dug in below the level of the sand so that the area resembled a gigantic rabbit warren. As one soldier put it to his little daughter:
In a burrow like a bunny, father has his little lair,
Sleeps and eats and reads and lazes, sometimes coming up for air,
Puts his head beneath a trickle when he wants to have a wash,
Bumping other bunnies ‘cos there's something of a squash.
Despite a shortage of timber all sorts of doors and barricades were erected to keep out the innumerable flies and the fine dust swept up by the gentle sea breezes. Galvanised iron was very popular although makeshifts of truck covers and bivouac tents were common. Some of the dugouts boasted all sorts of conveniences, ranging from kerosene lamps and candles, fireplaces and special air ventilators to draught eliminators. Meals were good, but as they had to be eaten out in the open, sand and flies often got mixed up with the food. Water had to be carted from some distance away and for this reason was rationed to two water bottles full a day. Frequent bathing in the nearby surf solved the problem of personal washing.
From a training point of view the area was ideal, for field exercises could now be carried out under battle conditions. Once the troops had settled down these exercises were carried out nearly every day or night. Each one was repeated until Col Page was satisfied it was done correctly. This principle alone made the training gruelling and often boring. Considerable attention was paid to the movement of battalions and brigades in desert formation. Sometimes the long columns of vehicles spread out over the horizon would manæuvre in the desert for several days repeating and repeating one exercise—the approach march by desert navigation and assault of an enemy fortified position. This was hard on the men travelling in the backs of the trucks. Twenty to each vehicle, they had to stand hanging on to straps for hours on end, all the while breathing in choking page 76 yellow dust. Hard rations, bully beef and biscuits, plus a small quota of water, was the fare. As the Colonel announced in one of his lectures, these were the conditions under which the battalion would have to fight.
Towards the end of October the intensive training period ended, lectures and short route marches taking its place. Groups of officers paid short visits to the front to gain knowledge of conditions there. All equipment was checked over and battle dress reissued. Ammunition, grenades, and emergency rations were issued to each platoon and the troops realised their days in the area were numbered. In the meantime, under the guidance of Father Kingan, football came into prominence. With South Africans camped nearby it was inevitable that challenges would be made and accepted. The battalion team, one of the best ever fielded by the unit, excelled itself and defeated the South Africans. Later a Divisional team played the Springboks and also won, to the great delight of about 5000 vociferous New Zealand supporters.