CHAPTER 4 — Desert Training
Ensconced in their four-man ridge tents at Maadi, Petrol Company's first echelon quickly settled down to the business of fitting themselves for desert warfare. There were scant amenities—few completed roads or buildings, scarcely a canteen or YMCA. The Company shared a NAAFI in the 27 (MG) Battalion area and found the beer worth buying at 3 piastres (about 7 ½ d.) a bottle. Equipment of all kinds was short; as one observer noted, months passed before they heard of a G1098 (the synopsis of the complete equipment of a unit, itemised and enumerated) and started to get a trickle of its components.
Electricity was laid on to Divisional and Brigade Headquarters, but not to unit lines. So Petrol Company, like the rest, drew hurricane lamps from the QM store and adjusted themselves to a return to the kerosene age. Water-supply was sketchy at first, but improved as more connections were made to showers and ablution stands. Shaving out-of-doors proved irksome in a climate where lather quickly dried on the face and then just blew away; but unfortunately the whiskers remained. Troops were warned against bathing—or even wading—in the River Nile, or in any pool or canal, ‘the waters of which’, stated an RO, ‘all arise from the dangerous waters of the Nile’. Grim tales of bilharzia sufficed to deter most; while the human pollution they saw was more than enough for others.
Because of the heat, the Camp Baths were popular; but with a high incidence of otitis media and sinusitis among troops (including some in Petrol Company) high diving was forbidden; the water in the baths was chlorinated. Drinking water appeared in large earthenware jars, called zeers, which stood on iron tripods in unit lines. Strangely enough, the sun's heat cooled the water in these by evaporating the see page on the outer surface. But zeers soon became suspect as breeding- page 36 places for mosquitoes, while the communal mug used for drinking from them was officially condemned. On the other hand, melons, which had been banned as thirst-quenchers, were now approved so long as they were purchased from ‘reliable sources’.
At that stage Italy had not entered the war, and her intentions had to be reckoned with. In Libya, just over the Egyptian border, Marshal Balbo commanded a large army, estimated at nine full divisions, with several hundred tanks and more than 1000 guns. The Italians also had transport and numerous planes. There seemed little to stop Balbo from occupying Egypt and seizing the Suez Canal.
In the face of this danger, elaborate plans were worked out for the defence of Maadi Camp and the nearby city of Cairo, especially against air attack and parachute landings. Ack-ack posts were mounted; troops carried respirators and steel helmets; they stood-to at dawn and dusk. They dug and manned slit trenches, practised dispersal of transport. Petrol Company shared in these activities, at the same time pressing on with a training course of parades, infantry training, weapon training and route marches. They engaged, besides, in two other important activities: the ferrying of Divisional transport (including vehicles for the Second and Third Echelons) from delivery points in the Canal Zone, and they attended specialist schools and courses.
On 4 March D Section (Workshops) under Staff-Sergeant Barnett marched out for trade testing at RASC Heavy Repair Workshops, Abbassia. Most of them qualified as fitters, electricians, carpenters, coppersmiths, and so on. The following week a party led by Sergeants Greig and Macphail left for a supply and general duties course at RASC Training Centre, Moascar. Corporal McEwan1 qualified as a physical training instructor at a course in Helmieh; Corporal May2 passed a course in sanitary duties; Driver Wallace3 took a water-duty course with 2/1 Field Hygiene Section; CSM Graham marched page 37 out, first to a unit gas instructors' course at Middle East Training School, Abbassia, then to Middle East Weapon Training School, Palestine. Sergeant Greig became acting CSM.
Petrol Company drivers, headed by an officer or senior NCO, plied between Maadi and the Vehicle Reception Depots at Port Said, Alexandria and Moascar. Their job was the vital one of putting the Division on wheels. In 1940 practically all vehicles in that theatre of war were British makes, mostly 3-ton Bedfords. There was a smaller number of Morrises, mainly ambulances, and a few new Chevrolets. The bulk of the Bedfords had already done a considerable mileage in the Middle East by June 1940, and of these, most had been impressed from civilian sources. When war broke out, about 500 Chevs, all brand-new and still crated, were on hand in the Middle East under a peacetime contract, ready for just such a contingency.
Vehicles from Britain invariably arrived on wheels, ready to be driven away. American vehicles on the other hand arrived cased, and were assembled at Alexandria, Port Said, or Ataqa, near Suez, which had a large Vehicle Assembly Unit. All vehicles were then taken to Vehicle Reception Depots at Tel-el-Kebir, Amiriya, or Abbassia for issuing. Most American makes were distributed from Tel-el-Kebir.
Also being used in Egypt then were some 10-ton Macks and Whites. Most of these arrived at Haifa, in Palestine, where they were assembled and driven down to the Canal. Some thirty or forty of the Macks, however, were landed and assembled at Basra, on the Persian Gulf, where all the British 10-tonners— Fodens, Leylands and Albions—also arrived. From there they were railed to Baghdad, then driven across Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine on a 1600-mile journey to Egypt. Nearly 500 miles of this was across desert tracks, while a large section of the journey followed the oil pipeline which runs from Iraq to Haifa. Under a treaty with Iraq, British troops and transport had right-of-way through that country, but could not be stationed there.
The pipeline, of course, carried crude oil to refineries in Haifa, where it was converted into petrol, kerosene, and other products. These were shipped to bulk storage installations near page 38 Egyptian ports. Refineries near Suez treated crude oil from the Red Sea area. Later in the war, oil fuel was also drawn from Abadan, in the Persian Gulf.
Refined petrol went to base areas in bulk, by rail or road tanker, to be decanted into storage tanks at the pumps or petrol supply points. Later, a British War Department pipeline was built for pumping petrol direct from Suez to the Cairo installations. For operational purposes, the Supply and Transport (Petrol) directorate at GHQ MEF had the refined petrol packed in four-gallon expendable ‘flimsies’—known only too well to Petrol Company in the first three years of the war. The cans were made at factories near the bulk installations, and filled at Alexandria, Suez, Haifa and Beirut.
As every Middle East veteran knows, these four-gallon packs were far from satisfactory. They were too frail to stand up to desert conditions, to the continuai loading and unloading, the tossing and dropping which they inevitably received. So, in the first few years, wastage of petrol from leaky containers was estimated at 30 or 40 per cent. Various methods were tried for ‘clothing’ the flimsies, protecting them with cardboard sheaths and light wooden crates, in an effort to stem these losses. But none proved successful; and no real answer to the problem was found until finally pressed steel containers were used.4
Leave trips to Cairo and the Delta gave opportunities to examine more closely the ‘wonders of the East’. Petrol Company investigations were not all purely academic, and enlightenment sometimes came through sore heads, or broken ones. Like their fathers before them they revelled in the fleshpots of Egypt, and shared the same urge to pull Cairo apart. Large Tommy Redcaps usually prevented this, and sometimes they were pulled apart instead—‘they’ being the Redcaps, the Kiwis, or both. The provocative Wog usually managed to escape.
His red fez or tarboosh, symbol of his faith, fascinated our troops, and often they would swipe one while swishing past in page 39 taxicab or gharry. Such acts evoked stern words in routine orders, and harsh threats against those who ‘molested or interfered in any manner whatever with natives of any class, colour or creed’.
The orders said nothing about civilians who molested soldiers. So Abdul, Ahmud and Co. Went right on plaguing our lads with offers of wristlet watches, fountain pens, postcards and pornographic pictures or ‘literature’. To thrust off the importuners or land a well-placed punt always brought on such a hullaballoo (shared by the entire civilian population, and sooner or later the provost) that the experiment was seldom repeated. For the more opulent there were lush precincts where (while money lasted) one could sample ‘the magic of the Arabian nights, the sport of Sultans’. This usually consisted of watching the gyrating navels of the dancing-girls.
In camp, Petrol Company, like good soldiers everywhere, acquired small bits of this and that—unconsidered trifles which no one had bothered to bolt down or place under armed guard—to make tent life more tolerable. But that, also, failed to please the authorities. They bluntly decreed that ‘no timber will be removed from buildings or the vicinity thereof’; and a certain Petrol Company staff-sergeant, who had built himself a quite creditable table, was required to dismantle same and return its component parts to their former position. This urge to wage war in comfort was very marked among our troops, but not always understood by soldiers from other countries. One British serviceman described the Kiwi as ‘a long-legged bird that roams the desert chirping “Loot! Loot! Loot!”’ In such matters Petrol Company were no worse than the rest; but the possession of transport did give them an advantage.
Camp life also brought its sprinkling of misdemeanours, its ‘conduct to the prejudice, etc. etc.’ and its ‘neglect, ditto, ditto’, always prefixed with the ominous cabala: WOAS. One Petrol Company driver got in smartly for his first week's CB, garnished with packdrill, and a fortnight's leave stoppage, just two days after arriving in Egypt. Another quickly won sixty days in the Glasshouse, sweating it out in that king of detention barracks, the Citadel. In those grim confines, whose massive walls and- tall towers could be plainly seen from Maadi, heart- page 40 less Tommy NCOs strove to make their guests unhappy. So salutary was the regime, in fact, that one New Zealand colonel considered sending his whole battalion in, by relays, on some charge or other.
One feature of this era was a spate of ceremonial parades, generally held on a Saturday. The first took place on 24 February, when General Wavell inspected the First Echelon. With him were General Freyberg and Brigadier Puttick.5 Petrol Company put on a good show, and afterwards the C-in-C gave officers and senior NCOs a talk on the war situation. He intimated that the New Zealanders' immediate role would be the defence of the Suez Canal. A week later 2 NZEF was inspected by Lieutenant-General H. M. Wilson, GOC British Troops in Egypt. A march-past in column of sections, done for the first time by the whole contingent, proved quite impressive. Again the parade was followed by an address, which promised action for the New Zealanders but still suggested that their part would be mainly defensive. On the following Saturday—the third in a row—came yet another formal inspection, this time by Sir Miles Lampson, His Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to Egypt.
On 25 March a 2 NZEF rugby fifteen, captained by the All Black, Jack Griffiths,6 defeated a Combined Services team by 20 to nil. Several Petrol Company nominees had gone into training for this event, and one, Roy Knowles,7 was selected to play on the wing. Sport within the Company also flourished, and by 8 April Petrol Company had formed its own sports committee comprising one NCO and two men from each section. Boxing, football, hockey and swimming all developed; while Maadi townsfolk (always great friends to our Middle East men) offered tennis, golf and yachting. Petrol Company's Corporal Gilmore added to his athletic laurels by competing successfully at open contests in Cairo.page 41
Among camp ‘amusements’ was that celebrated institution, Shafto's Cinema. Its cacophonous sound-tracks, belting full blast through asthmatic amplifiers, caused annoyance over a wide area, while scarcely entertaining the patrons within. So often were the troops not amused, in fact, that wrecking the cinema became a popular pastime, usually following some technical hitch which had led to the abandonment of the programme without recompense to the customers. So, as one jester observed, the troops took Shafto's apart to see what didn't make it go.
The camp NAAFIs, too, had their own special brands of entertainment. Most popular were the legal ones—beer and housie-housie. But crown-and-anchor (‘Two bob on the hook!’) ran them a good second, with Slippery Sam, pontoon, and other illicit games well up in the field. When it became known that some operators were remitting hundreds of pounds back home to New Zealand, authority took a stand. But gambling has always flourished in armies, and men will bet on anything— cards, horses, the daily tally of bed-bugs.
Gallons of weak tea were purchased in the NAAFIs and drunk out of cut-down beer bottles. Biscuits, cigarettes, and chocolate were stocked, while more substantial viands, such as steak and eggs, were advertised. But George Wog behind the NAAFI counter had no intention of providing those if he could avoid it. He first took the line that the soldier could not (or would not) pay; for the dishes cost seven or eight piastres at least—and who in his right mind would pay that much for food after the Army had already fed him?
Moved from this point by much loud abuse, and the flourishing of akkers, George then raised the question of how you would take your viands—in your hand or in your eye; a curly one, that, since the management provided neither plates nor cutlery. Having countered this by producing your own mess gear you then received grudgingly, and in George's own good time, your steak and eggs, Egyptian pattern. But the charred cinder he brought you bore little resemblance to steak as you knew it; nor were the little round products of the Egyptian hen at all like the eggs back home. But they made a change from army food, even though reeking with cotton-seed oil.page 42
In those early days Petrol Company received some notable additions, one being the inimitable Driver Dalton.8 ‘Dilly’ marched in from HQ NZASC wef 2/3/40;9 and Div Pet was never quite the same again. Earlier on, Lieutenant A. L. Lomas, NZMC, became attached for rations and was welcomed back to the Company. Equally popular was Lieutenant W. M. (‘Boundary Bill’) Davis, marched in from 4 Field Ambulance on 18 May. His unofficial exploits as an infanteer later caused the Hun some anxiety.
The trials of life as a Petrol Company NCO are recorded in Jim Greig's diary for this period; he had just been promoted acting CSM.
Maadi, Sat. 13/4/40
My birthday today. Spend morning in O/Room and generally getting into the running of things. No wonder Chas [Graham] got fed up occasionally. Everyone seems to want the CSM at the same time…. This afternoon Ian and I went to Cairo to attend Gen Freyberg's party and what a great turn-out it was. About 200 officers and sgts there, and Mrs Freyberg made one feel quite at home. A marvellous afternoon-tea was served inside as a start-off, and did we make a meal of it! Adjourned to garden afterwards for concert by Scots Guards and cold beer was served in large quantities. We were received by Gen Freyberg and Mrs F. on entering, at 4 p.m., and didn't leave till 7 p.m. Even a thunderstorm and heavy rain didn't dampen our ardour and we were all reluctant to leave. Straight back to camp and shouted for the mess. At 11 p.m. camp nearly got blown down and we were two hours fixing the other tents.
Maadi, Sun. 14/4/40
What a filthy night. I never want to see sand again. Trying to fix those damn tents was an ordeal I don't want again in a hurry. This morning it is still blowing hard and the atmosphere is just filled with sand. You could plant potatoes in the air!!!Late work tonight—got to bed at 1 a.m. Being CSM is a fair cow.
Maadi, Monday 15/4/40
Just a hard damn day's work. Unit moving to desert for three days on Wednesday. John Hunter to be OC desert unit on trial. John, Cecil and self have discussions over possibilities of operation in desert. Couple of drinks in mess after 11 p.m. with J. J. and bed finally at 1 a.m.page 43
Maadi, Tues. 16/4/40
Hardest day's work I've had for many a long day. Op. order for desert prepared in conjunction with OC, CQMS, and self; and making out duty details, and who will and who won't go is enough to send me crazy. Up at 5 a.m. and bed at 12.30 p.m. What a day! Not a minute's spell!
Maadi-Mena Desert, Wed. 17/4/40
Half company strength move into desert today for practice training as A section. A. C. D. [Captain Dickson] and self go out in car for the day to see things started and return late afternoon, leaving Coy in desert until Friday. Route took us close to Pyramids which I saw at close range for first time. Came home very tired. After tea went to bed at 9 p.m. Alan McCook returned from Palestine today.
Maadi, Thurs. 18/4/40
A normal day, thank heavens, frightfully hot and not TOO much work. Taking it easy for a change. Coy still in desert and returning tomorrow afternoon.
Maadi, Frid. 19/4/40
Went out to desert in car with A. C. D. for couple of hours to visit Company on manoeuvres. Returned camp about 11 a.m. Sent drivers and vehicles to Suez for R.E.10 stores. Company returned to camp from desert at 1400 and then pay, issue of summer clothing, shorts, etc. took up a couple of hours. Urgent message comes at 2.30 p.m. to send 26 drivers to Port Said by 1730 train from Cairo. Manage to scrape up enough and despite three days in desert they scramble round and get ready and away they go to Port Said quite cheerful.
From that exercise, the first to be held on a Divisional scale (though the Division was then at brigade strength only) the Company learned many useful lessons, and got its first practical experience at supplying and operating a petrol point. The exercise was planned as one phase in a war between the armed forces of ‘Puttagonia’, commanded by Brigadier Puttick, and those of ‘Milesia’, led by the NZ CRA, Brigadier Miles.11 page 44 ‘The proceedings’, wrote General Kippenberger,12 in his Infantry Brigadier, ‘ended with an Anzac Day morning service where the General prayed for an early chance to go for the Hun and clearly pointed out to the Almighty that we had been waiting for a long time.’
One thing Petrol Company found from this experience was that road transport work is vastly different from driving in the desert. There a driver must learn to distinguish hard ground from, soft; to know the tricks that wind plays with loose sand; to negotiate bad patches (by easing his vehicle slantwise across sharp depressions) so as not to damage springs, ‘diff’, or gearbox.
Drivers learned to spot treacherous places from afar, and either to skirt around them—not always possible when travelling in convoy—or else to approach at the optimum speed for that type of country. They found that a heavy foot on the accelerator seldom paid; and that this practice, instead of bulldozing them out of their troubles, usually caused the truck to dig in and settle down firmly on its back axle. Then the perspiring driver (and his cursing offsider) could be sure of having the devil's own job getting it to budge again.
In such cases the shovel and the sand-tray (if any) were a man's best friends; while the stunted desert camel-scrub (again, if any) could be used to give the back wheels something to grip on.
In convoy it was essential to keep a sharp eye on the truck ahead. Vehicles had a habit of vanishing in the desert, since this turned out to be scarcely ever flat, as one expected, but folded; and studded with surprisingly large hummocks round which a truck could disappear in a twinkling, leaving one with a fifty-fifty guess as to whether it had turned to the right or the left. In time our drivers acquired a ‘desert sense’ or, better still, a prismatic compass, which eliminated guesswork and reduced almost to nil the chances of getting lost. But at first there was ‘strife’ and the occasional damaged vehicle.page 45
One Company driver, with a stove-in radiator, explained to his sergeant that another truck had suddenly loomed up in the darkness ahead of him.
‘Loo-oo-oomed!’ roared the incensed NCO. ‘So something loomed, did it? When things start looming, my boy, it's time you were on the ground. Report for duty with the sanitary squad. Loo-oomed, indeed!’
On Thursday, 2 May, the Company commenced its summer training programme, with reveille at 5.30 a.m., an early morning parade before breakfast, and a siesta after lunch. The siesta was compulsory, and duly laid down in routine orders; but with in-the-shade temperatures ranging to 110 degrees and over, and all metalwork exposed to the sun becoming too hot to touch, little compulsion was needed. On bed-boards in their stuffy tents, the men lay near-naked, with perspiration streaming from them. The tea they drank poured straight out again through their skins. Maadi became unbearable. Twenty per cent leave was granted daily from 4.30 p.m. to 1.30 a.m. A change-of-air camp opened at Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria.
On 7 May seventeen Petrol Company trucks, with drivers and ‘spares’, left Maadi for a PAD13 exercise embracing Upper Egypt. They were attached to the Infantry Base Depot at the Citadel; the 2/10 General Hospital; RAOC, Abbassia; the RASC Supply Depot, Abbassia; and the OC Egyptian Command Signals, Abbassia. These detachments returned to camp on 12 May. Five days later the Company was placed on four hours' notice to move. On 29 May the first leave party returned from Sidi Bishr, and the second Petrol Company party moved out.
By the end of May the Company was still at Maadi, practising dispersal under the PAD scheme, manning LMG posts (with 500 rounds of live ammunition to each) and doing repair work on vehicles. By this time Petrol Company's vehicle establishment was complete, except for breakdown and workshops wagons and water trailers. Soon, however, D Section was equipped with a Thornycroft workshop truck and a Thornycroft stores wagon; and the section worked flat out, page 46 Bill Ross remembers, doing urgent repair work for the Division, even during siesta periods.
About this time a number of Petrol Company tents caught fire, ‘the cause in every case’, routine orders averred, ‘being attributable to a carelessly discarded match or cigarette butt’. By the same orders soldiers were forbidden to be tattooed in any native tattooing establishment; while the authorities noted that ‘empty beer bottles and other missiles’ were frequently being thrown from trains in which personnel of British Troops Egypt were travelling, ‘with a possible danger of serious bodily harm being caused to any persons in the vicinity.’ The practice (needless to say) was to cease forthwith… but (equally needless to mention) it didn't.
4 At first these were the four-gallon Jerricans captured from the enemy in large quantities—about two million altogether—in North Africa, and 44-gallon drums, to the tune of about one million, from the same source. By the end of 1942, however, similar containers were being manufactured in the Middle East, so the tinning of petrol for the forces there ceased. This resulted in a saving of a thousand gallons daily during the Eighth Army's final campaign in North Africa, and reduced the petrol wastage to less than 2 per cent.
5 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914-19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940-Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr-27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941-Dec 1945.
9 wef, with effect from.
10 Royal Engineers.
11 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914-19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940-41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; escaped, Italy, Mar 1943; died Spain, 20 Oct 1943.
12 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916-17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944-Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946-57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.
13 Passive air defence.