27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 16 — Victory in Africa
Victory in Africa
The enemy fell back to prepared positions at Wadi Akarit, a formidable obstacle about 20 miles beyond Gabes. New Zealand Corps, having completed its task of forcing Tebaga Gap, was disbanded on 31 March. This time 51 (Highland) and 50 (Northumbrian) and 4 Indian Divisions were to make the assault, and when a bridgehead had been won across the wadi, the New Zealand Division was to go through and exploit.
Almost 500 guns began their barrage at 4.15 a.m. on 6 April, and the fighting went on all day. The New Zealanders edged forward, waited, and listened to the constant thudding of the artillery. By daybreak on the 7th the enemy had gone. The Division went through the gap and out onto the plain of central Tunisia. Pressing hard on the heels of the retreating enemy were the Highlanders on the main coastal road; the New Zealanders, two armoured divisions and the Fighting French were farther inland. Two machine-gun companies (2 and 4) were with 5 Brigade, 1 Company with the 6th, and the rest of the battalion in Reserve Group. Lieutenant-Colonel Robbie had taken over command from Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin on 3 April.
When the Division halted for the night, 5 Brigade formed a gunline while 23 Battalion went on ahead to attempt to get astride a road which ran across the front. After an extremely rough journey the battalion was just short of the road early next morning (the 8th). The six-pounders and 5 Platoon's Vickers opened up on the traffic on the road, destroyed eight vehicles, and captured some Germans and equipment.
The advance continued in fits and starts over rough country on 8 April, and in places the bulldozers, which had been indispensable since the ‘left hook’ at El Agheila, were called upon to improve the tracks. After nightfall a battle group—8 Armoured Brigade, followed by the Maori Battalion (with 4 and 11 Platoons under command), Divisional Cavalry, and the rest of 5 Brigade—crossed the Mahares-Maknassy railway, and without meeting any opposition went some distance through olive groves and fields of wheat and barley and brilliant wild flowers. page 339 A bitterly cold wind and frequent halts made it an outstandingly unpleasant trip. At daybreak enemy columns, apparently taken by surprise, were seen streaming away to the north.
The Division drove up to the Sfax-Sbeitla road, still held by the enemy on the 9th, and the artillery deployed to engage some tanks which counter-attacked but were driven off. Half a dozen Stukas released their bombs near 5 Brigade, and fighters strafed the column without doing much harm. A shell from a Bofors, which was firing too low, hit 2 Company's quartermaster's truck and injured three men. A patrol including a Sherman tank, some carriers, anti-tank guns and 2 Platoon, sent out to investigate a report that there were Germans on the right flank, scoured the countryside and captured two Italians (one of them an officer) with a diesel truck. Just on dusk the six-pounders knocked out two German tanks, whose crews escaped.
It was proposed to cut off the enemy's retreat north of Sfax, but before the Division got away in the morning of the 10th a report was received that British armoured cars had entered the town. The enemy, apprehensive about being caught by another ‘left hook’ had slipped away again. The Division drove through immense olive groves to La Hencha. The troops were living well: ‘Lamb chops for breakfast … the spoils of war.’ ‘A bit of cunning work enabled us to have chicken, mashed spuds and broad beans for tea.’
The Division was away again in the afternoon of the 11th, still through olives, fields of grain and wild flowers, and past the colosseum at El Djem. A patrol of the King's Dragoon Guards entered Sousse early next day, closely followed by some New Zealanders. The Germans, who had left the town only a few minutes earlier, were pursued along the road towards Enfidaville.
Fifth Brigade tried to bypass Sousse by a secondary route, but the traffic became horribly congested in narrow lanes between cactus hedges, trees and stone walls. A long and exceedingly tedious journey brought the Maori Battalion to Sidi Bou Ali, and in the very early hours of the 13th the accompanying 4 and 11 Platoons planted their Vickers in a wheatfield about a mile beyond the village before going to bed. MacLean (11 Platoon) wrote that '2 or 3 tank “overs” land nearby while we're in our blankets but too tired to care…. Up again at 5 AM after 2 hrs' sleep, to the tune of nearby shell-bursts….’
Tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade, probing towards Enfidaville on the 13th, were hampered by olive groves which obscured the page 340 vision of their crews. The 21st Battalion was despatched to give local protection, and its Bren carriers and 6 Platoon reconnoitred with the tanks. The battalion formed a gunline (including 10 Platoon's Vickers) behind which the armour laagered for the night about five miles from the town.
The enemy withdrew into the broken, mountainous country behind Enfidaville, and in the hope that it might be possible to ‘bump’ him out before he had time to settle in properly, page 341 5 Brigade set out to capture the 1000-foot massif, Djebel Garci, and then advance on Enfidaville from the west. Led by 23 Battalion the brigade emerged from the cactus hedges and olive groves onto open ground in full view of the enemy. Brigadier Kippenberger decided, however, that Garci was at least a divisional objective, so directed the attack on a 600-foot rocky outcrop, Takrouna, between it and Enfidaville.
The 23rd Battalion had gone only a few hundred yards in this direction when shells began to fall among the trucks, which sped forward to a patch of cactus and some native hovels on rising ground (Point 70), where the troops debussed. The battalion prepared to attack, but the Brigadier decided that the attempt to ‘gate crash’ this strong position would fail and ordered the battalion to dig in. A small stream, Wadi el Boul, lay about a mile ahead, and beyond it, about four miles away, the crag of Takrouna, crowned by a mosque and some other buildings, rose abruptly from the plain.
The supporting Vickers went into position, 12 Platoon on the 23rd's right flank and 5 Platoon on the left; later, when the Maori Battalion joined the 23rd, 4 and 11 Platoons also went into position. The machine-gunners had several successful shoots against troops and vehicles beyond Wadi el Boul.
The 21st Battalion rejoined 5 Brigade and in the evening of the 14th crossed Wadi el Boul on foot to take up positions just south of the Enfidaville-Pont du Fahs road, where 10 Platoon dug in. At daybreak it was discovered that the enemy had direct observation from Point 121, a small, bare knoll about a mile north of the wadi, which made movement almost impossible. The infantry captured the knoll, on which 6 Platoon dug in before dawn on the 16th. Still overlooked from higher ground the knoll was shelled intensely, and during the next four days the platoon took a hammering without being able to hit back. One of its guns was knocked out by a mortar bomb which landed under the barrel.
By this time 6 Brigade had moved up towards Enfidaville. Attempts to enter the town and to outflank it from the coastal side were unsuccessful, so 25 and 26 Battalions went into positions astride the railway less than two miles to the south, with their supporting arms, including the three platoons of 1 Company, sited to cover the front.
The 1800-mile pursuit from Alamein had ended. The Axis forces were hemmed in on the broad promontory of northern page 342 Tunisia by Eighth Army in the south and First Army and the United States Corps in the west. Eighth Army, still 50 miles from Tunis and with mountain ranges athwart its line of advance, was to pin down as many of the enemy as possible on its front while First Army and the Americans, in country more suitable for the deployment of armour, launched an offensive intended to bring about the final surrender of the enemy in Africa.
Eighth Army, therefore, was to attack the Enfidaville positions on 20 April, two days before the offensive in the north. The New Zealand Division was to strike into the hills beyond the town, and 4 Indian Division, on its left, was to attack Djebel Garci; 50 Division was to cover the coastal flank, and 7 Armoured Division the inland flank.
After 201 Guards Brigade took over from 25 Battalion in the coastal sector on the night of 16–17 April, 26 Battalion (with 2 and 3 Platoons among its supporting arms) was the only battalion of 6 Brigade in the line. The Maori Battalion was withdrawn for a rest, and 4 and 11 Platoons went back to camp in country where the grass, weeds and wild flowers were knee high.
Swarms of mosquitoes, though fortunately not the malaria carrying kind, were ‘giving us perfect hell. We're almost bitten to death—they are even on the job at midday. No let up. Even wearing balaclava, scarf, gloves etc makes little difference.’ Sleepless nights aggravated the fatigue and strain.
Sixth Brigade's objectives, a long ridge named Hamaid en Nakrla and a roundish hill, Djebel Ogla, were to be taken by 26 and 24 Battalions, and a composite machine-gun company (1, 3 and 8 Platoons), under Captain Joseph's command, was to give neutralising fire on 26 Battalion's open right flank. A preliminary reconnaissance was impossible in daylight, but direction pegs were placed on a corrected bearing, and the twelve guns dug in in the evening of the 19th without being detected.
Fifth Brigade had a more difficult task. In the first phase 28 and 21 Battalions were to capture Djebel Bir and the ground on both sides of Takrouna. Takrouna itself was to be the Maoris' responsibility, but the 21st was to help if the opportunity occurred. In the second phase 23 Battalion was to cross the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road, beyond Takrouna, and attack the jagged ridge of Djebel Froukr. The three platoons of 2 Company were to support 21 Battalion on the left flank.page 343
Captain Moore, Lieutenant Titchener and Second-Lieutenant Power1 went forward to place the pegs for the three platoons. ‘We had been informed that the enemy was getting short of ammunition,’ says Moore. ‘Well! for the next hour, though there were only three of us, he chased us around every time we moved with such concentrations of shell fire that one would think he had unlimited ammo. Finally we separated and finished the job.’
Takrouna, 19–20 April 1943
After dark 6 Platoon left Point 121 to join 2 Company's gunline; it replaced 10 Platoon, which withdrew and stood by ready to go forward with 21 Battalion.
At zero hour, 11 p.m., the artillery began its barrage and concentrations in support of the advancing infantry, and the page 344 Vickers also went into action. Joseph's twelve guns did a timed shoot for thirty-two minutes, followed by harassing fire until midnight, and used 41,000 rounds. ‘During the whole time we were in action,” he reported, ‘there was no return fire, and after 10 mins. no fire was observed coming from the village [Enfidaville]. 26 Bn reported that they were not fired on from their right flank during the whole attack. A recce, the following morning indicated that the target areas had been effectively engaged.’
With no great difficulty both 26 and 24 Battalions reached their objectives, and before daybreak 2 and 3 Platoons were established in forward localities with them. One of 3 Platoon's guns was hit, temporarily repaired, and later replaced.
During the first forty minutes of the attack 2 Company shot away 44,500 rounds in support of 21 Battalion. The Vickers' task, says Moore, ‘was to start 300x ahead of the Arty Barrage and move forward along the left flank of Takrouna. So that there could be no mistake about timing the lifts I had all three pns connected by phone to Coy HQ and gave the time from there. As 21 Bn had not been warned … that we were giving overhead fire they found the noise confusing….
‘After the timed shoot I intended to go across to Lieut Brown whose slit trench was only about 50 yds away from mine. On lifting the phone however I heard Lieut Brown and Titchener talking together and Brown seemed on top of the world. “We gave the Bs Hell,” he said. Checking all pns and finding no casualties I decided to report to 5 Bde HQ which was only about 150 yds away. This I did and while I was at Bde HQ one of the men came over and told me that a stray shell had landed in Lieut Brown's slit-trench.” He was killed instantly.
Moore was ordered to put two platoons on Point 121, but this was impracticable because the knoll was still under enemy observation, and there was not sufficient time to dig in in the solid limestone. Before dawn, therefore, 4 and 5 Platoons dug in to the rear of Point 121, where they could protect the left flank. They were shelled and had several casualties.
The three platoons of 4 Company were intended to help 5 Brigade consolidate on its objectives. The Maoris suffered many casualties, including most of their officers, from artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire; booby-trapped minefields, cactus hedges, trenches and ditches added to their difficulties. They were held up on the lower slopes of Djebel Bir, in the valley between Bir and Takrouna, and on the slopes of Takrouna page 345 itself. Next day, therefore, 11 Platoon remained in a barley field near the start line. On the western side of Takrouna 21 Battalion, after an extremely difficult and costly advance to the Zaghouan road, was withdrawn to its original position, and consequently 10 Platoon went back to disperse near Brigade Headquarters just before dawn. The 23rd Battalion, which was to attack Djebel Froukr whether or not the 21st and 28th were successful, broke through the valley between Bir and Takrouna, crossed the road, and reached the top of Djebel Cherachir, immediately south of Froukr. But no supporting arms could get there; after making three attempts 12 Platoon was pulled back to B Echelon.
Takrouna gave observation over the ground that had been won and also the artillery positions on the open plain below; its capture, therefore, was absolutely essential. Two whole days and nights of extremely stubborn fighting and individual gallantry were to elapse before it was finally secured by 28 and 21 Battalions.
The Maoris captured Djebel Bir on the morning of the 20th. Lieutenant Cramond, Sergeant Hatherly and two others of 11 Platoon, going out in the afternoon to reconnoitre for machine-gun positions, were pinned down by shellfire for an hour and a half behind a low sloping bank before making a very hurried departure. After dark the platoon occupied a position near Headquarters 28 Battalion, below Takrouna and facing towards Enfidaville. The men dug in deep and had some rest despite the rain, wet blankets and hordes of mosquitoes.
Sixth Brigade's reserve battalion (the 25th), which relieved the 23rd on Djebel Cherachir that night, wanted machine-gun support. Captain Moore was told that if he went round the right flank of Takrouna he would find a guide who would take him to the battalion. ‘I had half an hour to daylight,’ he says. ‘On the previous night I had told all except skeleton gun crews and piquets to get a good night's rest. So by the time I had awakened Lieut Power's pn [5 Platoon] and they had packed all their gear on their trucks it was daylight. And we had about 3 miles to go….
“When we came to the foot of Takrouna on the right flank there was no guide to be seen. However I found a Maori Officer who told me where to go. Over the saddle and about 800 yds along the track which goes through the minefield. “The track is covered by a jerry MG,” he said. So I left the six pn trucks in a olive grove which at least gave a certain amount of cover page 346 from view, and drove forward to 25 Bn with my sigs Cpl. I noticed a certain amount of sniping coming from a hump on the right that was supposed to be cleared. Finding 25 Bn I left my Sigs Cpl in ditch by the road and moved back to Pn. called for sec comds. Told them that we would move through minefield at 100 yds apart, debuss at a point I would show them, turn the trucks and move out to our coy area with 25 Bn. I moved forward in my jeep and watched them come on. I saw the German machine gun bullets hit the side of their trucks. … I must give credit to the drivers who kept their distance and allowed the trucks ahead to unload before they arrived on the short piece of road where we debussed. German MG gave a perfect example of a swinging traverse along the piece of road where we were and it was only a ditch about 6 ft wide and 2 ft 6 in deep in which we took cover that saved us.
“Then he really went to town on us with his rocket propelled [multiple] mortars or Nebel Werfers. Noisy brutes especially as he was using them at that stage in Batts of three so that eighteen bombs arrived almost at once. Like a fool I ducked and a piece of the bomb casing bounced off my face. This was rather disconcerting as though I was conscious I could not see. Sgt Ball2 … wrapped me up with a couple of shell dressings, and the sight about strength one came back into the left eye so I was able to guide a member of No. 5 pn who acted as my driver back to Bde HQ…. I went over to the ADS where some well meaning chump gave me a shot of morphine. I will never forget the effort needed to stay awake for 20 minutes until Titchener [who became acting OC 2 Company] came and I could give him the score as to where No. 5 Pn was and how to get to them.’
Lieutenant Wylie3 assumed command of 4 Platoon. After handing over the gunline to 10 Platoon, 6 (now commanded by Lieutenant Brooks4) took over the position vacated by 5 on the left flank. Next day 5's commander (Power) was wounded, and a Vickers knocked out; in the evening this platoon was relieved by 4.
There was little that the machine-gunners could do in any of these positions, for (as MacLean wrote) they had to take cover page 347 from ‘about heaviest enemy shelling I've ever seen—mostly big stuff and very spectacular…. Intense arty barrage on both sides … booming and concussion in our slit trenches is most uncomfortable. Nothing to do but lie (flat out) … till dark.’ Tanks from a regiment of 8 Armoured Brigade were observed cleaning out enemy gun nests.
After going into position on the northern side of Takrouna during the night of 21–22 April, 12 Platoon ‘suffered extremely heavy fire from mortar and shells, being forced to leave gun positions and take cover. No casualties but lost one gun, this being completely written off.’ Next evening 11 Platoon relieved 12 in this position, getting there ‘without incident, to our surprise and relief,’ and 12 went to the southern slope.
From daybreak on the 23rd 11 Platoon, for the fourth successive day, was confined to slit trenches, gunpits or any other shelter the men could find. ‘We occupied a position on a forward slope [about half-way up the hill], giving good view & coverage of the enemy positions, on a long, low ridge below us,’ says Private Andrews. ‘However, we were fully exposed too, and any movement on our part was readily seen. We set up our guns in a sort of open court-yard, behind a low stone wall … As it got lighter, we could see what a shambles the place was, it had been plastered and blasted to hell….’ A cave formed by a huge slab of fallen rock ‘stank of Wogs & goats. … The Ities had made a bivvy of it too, and they had added to the refuse & stench. However we shovelled all the rubbish out, then filled ammo boxes & sandbags, with rocks & dirt, & stacked them across the doorway to prevent shell blast & splinters.’
Enemy troops could be seen moving boldly about their dugouts, and shaking their blankets, less than a mile away. The Vickers had not been shooting in case they drew return fire on such an exposed position, but Andrews obtained permission to ‘give them a little hurry-up with one gun at least…. we soon had a lot of blokes diving into holes smartly.’ The gun, which had been placed in a freshly blown hole in the wall, raised the dust when it fired. Within a few minutes ‘a battery of field arty opened up on us with admirable accuracy, their first ranging shell screaming head high over our gun, to burst on the rock cliff face behind us.page 348
‘Needless to say our “shoot” packed up without orders, and with one accord we all piled into the cave, about 7 or 8 all told, and mighty thankful we were for it, for we really got a pasting. At 1.30 [p.m.] a shell landed smack in our doorway, and burst on the cliff face about 3 ft from us…. The whole cave was temporarily blacked out, with dust, soot, smoke & bits of rock…. I seemed to be the worst hit, although I think every man had minute bits in him somewhere. It was typical of Mark Hatherly, that he supervised putting a field dressing on my shoulder, before disclosing the fact that he was quite badly hit himself….
‘All that afternoon we were pinned down to that little Wog rock-hole…. Even though we were shelled practically incessantly … on two occasions Bob Steel crawled outside and lit a fire, to brew up a billy of tea for us.” In the evening a Maori medical orderly evacuated Andrews and Hatherly in a captured German car.
That night, when 5 Brigade's sector was taken over by 51 (Highland) Division, the machine guns were withdrawn, 2 Company to Battalion Headquarters in Reserve Group, and 4 Company with 5 Brigade to its rest area. The infantry had numerous casualties during the changeover, but only one machine-gunner (Woodhall) was wounded.
The Indian Division had a very fierce struggle for Djebel Garci, and it was obvious that any further attempt in this mountainous region would be at too great a cost. The policy adopted, therefore, was to deepen the coastal salient north of Enfidaville with 201 Guards Brigade (now under the command of 56 Division) and 6 NZ Brigade, the latter with the Vickers of 1 and 3 Company at its disposal.
Sixth Brigade advanced without opposition to the next line of ridges, 24 Battalion to Djebel Hamaid and the 26th to Djebel Dar Djaji, in the evening of 23 April. The supporting arms followed close behind the infantry, and 1 Platoon dug in on Hamaid and 8 Platoon on Dar Djaji. Corporal Barraclough6 and Private Stroud,7, both of the latter platoon, were killed by shellfire next morning.
A second night advance was made by 26 Battalion. This time intense shell, mortar and machine-gun fire were encountered, page 349 and posts had to be taken with rifle and grenade. Djebel Terhouna was secured, and 9 Platoon and the other supporting arms, brought up just before dawn on the 25th, were sited on the southern slopes. At Djebel es Srafi, farther west, the infantry held on uneasily to the southern slopes, and it was impossible to get the supporting weapons there before dawn. The 25th Battalion, supported by 3 and 7 Platoons, moved up in rear to deepen the defences. Tanks accompanied by a few infantry went over the crest of Srafi later in the day, and by dusk the anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns were in position and the Guards Brigade in line on the right flank. The hostile fire scarcely diminished.
Sixth Brigade handed over its sector to troops of 51 and 56 Divisions on the night of 26–27 April and withdrew to the Sidi Bou Ali area; 3 Company went back with the brigade, and 1 Company joined Battalion Headquarters in Reserve Group. For the next few days everybody, or nearly everybody, lazed in the sun, fought the mosquitoes, cleaned equipment, went to Hergla beach to bathe, watched flight after flight of fighters and bombers pass overhead, and listened to BBC broadcasts for news of how the war was going. Padre Underhill (from 25 Battalion) conducted a very well attended church parade on the 30th, and the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, came in the afternoon.
That morning Major Kirk, OC 4 Company, suddenly collapsed while stooping to tie his boot laces; he had been struck in the back of the head by a .303 bullet carelessly fired into the air by some unknown person in the neighbourhood. He died four days later.
The northward thrust, which had progressed about five miles beyond Enfidaville, was abandoned, and Eighth Army's role became that of holding the existing line and keeping up pressure by limited attacks while First Army delivered the coup de grâce farther north.
The New Zealand Division was ordered to the western flank, south-west of Djebel Garci, and on 4 May 5 Brigade, with 4 Company (now commanded by Captain Rose) in support, led the way to Djebibina. In the evening 10 Platoon went into the line with 21 Battalion and 12 with the 23rd, while 11 stayed in reserve with the Maori Battalion. During the next two nights the infantry pushed a mile or two into the hills without much interference other than spasmodic shelling and mortaring.page 350
The weather deteriorated; a cold wind reached gale force and very heavy rain fell; Fifth Brigade, bringing the Maori Battalion into the line, worked forward again in the darkness, with the idea of persuading the enemy to give up Djebel Garci. The enemy showed no intention of going.
While visiting 12 Platoon early in the morning of 8 May, Rose was caught in some heavy shelling and wounded. Captain Hume then became 4 Company's third OC in a week. In the evening 11 and 12 Platoons changed places; 11, going into position near 23 and 28 Battalions, was shelled most of the night, ‘including about a dozen salvoes from Wurlitzers (Nebelwerfers) —like the rush of an express, or an approaching tornado.’
Tunis and Bizerta had fallen on 7 May. The Axis forces facing Eighth Army were almost completely surrounded; and yet they continued to resist. The Division returned to the Enfidaville sector, where it was proposed that 169 Brigade of 56 (London) Division should make a fresh attack. Supported by a few anti-tank guns and sixteen Vickers (1, 2, 3 and 8 Platoons), 25 Battalion replaced 169 Brigade in the line on the night of 9–10 May. The attack was not successful.
A Fighting French division, in 5 Brigade's old sector around Takrouna, captured Djebel Froukr, and 2 Platoon, which had a grandstand view of this attack, moved 1000 yards farther forward. The enemy guns, mortars and nebelwerfers, obviously shooting away their stocks of ammunition, sprayed the countryside indiscriminately. Our artillery retaliated with the heaviest counter-battery programme of the whole campaign, and the bombers lent a hand. The enemy showed white flags, but apparently was not prepared to walk through his own minefields to surrender. In the evening of the 12th Lieutenant Aislabie's platoon (2) was called upon to silence machine-gun fire from Point 141, and ‘gave it a doing over—no more trouble….’ This was the Vickers' last shoot against the enemy in Africa.
On 13 May the battle was over. General Freyberg received the surrender of Marshal Messe, commander of First Italian Army, and the last of more than a quarter of a million Axis8 troops laid down their arms. From first light prisoners appeared in hundreds from wadis and dugouts all over the place. Aislabie's men, in search of loot, found “Jerry gear all broken up & mines everywhere…. Enemy seemed glad it was over—we were.’page 351
The Division began the 2000-mile trek back to Maadi on the 15th, and the battalion, 545 strong9 in 116 aged vehicles, departed with 6 Brigade in the second flight next day. Travelling by easy stages the convoy passed through Kairouan (a walled holy city), Mareth and Medenine to Suani Ben Adem, where there was a day's halt and the LOBs and reinforcements joined the battalion; along the coastal road, past the culverts and bridges blown during the Axis retreat, the minefields, burnt-out tanks and lorries, and roadside graves; past Nofilia, Marble Arch and El Agheila to within a few miles of Benghazi, where another day was spent in rest and maintenance of vehicles; up the steep and winding passes onto the fertile Gebel Akhdar; through Italian colonial settlements deserted except by the native Senussi; down a spectacular, precipitous zigzag to the pretty little coastal town of Derna and up a similar zigzag the other side; through more fertile land gradually dropping to sea level near Gazala, and back into the desert again; past huge junk heaps of derelict vehicles, tanks, guns and aircraft, more minefields and wire, Tobruk's graveyard of ships, and Bardia, Sollum, Buq Buq, Sidi Barrani, Mersa Matruh, Baggush, Fuka, Daba and Alamein, all for the last time, to Amiriya (not for the last time); and then Cairo—‘Great reception from the Wogs … no doubt in anticipation of baksheesh’—and Maadi Camp, reached on 1 June.
The announcement that 6000 men with the longest service were to return to New Zealand on furlough was greeted with jubilation by those who were soon to sail with the ruapehu draft, and unsettled the veterans of the first three echelons who missed out in the ballot—but their turn came later.
The Division was to absorb its reinforcements and reorganise at Maadi Camp after a month given mostly to rest; so great was the exodus on leave to Cairo and Palestine that scarcely sufficient men could be found to carry on camp duties and fatigues.
Training was resumed in the first week of July. It was mid-summer, fearfully hot, and the route marches intended to harden the men after their holiday soon had them wringing wet with page 352 perspiration. Some of the old-timers, perhaps a little intolerant, were not very impressed with the latest reinforcements; one NCO declared they were ‘lazy and incompetent … not used to roughing it, or perhaps I should say “wogging” it.’ Nevertheless, some newcomers were very enthusiastic. When General Freyberg visited the battalion and was introduced to the officers, a subaltern wrote in his diary: “I was never prouder to shake anybody's hand. He told us about the Div. organisation, which is the strongest and most mobile in the world, and with as many weapons10 as two panzer divs. together. Apart from its weapons it has the most intelligent soldiers of any fighting unit.’
The companies went out on exercises in the rugged desert east of Maadi; they took up positions, did live shoots and set- piece attacks, and bathed in the tepid, very salty Red Sea. On 13 September 1 Company was attached to 5 Brigade for three days' manoeuvres in the Bir Gindali region, between Maadi and Suez. Two days later the remainder of the battalion, attached to 6 Brigade and under the temporary command of Major Joseph, left Maadi for Burg el Arab, and on the 19th 1 Company followed with 5 Brigade. The officers of this company farewelled Lieutenant-Colonel Robbie, who was returning to New Zealand and was to be succeeded as CO by Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff.11
The battalion debussed at the 40-kilometre post (near Mena) on the Cairo-Alexandria road, and on each of seven successive evenings marched 20 kilometres (approximately 12 ½ miles) on the bitumen, and at the end of each lap the men pitched their bivvy tents alongside the road. Some fell out with blistered feet, but the majority ‘maintained a good swinging stride of 112 to the minute right throughout.’ They boarded their trucks at the 180-kilometre peg and, passing through Amiriya, drove to their camp area among the white sand dunes on the Mediterranean shore.
The month closed with 3 and 4 Companies on exercises with 6 Brigade and 1 Company with 5 Brigade in the desert south of Burg el Arab. General Freyberg explained the manoeuvres to the officers and NCOs, and spoke of future movements—‘left us guessing as to our destination.’page 353
On 3 October the battalion (less 1 Company and the vehicles, which were to follow on different dates12) moved in two groups, A and B, to Ikingi Maryut transit camp, Amiriya, and two days later to Alexandria. Group A embarked on the Reina del Pacifico and Group B on the Dunottar Castle, the men staggering like overloaded packhorses under their blanket rolls, winter and summer clothing, personal gear, weapons and ammunition (including the Vickers plus 1000 rounds for each gun), respirators, emergency rations, anti-malarial ointment and tablets, one bivvy tent between two men, and an empty water can for each man.
The ships sailed under escort early next morning, and shortly afterwards the troops were told that they were bound for Italy. Italy had surrendered the previous month, but the Germans still occupied the greater part of their former ally's country.
10 When 2 NZ Div left Egypt in Oct 1943 it had 167 Sherman tanks, 9 Stuart tanks, 60 Staghounds, 170 armoured cars and scout cars, 129 carriers, 72 25-pounder guns, 12 17-pounder anti-tank guns, 88 six-pounder anti-tank guns, 36 Bofors ack-ack guns, 39 three-inch mortars, and 60 Vickers medium machine guns.
11 Lt-Col J. L. MacDuff, MC, m.i.d.; Nairobi, Kenya; born NZ 11 Dec 1905; barrister and solicitor; CO 27 (MG) Bn 24 Sep 1943–29 Feb 1944, 25 Bn Feb–Jun 1944, Adv Base 2 NZEF Jun–Jul 1944; Supreme Court judge, Kenya.