4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 10 — Minqar Qaim
WELL behind the Division tagged Hugh Wareing1 and George Newton. Their 4 RMT truck, after breaking down, had been fixed at Maadi. On the outskirts of Cairo, near the Pyramids, they swung the truck into a side street, dropped into the home of some English friends, and were deep in a steaming bath when a servant burst in yelling that the truck was being stolen. Stark naked, the two raced into the street. Sure enough the old bus was just under way, a red-cap at the helm. After abuse on both sides they got the truck back. ‘I can't book you for being improperly dressed, for damn me you're not dressed at all,’ said the red-cap, much aggrieved.
No driver was sorry when the record dash from Syria to Mersa Matruh—900 miles in five days—ended. The sweltering summer heat messed up carburettors everywhere. At first drivers thought engines jibbed and played up because of petrol blockages, but they soon found that the heat and the burning hot wind were vapourising petrol in the pipes between pump bowls and carburettors. Engines failed all over the place through lack of petrol. To cool them off a little, drivers removed bonnet covers and, whenever the chance came, flung water over the simmering works. One good remedy on the V8s was half a big grapefruit pushed over the petrol pump. Usually motors ran at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, but during part of this trip they registered 212 degrees or more, a dangerously high level. Tires burst apart unless pressures were checked constantly and methodically kept down. On top of this was the hot and tiring business of driving in convoy.
Like climbing into a baker's oven was the descent to Lake Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee, which is almost 700 feet below sea level. Petrol vapourising had thinned out convoys, and trucks seemed to be travelling independently. Skirting the lake page 180 men kept an eye out for a good swimming place. In one lovely spot a stream gurgled under gum trees. Here motors conveniently petered out again. Drivers and passengers douched the boiling engines then lolled and rolled gloriously in the cool water. With everything from clothes to motors thoroughly drenched, and with wet towels knotted round their heads, drivers set off again.
During the long pull out of the depression steep corners held up lorries. When halts took place one or two hospitable Palestinians would ask a few New Zealanders into their homes. Over cups of tea flavoured with lemon or cognac instead of milk, one Jew, mopping his brow, explained that the heatwave had been in full swing for three days. The temperature in the shade of his verandah was 125 degrees, and he reckoned it would be at least 135 degrees by the lakeside. The evening came in cool beauty to heat-exhausted bodies. Standing on the running-board and dressed only in shorts, a man swore he never wanted to be hot again.
Palestine, except for the orchards, was burnt brown. Families threshed and stacked crops. Wherever fat water-melons lay basking the travellers stopped to barter or to swipe.
While men at the tail end of the convoy splashed under the welcome showers set up at the water and petrol point of Asluj, word came through that Tobruk had fallen. Silent, frowning men bunched around the radio. How the hell? Tobruk gone? Tobruk? Just like that? Over 30,000 men and all their stuff in the bag? Tobruk had stood as a symbol of guts and defiance. Now even that had been wrenched down.
The last 150-odd miles across the Sinai Desert ended. Some trucks halted near enough for men to dive and swim in the Suez Canal. Even when paid in Egyptian money many still believed they were going back to the Pacific. A few clung stubbornly to hopes of home until they had gone as far as Cairo and Mena, where red-cap yells of ‘Improperly dressed! Put on your shirts! That's an order!’ passed unheeded. Realising the anxiety of the hour, newspaper boys made special efforts to sell copies of the Mail and the Gazette to drivers whisking past. Round the next bend disgusted men found the papers were weeks old.page 181
Racing along the rutty Amiriya-Matruh highway, drivers watched with growing surprise the mass of traffic speeding in the opposite direction towards Alexandria. Every unit in the desert seemed to be represented in the race: supply columns, troop-carriers, the RAF. For the RAF to be pulling back looked sinister. One of its convoys swept past, store wagons piled high with equipment and the litter of camp life: tables, chairs, latrine seats, and even bicycles roped precariously on top of the loads. Weary-eyed troops straight from rearguard actions would shout: ‘You're going the wrong way, chum.’
All rumours of Pacific duties were dead, buried, and forgotten.
The 4th RMT's operating platoons, after taking battalions of 5 Brigade to positions on the outer defences of Matruh, had joined Headquarters and Workshops at Smugglers' Cove, about a mile away from the area the company had occupied just two years ago. All through 23 June transport and tanks, ambulances and guns, streamed east. Two days later Headquarters and Workshops left for Fuka. A night air raid over Workshops' area at Smugglers' Cove had set fire to and completely destroyed a load-carrier packed with spare parts and replacements, a severe loss. Slightly wounded were Drivers Brattle3 and ‘Wally’ Boneham4 and Corporal Marriner.5 An outraged driver, Tony Shand,6 was blown from his bed in a truck.
When the Fuka move began 4 RMT's operating platoons were ordered to collect 4 Brigade's battalions for Minqar Qaim: 1 Platoon, 28 (Maori) Battalion; 2 Platoon, 18 Battalion; page 182 3 Platoon,7 20 Battalion; 4 Platoon, 19 Battalion. A weary 2 Platoon, reporting back from Amiriya at dusk, was sent immediately to 18 Battalion. Drivers buckled down to the job without complaint. Every man was very tired after two nights and two days of almost continuous driving. The platoon had taken a company from each of the two brigades' battalions to Amiriya and had hurriedly returned against swarming traffic in 19 hours.
Moving from Matruh the Division set off to make a stand at Minqar Qaim, 25 miles south, where an escarpment over 100 feet high ran perversely east and west. Had it stretched the other way it might have served as some sort of barrier against tanks. Fifth Brigade sat on top of the escarpment, with 4 Brigade to the east on open desert. Before 5 Brigade neared the escarpment in the night move of 25 June, a lonely enemy bomber flew over the head of the column and dropped bombs. Five riflemen were wounded. A few fragments struck but did not stop a 6 RMT truck driven by Rex Cooper.8 The explosions roused every RMT man, dog tired after long hours of almost continuous driving over the last week. The bombs came as a rude awakening and introduction to the third desert campaign. Next morning, while formations of nine to twelve RAF bombers passed over the Division, sometimes at only fifteen-minute intervals, drivers carried out overdue maintenance and in the afternoon drove battalions into their fighting positions. The 4 RMT trucks stayed near their battalions. The 6 RMT trucks, however, withdrew and dispersed on the flat below the escarpment. No. 2 Platoon of 6 RMT, carrying 21 Battalion, continued 20 miles south to Bir Khalda, where a petrol dump had to be guarded and the Division's southern flank protected.
Through the rest of the day and into the night the New Zealanders hacked away, carving defensive positions in the stubborn rocky desert of Minqar Qaim. Where parts of the escarpment were too rocky weapon pits were made in the form page 183 of stone sangars—shallow holes with laboriously built-up parapets of stones. Guns were being sited in pits designed to give the greatest sweep, but most barrels pointed to the north over the heads of 6 RMT, indicating the direction of the expected attack. Ammunition-carrying lorries lumbered up to gun sites, Bren carriers scurried about on patrol, signallers ran communication wires from command to operational posts, and infantry officers supervised forward defence positions. Anyone at the top of the escarpment could watch a hundred men hurrying over a hundred different tasks all with the one object: preparing to meet the enemy. Down on the flat lay the dispersed groups of divisional transport, about two thousand vehicles. Around each vehicle moved drivers, digging, working, or gathering round a petrol fire while the billy boiled. Each man was puzzling over the turn of events which had hauled him back to a desert he had farewelled so finally only three months ago.
While picks and shovels were still hewing slit trenches two waves of bombers attacked in the failing light. First the escarpment and then the eastern perimeter were hit and machinegunned. Bombs falling in a wide arc plastered trucks and men alike, but the RMT companies escaped serious damage. Among billowing clouds of dust angry fragments of rock whined past men dazed by the explosions. Rumours, remarkably close to the real total of 7 killed, 55 wounded, reported 60 casualties. Bofors struck back and in turn were attacked, one anti-aircraft crew near 19 Battalion receiving a direct hit. Practically the entire crew was wiped out. Walking over to the scene of the tragedy, Lieutenant Jack Rich,9 of 4 Platoon 4 RMT, found that his brother was one of the casualties. In the thick of the raid 3 Platoon 4 RMT, under Captain Coleman, reached 4 Brigade after delivering 20 loads of water to the Division's supply point. The platoon then went to 4 Brigade reserve, except for three trucks whose drivers included Corporal Berny Roberts (of the Teheran trip), Drivers Hugh Wareing, Pat Kerrisk,10 and George Newton. Driving to A Company 20 Battalion to replace three trucks knocked out in the air raid, these page 184 drivers found riflemen rather depressed. A comrade running for shelter had been killed. Berny pricked up his ears at the sound of a name: Bert O'Brien.11 ‘Was that the name of the bloke who was killed?’ he asked. It was. O'Brien had been a schoolmate of Berny's at West Christchurch High School, a prominent athlete and a football team-mate.
Before the raid the first situation report had come through. Drivers heard that the enemy had broken through the minefield at Charing Cross, 18 miles away. A division was swinging left to cut the main coast road east of Matruh. Action was imminent.
In the night gunfire rumbled from the west.
While the brigades continued digging in, ill-fated 21 Battalion, to the south, already was counting its dead and wounded. As the convoy neared the petrol dump the last reflections of the sun still lingered in the sky and touched the battalion's leading vehicles climbing an escarpment. The rest had bunched up, not wishing to lose sight of the leaders once the top of the escarpment was reached in the fading light. At that moment enemy bombers soared past. Ten of them peeled off and struck at the battalion with bomb, cannon, and machine gun. Through the thudding explosions drivers heard the scream of fresh bombs on the way, and columns of black smoke sprang up from the freshly torn desert. Some riflemen flattened in nearby depressions or dived under trucks. Many were trapped under the canopies. When the haze lifted troops and drivers rushed to the aid of their comrades. Twelve men were killed and 45 wounded, and 14 vehicles, including three ammunition trucks, were destroyed. Loads of ammunition began to explode. Six hundred rounds of spigot mortar ammunition went off.
Not to be caught again, trucks scattered smartly. Only one 6 RMT lorry was totally destroyed; two were immobilised and others were hit with flying fragments. Lance-Corporal Overton,12 wounded in the arm, was evacuated through the page 185 battalion RAP. Doug Graham13 and Edge Officer14 were suffering from concussion. Flames and explosions from an artillery quad near Ian Hutton's15 truck worried nearby transport carrying, among a variety of ammunition, the new spigot mortar bombs. Ian had much trouble in shifting his lorry, unwieldy and ponderous with two punctured tires. Eventually he got it away and joined other RMT men helping to evacuate the wounded. Doug Graham's truck was also uncomfortably close to the exploding quad. Rex (‘Snow’) Whyte immediately jumped into the truck and raced it to safety.
Shaken, the men settled down for the night, but the medical orderlies worked on. After midnight, when all seemed quiet, a single plane returned, spotted the light in the medical station and strafed the RAP, causing yet more casualties. RMT lorries shifted the wounded to the sheltering lee of the escarpment. Rousing the drivers, Sergeant Thomas16 was abruptly held up by Gordon Ozanne17 who, taking no chances, had carried his rifle to bed with him. One of the busiest men that night was Corporal Allan Hedley,18 who reassembled and cleared vehicles during the two raids. A few weeks later he won the MM for gallantry when he evacuated wounded under heavy fire. His decoration was the only award 6 RMT Company received for specific bravery in the field.
Next morning, 27 June, all but one of the 6 RMT trucks attached to 21 Battalion were in running order. Towing the damaged lorry, a party of seven19 set off for Headquarters at Fuka, but were captured on the way. The morning passed quietly for the isolated 21 Battalion at Bir Khalda. Unfortunately radio men could not contact 5 Brigade Headquarters to page 186 the north (and vice versa), where the foe was encircling the two brigades. At noon Lieutenant Todd attempted to get through to Brigade and ran into heavy shelling which killed his driver, Inglis.20 At 1 p.m. a squadron of Divisional Cavalry's Bren carriers turned up and the battalion set out in desert formation, optimistically attempting to rejoin 5 Brigade to the north. After about eight miles the convoy came under fire from unexpectedly large concentrations of the enemy directly ahead. A number of RMT lorries met brisk anti-tank and machine-gun fire, but only one was hit heavily. An anti-tank shell passed through the tray of the truck driven by Jock Jones and Ron Mason, mysteriously leaving the riflemen aboard unharmed. The convoy withdrew hastily, some groups becoming temporarily isolated, and laagered for the night with British units 30 miles to the south-east. The battalion had passed below beleaguered Minqar Qaim, and its brief association with the stand was over. Next day, 28 June, the RMT lorries carried 21 Battalion towards Kaponga Box, a fortified position among sandhills 20 miles inland, near the southern end of the Alamein Line.
While 21 Battalion was attempting to contact Brigade Headquarters from the petrol dump at Bir Khalda on the morning of 27 June, trucks of 1 and 3 Platoons of 6 RMT remained in laager on the flat in front of 5 Brigade at Minqar Qaim, ready to move on brigade orders or if heavily shelled. They hadn't long to wait. Shortly after breakfast trouble in large quantities appeared in the haze on the horizon. From specks to dots to shapes, a mass of enemy transport led by tanks spilled over the far desert and came on in steadily growing strength and size as the moments passed. Tanks peeled off from the leading enemy group and made cautiously towards the transport caught between them and the defences. With profound relief drivers saw New Zealand artillery immediately making its way forward to check the tanks. A heavy artillery duel began. Thickening shellfire blanketed 5 Brigade's area, a situation which was bad enough for the dug-in infantry but worse for drivers in their page 187 all-too-exposed trucks. The two 6 RMT platoons and 5 Brigade's spare trucks lost no time in carrying out an order to scurry back two miles at full speed, climb the escarpment, and disperse on the quieter plateau not far from 4 Brigade's surplus transport which, under Major Stock, had been ordered back from the infantry defences. No. 3 Platoon 4 RMT was with this group.
Major Stock had scarcely finished the move back when lookouts he had posted reported a long column appearing in the far north. The trucks seemed to be British, but among the convoy suspicious-looking tracked vehicles appeared. A heavy haze, intensified by dust from the moving vehicles, made identification difficult. Stock, circling on reconnaissance while Captain Coleman stayed with the transport, had his suspicions confirmed when he noticed infantry dismounting. The British vehicles apparently had been seized at Tobruk. Heavy shelling broke out and continued to build up in strength. Gunfire drummed and rolled almost continuously. Shellbursts bit into the escarpment and flecked the flat where fresh swirls of smoke and flame marked the end of yet more vehicles.
By mid-afternoon the enemy had worked round the eastern flank of the Division. Nothing stood between the leading tanks and the two groups of transport drawn back from the brigades. Inevitably an enemy column bore down on the transport, engaging everything in sight with machine-gun fire and tank weapons. Ducking and weaving, crouching and cursing, drivers hastily whipped their 4 Brigade vehicles east to Rear Division. Next day they linked up with the Division after the breakthrough and continued east to Kaponga Box.
Tank shells sped the 5 Brigade drivers in another direction —south. Having covered nine miles in double-quick time, the trucks halted and reformed. The transport was now lopped away from an immobilised 5 Brigade, which seemed certain to be captured en masse. While the convoy was preparing to return towards the Division, three Indian patrol cars appeared. Drivers in the rear mistook the Indians for the enemy and, thinking the change of direction suggested attack, broke formation and began careering away in panic. The flap was on again. Some time passed and another five miles were covered page 188 before order was restored among 5 Brigade's scattered transport.
The innocent Indian patrol exchanged information with the transport officer and an attempt was made to contact 5 Brigade on the Indian's wireless. A message came back instructing the transport to return by direct route, but the Indian patrolman was suspicious. He said the voice answering him over the radio was not the one he had heard in the morning. ‘Don't act on these instructions,’ he warned. Further efforts were made to get in touch with 5 Brigade, whose sets were in poor shape as the charging sets for the wireless batteries were in one of the trucks of the retreating transport column. Over and over 5 Brigade called to its transport on failing sets: ‘Go east to Amiriya.’ The officers with the transport dismissed these calls page 189 as fake messages from the enemy. Awaiting ‘genuine’ instructions, the transport stayed put, hoping to get back to the brigade.
One incident in the night startled 1 Platoon drivers when a blazing Wellington bomber tore through the darkness and crashed near the platoon. To everyone's relief the flames lighting up the area did not draw fire. Not long after this the roar of the breakthrough to the west began. Undaunted by loss of vehicles and encirclement, the Division's two brigades were smashing through the enemy's barricade. After dawn, well behind the fighting troops, the 5 Brigade trucks made off to Kaponga Box.
By nightfall on 27 June, then, 4 and 5 Brigades were surrounded by the enemy at Minqar Qaim. B Echelon transport21 of 5 Brigade was on the Alexandria side of the encirclement and a good 15 miles at least south-east of the trapped Division. Also outside the enemy ring was 21 Battalion, laagered with British units about 30 miles east of the Division, and the surplus transport of 4 Brigade.
While the unwanted trucks of the RMT kept one jump ahead of pursuing enemy tanks isolating the Division in the east, to the west three platoons of 4 RMT were held within the ring of the New Zealand defences on 27 June. The drivers were not expected to man front-line defences, but they readily made themselves useful in every possible way. Many passed the day collecting wanted parts from smashed trucks and patching up damage to their shrapnel-peppered vehicles. Tires gashed by shrapnel were changed as soon as punctures occurred. Others worked further afield. Here a group of drivers could be seen brewing up tea and taking it to infantrymen and gunners during quieter moments when shelling slackened. In more than one tight corner drivers worked alongside stretcher-bearers gathering up wounded and taking casualties to RAPs. Some carried fresh ammunition to the sweating gunners. Few drivers page 190 did not experience moments of tension. From behind one RMT truck came a sharp cry of pain: ‘You fool! “Minnie's” bad enough without you trumping my —— ace!’
No. 1 Platoon, spread out a mile behind the Maori Battalion, had taken up defensive positions early in the day along the side of a wadi, with Bren and anti-tank guns manned and grenades handy in case of a breakthrough. No. 2 Platoon remained with 18 Battalion protecting Divisional Headquarters. One 2 Platoon vehicle was battered with shrapnel and both of the injured drivers, Bill Hutton22 and Bill Wright,23 were evacuated to the field ambulance. No. 4 Platoon stayed near 19 Battalion, which was defending the eastern flank.
In mid-afternoon drivers saw tanks and a large number of infantry-carrying vehicles draw near to 4 Brigade's area from the north-east. Among the closest RMT witnesses was Corporal Roberts's party, dug in alongside its trucks about 75 yards behind 20 Battalion's forward defences. To the left a six-pounder waited and, on rising ground behind, machine-gunners crouched. The background noises of the day swelled: tank tracks squeaking in the distance, tank and field guns firing. Then shells started scouring the battalion area. A near miss grazed one truck and George Newton found an infantryman lying stunned in his slit trench.
From the distance British trucks bore down. ‘Goodoh,’ thought the drivers, ‘Div Supply on the job.’ At about 800 yards the trucks swung about neatly, the tailboards fell, German infantrymen swarmed out and flattened, while the trucks, which had been seized at Tobruk, sped off.
This was all so painfully familiar to the startled RMT men. The battalion blazed at the attackers. Back came everything except the kitchen sink. On the left the anti-tank gun went up. Trucks burnt on both sides. A German ammunition wagon burst into a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The air shrieked and whined. From the front line Berny Roberts began driving out wounded. Drivers watched him, saying it took real guts to roar up and down the escarpment like that chased by 88s. How could they page 191 miss such a target? Berny carried on, taking on one trip a stricken cousin of George Newton's. Nobody's luck could hold forever under such fire. Returning empty from the RAP, Berny slammed on the brakes and hit the sand as a mortar smashed into his truck, leaving a fist-sized hole in the back of the driver's seat. He kept going in another lorry until the enemy withdrew at dusk, firing a parting airburst which scattered shrapnel over a hundred yards of desert.24
The four drivers blessed A Company's cookhouse truck lumbering into sight with dixies of hot stew aboard. An hour later troops embussed and the brigade massed for the breakthrough.
In the late afternoon 1 Platoon's passengers, the Maori Battalion, opened up with vigorous small-arms fire. As enemy infantry faltered and halted, two Maori companies made a characteristic rush with the bayonet. They took ten prisoners, but over twenty dead were counted in front of one company alone. The Maori casualties were one killed and two wounded. Prisoners said that all troops met on the drive until this day had surrendered when threatened by such a powerful force. This attack on the Maoris' staunchly held position ended the day's vain attempts to penetrate the Division's defences. Fifth Brigade, on the west, had not been even threatened by a direct attack. No forces had ventured within small-arms range of its infantry, although the brigade positions, the artillery, and the transport had received much shelling. Over the whole area shelling faded towards dusk.
All through the day Lance-Corporal Ted Benfell25 and Driver Johnny Gash had been working busily with their 6 RMT truck evacuating wounded from a forward RAP. The two had brought some 4 Field Ambulance medical men (‘darned good chaps, really grand workers’) down from Baalbek and had stayed with them under their medical officer, Captain Kennedy.26 The two 6 RMT men ferried wounded until the page 192 medical dressing station, accurately and intensively shelled, had to be dismantled. All tents and marquees were taken down. More wounded kept flowing in. Ted and Johnny left cover to help place patients in slit trenches or in ambulances. Then they dived for cover again.
‘Under my truck about a dozen of us shook and shivered with fright,’ Johnny remembers. ‘All bar two who read all the time. Except when they went out to attend wounded, those two were completely wrapped up in their books. Believe it or not, the titles were “Gunshot Valley” and “Dead Men Tell No Tales”.’
Late in the afternoon the two took their truck to Divisional Headquarters and were given the important task of following close behind the wounded General during the breakthrough. If his caravan were disabled, General Freyberg would be moved on to their three-tonner.
Another 6 RMT party had featured in a remarkable incident which began early in the morning out in front of 5 Brigade. Two brigade and two 6 RMT lorries had driven out to pick up a group of Indian troops spotted marching disconsolately across the desert. These men had lost their transport and had not eaten for two days. They were without water. The two 6 RMT lorries from 3 Platoon were driven by Corporal ‘Lofty’ Williams, Dave Topping,27 Johnny Sanderson,28 and Andy Thomas.29 The drivers took the isolated Indians into 5 Brigade's lines and waited on the shell-swept flat while the Indian major in charge of the party went off to Divisional Headquarters for rations and instructions. After an uncomfortably long wait Williams decided to move the trucks to a safer area on the escarpment. Here the party was joined by another 6 RMT truck, freed from carrying ammunition, driven by John Glossop30 and Ken Grace.31
With still no orders arriving, Williams decided to go to page 193 Divisional Headquarters and find out why the Indian major had not returned. He soon learned the reason. The major had walked into his death an hour ago when a shell landing in Divisional Headquarters had killed six and wounded seven. At that time, noon, the Divisional Headquarters area was lashed with shellfire. Corporal Williams, getting an insight into the works of the Division, was deeply impressed with the casual air of the senior officers. Completely ignoring the shelling, they coolly squatted on the ground, working out plans and positions on their maps and weighing the chances of a successful withdrawal in the night, while everyone else seemed to be well under cover.
Given a guide, the corporal safely took the five trucks to the Indians' headquarters, about 15 miles east of Minqar Qaim. Before returning the drivers brewed up in the early afternoon and enjoyed their first hot meal of the day. Retracing the route, Williams followed the telephone line leading towards Garawla until he reached a pole against which on the way out he had propped an old tire. From there he picked up his wheel tracks and followed them towards the starting point.
Nearing the rear of 5 Brigade area, where the escarpment dropped to a shallow ridge, forming a gap, Lofty saw transport dispersed on the flat following the sweep of the escarpment. Innocently rounding a cone-shaped mound he found himself among a convoy. Men stood by their vehicles, eating or smoking, and idly watching the new arrivals driving slowly among them. Only one thing was wrong. The few British vehicles among the convoy were captured ones. The column was German to the core. Unwittingly, 6 RMT Company was represented in the enemy encirclement of the Division.
Williams, sucking his pipe, ‘felt terribly conspicuous. I think old Sir Richard Grenville must have sympathised with us: “As the little Revenge sailed on, sheer into the midst of the foe….” ’
The only hope, slender indeed, was to carry on casually, trusting to luck and breaking away at the first favourable chance. All went well until suddenly from a wadi crawled a German tank. It nosed directly towards the New Zealanders. Instantly Lofty—‘I didn't think about it; it was more like instinct’—stood on his truck's running-board and thrust a hand page 194 high above his head in the universally recognised halt sign—or Heil Hitler salute. The tank stopped and started back down into the wadi again. Some time later drivers resumed breathing.
The five trucks, still 200 yards behind one another, had not gone far before a German staff car drew level a hundred yards away, carefully studied the New Zealanders, turned, and sped off. In quick time shells pricked right and left and the lorries bolted. Dodging among wadis in the now more broken ground, the five trucks shook off pursuit. Lofty's driver, Dave Topping, resolved to shoot the next person or object on sight which, absurdly enough, turned out to be a poor bedraggled bedouin tending a gaunt flock of goats. Touched, Dave put down his rifle. The New Zealanders drove south safely until, to their great relief, they breasted a ridge and arrived among Indian scout cars. Indian troops were busily laying a minefield. Evidently the doubly lucky trucks had driven through a gap. With nobody managing to raise Divisional Headquarters or 5 Brigade by radio, the drivers trundled back with the British armour guarding the southern flank of the withdrawal, and later reached Kaponga Box.
Meantime the anxious wait of 4 RMT's three platoons lasted until a lull in the fighting in the afternoon. Messages came down for drivers to return after dusk to the positions where they had dropped the riflemen. This showed that the infantry had lost no ground during the day. When 2 Platoon drove back to 18 Battalion's area two drivers were shown a dark stain on the sand. ‘Take a look at that,’ they were told, ‘It's some of “Tiny's” blood. That's something you'll never see again.’ General Freyberg, while making a tour of defensive positions at 5 p.m., had been wounded in the neck. The command of the Division was taken over by Brigadier Inglis.
As the sun set a deep calm spread over the battlefield. Word came through that a break-out to the east was planned for the night. Fourth Brigade, the spearhead of the attack, would open a narrow passage about a mile long near a point called Mahatt Abu Batta. The infantry, after clearing the way, would be picked up by the rest of the Division following close behind. The 19th Battalion would lead the attack, timed to begin page 195 30 minutes after midnight. The battalion's commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell,32 held a brief meeting of officers, detailed the plan of action, and gave these instructions:
19 Battalion will lead the attack.
At 11.45 p.m. transport with troops aboard will assemble five abreast, nose to tail.
At 11.55 transport will move 1000 yards to the start point.
The battalion will debus and move forward until the enemy is contacted.
The enemy will be attacked and a gap cleared in his lines.
When the gap has been cleared, a success signal of red over green will be fired.
The transport will then move forward to meet the battalion which will at once embus and set off in an easterly direction through the gap.
The point that struck more than one officer was that the question of a second plan—in the event of failure—was not mentioned. All depended on a quick and violent success by the infantry, and on the coolness and resourcefulness of the drivers.
Feverish activity began in the dusk. With so much transport driven off by the enemy, it seemed that 5 Brigade would have to march out on foot. Every spare thing on wheels was pressed into carrying the brigade. A few surplus RMT trucks were commandeered from 4 Brigade. Men were packed and jammed into and onto quads, ammunition vehicles, pick-ups, office trucks, water carts. Some even sat on 25-pounders. Just before midnight 5 Brigade, perched and clinging like roosting starlings but triumphantly mobile, rolled off to assemble at the rendezvous.
Thin clouds passed over the moon. The night was quiet. page 196 From all parts of the compass lorries and trucks and guns moved up into position like shadowy starters in some strange race. They didn't make much noise. All weapons were ready, each bayonet was unsheathed, every man had cast aside the fatigue and strain of the day. Close by to the east the enemy slept soundly in pits, in holes, on the ground, beside still guns, inside the arching canopies of lorries.
No. 4 Platoon drivers brought 19 Battalion, the point of the spear, to the start line, where carefully shaded lights glinted. The riflemen climbed out and formed up, two companies wide, two companies deep, over about 350 yards. ‘All was still, as only a desert night can be,’ says Captain Bill Blanch. ‘Not a sound was to be heard. Then came a mysterious touch. A figure appeared and in a cultured English voice asked for the officer in charge of the column. On Major Pleasants appearing, something was said about immediately turning hard right and moving off. However the figure apparently would not or could not give his orders in writing, and it was decided in view of Colonel Hartnell's explicit instructions to stay put, sticking to the original plan.’
Next came 20 Battalion, which had fallen in by fifteen minutes after zero hour. Officers moved here and there among the men, quietly giving last-minute instructions and little-needed encouragement. The last of the breakthrough men, the Maoris, were late. They had had to wait for men out on patrol to return. No. 1 Platoon drove the Maoris, some shivering with excitement, to the start line, and returned to 4 Platoon and 20 Battalion's empty trucks in the vehicle column. Seventy-five minutes after zero hour, the Maori Battalion was in position. Five minutes later the infantry went forward into the shadows and the moonlight.
All was quiet for a thousand yards. Then, like a beast aroused in pain, the enemy awoke, tearing the night apart in flame. Undaunted, the resolute riflemen carved the bloody way out with tommy gun, rifle, bomb and Bren. Bullet and bayonet34 struck down partly clad Germans clambering wildly page 197 from slit trenches. Directly in the path of the attackers lay a mass of enemy vehicles. Here slaughter was heaviest as grenades burst within trucks packed with half-awake troops. Vehicles stampeded, firing haphazardly as they went, a few sticking helplessly in fatally soft sand, some smashing into withering Bren-gun fire, others racing over their own men coming forward to surrender. Retreating German troops lived long enough to realise they were moving with, sometimes even among, the New Zealanders. German machine-gunners frantically lit petrol fires or blazed away from the light of burning trucks. Their action was brief.
From the haze of smoke and flame and dust the red over green success signal soared. Down the cleared mile roared the transport. Excitement was intense. Everyone fired his weapon, Bren, rifle, or tommy gun, out into the desert, to the right or left. ‘Looking back from the front,’ Captain Blanch recalls, ‘the column looked like a huge porcupine with innumerable bristles.’
Suddenly in the moonlight 19 Battalion was sighted waiting for the transport. At once the firing stopped, the trucks pulled up and the riflemen began searching for their particular vehicles. All was deathly still until the enemy, quickly reorganising, opened up with small-arms fire directly on to the convoy. Soon an order was shouted: ‘Mount any truck you can and move!’ Quickly the infantry leapt into the trucks. Enemy fire flickered, strengthened, increased. A mesh of tracer streaks spread out to net yesterday's prize. It was too late. This was the moment when months of convoy discipline and desert exercise rewarded drivers and infantry to the full. Riflemen swarmed aboard. Hands swung to gear levers, tires gripped again on rock and sand, down pressed accelerators, and drivers took 4 Brigade onward into the night and to freedom in the east.
As two 4 RMT platoons drove with 4 Brigade through the enemy laager, Divisional Headquarters and 5 Brigade turned south to break through on their own. This convoy ran into an enemy tank laager. Pandemonium broke loose. In a wild charge the divisional convoy wrenched past, losing several vehicles on the way, miraculously none of them from 2 Platoon 4 RMT with 18 Battalion aboard.page 198
In all of the three RMT platoons few drivers or infantrymen were wounded on the way out. The only casualties were Captain Blanch, shot through the foot, and Driver O'Brien,35 who escaped with a wounded hand when an anti-tank shell struck his truck. No. 1 Platoon, with three vehicles destroyed, was the heaviest loser, while in 4 Platoon Drivers ‘Stump’ Burleigh36 and Meares37 made the sprint of their lives to the nearest truck when their own went up.
A helpless ambulance was one of the first brigade vehicles hit near a 4 RMT platoon. It burnt fiercely, revealing the long lines of transport and guns in sharp relief against the skyline. By the time the enemy, who had been firing too high, had adjusted his range, however, most of the trucks were past. Through the enemy lines the burdened trucks advanced, passing dead and wounded, lurching over slit trenches, and ploughing through confused groups of enemy troops. The ambulance evacuating Bill Wright received a direct hit, but the 4 RMT man, forgetting his injuries, scrambled on to another truck and escaped, later to find that he had been reported killed in action.
Five RMT trucks wove through the inferno of tracer and anti-tank shells with every possible care, each abrupt lurch and jolt sharply reminding drivers of their helpless loads of heavily wounded men packed behind on the trays. These trucks, taken from 3 Platoon 4 RMT early in the morning to act as ambulances, were under Corporal Somerville.38 Near them was a British ambulance, captured at Sidi Rezegh and unwittingly returned to the fold by a bewildered and hopelessly lost Italian. Drivers Neilson39 and Volker40 saw Major Grant,41 of the Divisional Signals, blown up in his car. They page 199 immediately turned back and picked up the Major and two wounded men. Driver Pat Hermanson,42 swerving just in time, narrowly escaped from tanks directly in front of him, and made off to safety with his load of 27 men, many of them wounded. Enterprise and quick thinking carried drivers through. In one such instance a driver, his truck hit in the differential, switched to front-wheel drive and managed to break clear. The large number of men and vehicles rescued from Minqar Qaim told a proud story of calm, intelligent, faithful drivers in a night of complete chaos.43
Directly behind the wounded General's caravan drove Captain Kennedy in a pick-up. Close behind the pick-up reassuringly loomed the 6 RMT three-tonner. ‘Things got so hot it was a case of going like hell,’ said Johnny Gash. ‘Everyone else did the same. I was too busy driving the three-tonner and dodging about and scared as hell to think of anything at all except “Go for your —— life. Go for your —— life” over and over again. In the confusion and firing it was almost impossible to keep on the heels of Captain Kennedy and the caravan. We would never have followed them through if it hadn't been for Captain Kennedy standing up through the hole in the roof of his Pickup and signalling. He seemed the only one exposing himself to all the stuff flying through the air. I'll never forget his coolness and courage during that hectic night.’
The caravan got through. The 6 RMT truck was not used. Eye-sore and worn out, Ted Benfell and Johnny Gash followed the caravan to an airstrip at Daba. The drivers saw the General, weak from loss of blood, refuse a stretcher and, under the orders of a medical corporal, walk stubbornly to the plane. After watching until the dot vanished in the sky, the two drivers climbed back into their three-tonner and headed towards Kaponga Box. On the way they grinned a lot. ‘Old Tiny's a page 200 beaut,’ they told each other. They'd heard that the General had got very annoyed during the breakthrough. The caravan pitched and lurched about so much that it kept flinging him off balance. It completely prevented him from firing his revolver out of the window.page break
Mess parade near Galatas
Bamboo and oats used as cover in Crete. The weapon is a Boys anti-tank rifle
Sidi Rezegh battlefield
Entry to Tobruk, 1 December 1941
Bomb and shell damage, Tobruk
The move west after Tobruk
Climbing the Gazala escarpment
Halt for lunch in the Sinai Desert
The break-out at Minqar Qaim—from a painting by Peter McIntyre
Petrol truck on fire, Deir ez Zor, Syria. The driver, Cpl Pat Ward, was badly burnt tryping to take the blazing truck off the road
7 3 Pl 4 RMT, returning after taking 26 Bn to Amiriya, did not pick up 20 Bn (carried instead by Amn Coy trucks), but was held in reserve to 4 Inf Bde. On 27 Jun Capt Coleman took platoon vehicles and joined B Ech transport under Maj Stock.
11 Pte B. O'Brien; born Pleasant Point, 20 Jan 1915; school-teacher; killed in action 26 Jun 1942.
19 L-Cpl Arthur Milne, Dvrs T. D. McKay (who later escaped), G. T. Harvey, A. P. Brown, E. H. Lapwood, D. G. Graham, and R. F. E. Officer.
21 6 RMT's part at Minqar Qaim was virtually ended with 1, 2, and 3 Pls separated from 5 Bde, and 4 Pl (now divided between Div Sup Col and 4 Fd Amb) to the east at Kaponga Box, except for three lorries. Two of these three 6 RMT lorries were at an RAP at Minqar Qaim; the third, driven by Johnny Gash and Ted Benfell, was attached to General Freyberg's caravan, with orders to follow it at all costs.
24 For this Roberts received the MM.
26 Lt-Col D. P. Kennedy, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 19 May 1915; medical practitioner; OC 4 Fd Hyg Sec Oct 1942-Aug 1943; DADH NZ Corps Feb-Mar 1944; DADMS 2 NZ Div Apr-Nov 1944; DADMS 2 NZEF Nov 1944-Feb 1945; OC 4 Fd Hyg Sec and DADH 2 NZ Div Feb-May 1945; CO 5 Fd Amb Jun-Oct 1945.
33 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942-Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde Nov 1944-Jan 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander Fiji Military Forces, 1949-53; Commandant, Northern Military District, 1953-.
34 Some New Zealand prisoners of war recall infuriated enemy captors telling them in the morning about an enemy corpse slashed with from 12 to 20 bayonet wounds. The body seemed to have remained half-propped up in a dip through which many riflemen had swept in the night. The prisoners, after being told, ‘Last night you New Zealand pigs did not fight fairly,’ were stood in the sun all day, were not allowed to move, and were denied food and water.
35 Dvr V. H. O'Brien; Waitetuna; born NZ 2 Oct 1916; farmhand; wounded 27 Jun 1942.
41 Col R. L. C. Grant, OBE, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Leeston, 25 May 1906; telegraph engineer; CO 2 NZ Div Sigs Sep-Nov 1942, Jun-Dec 1943, Mar-May 1944, Jun 1944-Jan 1945; CSO NZ Corps 19-27 Mar 1944; served in United Nations Military Observer Group, Pakistan.
43 ‘A young German despatch rider, complete with motorbike, rode into our convoy and was smartly grabbed by 28 Battalion men,’ writes Capt Burt, of 1 Pl 4 RMT. ‘Showing a complete reversal of feelings, the Maoris made a mascot of this prisoner (a mere boy), who spent most of the next few days cleaning our cooks' pots and pans. Only on a direct order from Brigade was he sent away. He had become quite attached to us and cried miserably when he was marched off.’