CHAPTER 5 — ‘Oh To Be In England!’
‘Oh To Be In England!’
The Second Echelon, which had gone into training on 12 January 1940, a week after the embarkation of the First, sailed from New Zealand on 2 May 1940. Their convoy, comprising the Aquitania, Empress of Britain, Andes and Empress of Japan, with battleship escort, was joined a few days later by the Mauretania, Queen Mary and Empress of Canada, carrying Australian troops.
Petrol Company shared the Aquitania (42,000 tons) with 28 (Maori) Battalion, 5 Field Ambulance, Divisional Supply reinforcements, and other units. All hands, including the crew, numbered 3600. Our men and the Maoris were allotted cramped quarters on the fourth deck down—an iron one, two decks below the water-line. Under them was the working alley- way where stores, engineers' equipment, and such-like were kept. There were no portholes. Wind-shutes from the upper decks provided ventilation.
The ships were heading north towards Ceylon when suddenly, on 15 May, the convoy changed course and made for Capetown. With much of Europe overrun, France demoralised, and the German forces seemingly invincible, it appeared likely that Mussolini would want to come in on the ‘winning’ side; and Italy at that time commanded the southern approach to Suez. So the convoy was diverted to England, via Capetown.
Off the shores of Britain the convoy was met by six destroyers, the aircraft-carrier Argus, and the battle-cruiser Hood. Then, as they moved towards a landfall in the Firth of Clyde the men caught a glimpse of the havoc of war. Driver Mackinder1 wrote in a letter home:
The first traces of the war passed at 10.30 this morning [15 June]: two empty lifeboats, one upside down; dozens of empty oildrums, and timber all over the place. And now, at 12.15 p.m., we are just page 48 passing a burning ship on the horizon but can see the flames quite clearly, and huge clouds of smoke….
It is just getting dark—fancy, 9.45 p.m. and still light! This has been a day of thrills. At 2 p.m. a submarine had a try at our leading escort, but missed. You should have seen the destroyers go! They dropped a depth-charge but I'm not sure of the result. Another scare at 4.30, and our officer has just told us they had another try, but missed. At 5 p.m. there were 13 battleships with us, mostly destroyers, and at 7.30 there were 27 ships in sight.
The troops disembarked at Glasgow, went by train to Edinburgh, where they halted for a meal, then crossed the border into England. At Aldershot they detrained and marched through the town, headed by a band. Petrol Company then humped their packs four miles up Longbottom Valley to a camp that had been prepared for them at Bourley. Some may have recalled that, 2000 years before, Caesar's troops from overseas had humped even heavier packs to a camp on the self-same spot.
A system of ‘parent units’ had been organised by the British Command to help the New Zealanders to settle in, and they soon shook down to camp routine again. But life in England then was no bed of roses. Dunkirk was just over. The gallant BEF, though saved by miracles of courage and strategy, had been hurled out of Europe. It had left behind its entire equipment. And now the invasion of England was expected from day to day.
So, half-trained and only sketchily equipped, the Second Echelon prepared for its allotted role—that of GHQ Reserve. Its task was ‘to counter-attack and destroy any enemy forces invading the counties of Surrey-Kent-Sussex-Hampshire which are not destroyed by the troops of Eastern and Southern Commands’. This committed our men to a last-ditch stand… or, rather, the last ditch but one; for behind them was a Home Guard, armed with pikes, truncheons and incendiary bottles!
Tough though life was for servicemen in England, the civil population found it even worse. Driver Mackinder writes:
They [relatives in England] have been raided several times, and one bomb dropped in the paddock behind them. They have page 49 been spending most of their nights in the little dugout in the back- yard. There is one to every home, the size of a decent dog-kennel, about 6' × 4' and 3' high. You open the door and back down the steps (about six) and find yourself in a little place with concrete floor, and sides about 3' high, also of concrete. The roof is of corrugated iron, nicely arched and reinforced, and with seats all round. There you sit in the dark, or with a candle in the back corner, until the ‘All Clear’ is sounded.
They were up until 3 a.m. the night before I arrived, 2 a.m. that night, and the next I persuaded them to go to bed. I went upstairs at 11 p.m. and was asleep in a few minutes. They came up just after and went to bed; and Arthur said he was just off to sleep when Millie wakened him and said: ‘He's here again!’ So up they got, dressed the three children, and away down to the dugout until the ‘All Clear’ went at 2.30. Then they came up to bed, but left the children down below. It is awful to see them…. the women are all played out, and the children getting disturbed almost every night.
And that was still only 1940. On 26 June Petrol Company were given forty-eight hours' disembarkation leave; meanwhile they dug slit trenches, received an issue of steel helmets. Their camp at Bourley was a combined NZASC one, with Colonel Crump in command, and Lieutenant Coutts2 as Adjutant. Petrol Company's OC was Captain George Hook.3 His officers were Second-Lieutenants Trewby4 and Collins.5 Senior NCOs included CSM Ces James,6 MSM Colin Chetwin,7 Staff-Sergeant Claude Keating,8 and Sergeants Almao,9 page 50 Keddell,10 Crawley11 and Taaffe.12
These and about 100 other ranks (some of them ‘earmarked’ as RMT replacements in the Middle East) comprised Petrol Company's second echelon. It had an LAD and its own Workshops sub-section. On 21 June an allotment of trucks and motor-cycles was picked up from Slough and company training commenced. Then followed the inevitable ‘shagging about’, including a move (on 29 June) to a new camp a short distance from the main one.
…. We have had a shift and are now on our jobs, some of the boys being out practically all the time…. We left our tents behind and are now living like Gypsies in our caravans; four of us live in the Workshops truck, two on the benches and two on the floor, and could manage quite well if there was any place to put our gear, besides on top of batteries and under the lathe!
…. We have been in a different camp each of the last four nights and have another two or three to do. We travel most of the day and camp in the afternoon and evening; tea at about 9 p.m. and up at 5 a.m. Breakfast at six, and away we go; talk about Gypsies! We doss on the ground under trees or in the bush, of which there is miles, mostly parks; or sometimes on the roadsides, which are mostly lined with trees. We sneak the lorries underneath and we are home.
The weather has been perfect for the last 10 days and we are seeing new country and towns and villages all the time. You cannot go three miles without a village, some of them quite small with narrow streets and no footpaths, just room for our lorries to get through in some places. They usually have a store or two, and sometimes a public-house—but you are liable to find those anywhere, village or not…. I believe we are going back to our permanent camp tomorrow, after a week of manoeuvres.
Crown and Anchor cloth, embroidered by Fred Follas and autographed at Stalag VIIIB by all the Petrol Company prisoners of war taken in Crete
Company are at Helwan
The 5th Reinforcemens, from which the Company was largely rebuilt, arrive at Port Tewfik
Workshop Section—blacksmiths' shop, Helwan, 1941
Earlier, the NZASC had been reviewed (on 6 July) by HM King George VI, who let it be known that he was ‘impressed by their fine physique, keenness and determined manner’. A number of practice, convoys had also been essayed, following a lecture on 2 July by General Freyberg, who stressed the need for moves by MT to threatened areas at short notice. On 19 July three drivers returned to the Petrol Company after missing the boat at Fremantle. They told their story to an unsympathetic court martial. On 28 July, while on convoy to Buckhurst Park, Corporal Bailey,13 on a motor-cycle, collided with another cyclist from the Divisional Supply Column and was evacuated to hospital.
By the end of August the NZASC were so practised at getting off the mark that a movement order received at 8.10 p.m. on the 27th saw them moving off in convoy by eleven o'clock. On this trip (to St Leonard's Forest) there were several air raids, but the convoy suffered no damage. Much of the route had to be travelled without lights, and in the darkness Sergeants Crawley and Keddell, on motor-cycles, collided. Sergeant Crawley injured an ankle and was evacuated to hospital.
On 31 August the Company's tents were returned to Field Stores at Crookham and exchanged for camouflaged ones. With bombing expected on a large scale in the Aldershot command area, units were directed to study the possibility of obtaining greater dispersion. The Battle of Britain was now working up to its climax, and our men had ringside seats. One wrote in a letter home: ‘One of our boys came back from London this morning and he saw some good dogfights there. Yesterday, he said, he saw four brought down out of a packed formation with two shells…. they were falling out of the sky like leaves off a tree.’ page 52
Another noted: ‘I went into town yesterday and was in a certain place about five past six and had just had something to drink when the alarm went and we were locked in for about an hour. All the places close and everything stops; just fancy being locked in there!…. It has been very lively here—the largest air-raids ever known. Well, we have seen and heard the lot, the planes going over and dropping their bombs, and our AA guns in action—the noise is like a huge thunderstorm….’
On 23 September the Company received an order that twelve men were to be sent as reinforcements for the NZASC in Egypt. Those chosen were Drivers G. E. Frost, C. Bernie, V. H. Berry, J. J. Cunningham, I. W. Standen, A. D. Standen, R. O. Stewart, E. Reilly, G. N. Johnson, S. L. Faulkner, I. C. Rudduck and V. R. Sergent. With them, as OC NZASC reinforcements, went Second-Lieutenant E. A. Collins.
This advance party—much envied for its chances of coming to grips with the enemy, especially now that the prospects of invasion were receding—joined a group comprising 175 Second Echelon men from all units. The whole echelon, in fact, had been slated for transfer to the Middle East in or before September; but Prime Minister Churchill interceded, maintaining that the New Zealanders were indispensable to the defence of the United Kingdom. Details of enemy activity and preparations across the Channel, and the savage bombing attacks on London confirmed that impression; and following an inspection by Mr Churchill at Mytchett on 4 September, the New Zealand contingent was moved to Maidstone, closer to the threatened south-east coast, to help protect the vital area north and north-west of Dover and Folkestone.
Our men were billeted in stables, barns and appleyards. On 7 October one Petrol Company driver wrote to his wife: ‘We have been having a great time until this week-end, living in a wood on the lorries, and it rained quite a bit and mud everywhere, and the big trees dripped for hours after it had stopped raining.
‘We got all packed up on Saturday morning ready to move into billets and finally got away about 3 p.m. We moved about seven miles into an old mansion of three storeys, with electric light, run by their own plant, in every room, central heating, page 53 large garage and a pit for repairs, but sadly in need of a few repairs in the water and sewerage systems. I have been a plumber all day, cleaning the cistern and trying to get the water working upstairs. Our room 10' × 10' is situated alongside the bathroom and sundries, and is all right as long as the water runs.
‘The whole Company is in the house, and there are six in our room and all our gear. You have seen sardines in a tin; well, you should see six little innocents side by side trying to sleep. But we survived it. We have seen plenty of action lately, mostly in the air, and have seen him passing over in dozens on his way to the Big Town. He dropped five fairly close to us last week but did no damage. There were seven air alarms in one day last week and the first “All clear” usually goes about 4.30 a.m. From then until 8 a.m. it is usually quiet. There is one buzzing around now, but I think he is going further in.’
Meanwhile the Middle East advance party had run into trouble. Their ship, the Oronsay, of 16,000 tons, carried 3000 troops and was badly overcrowded. Off the north coast of Ireland a lone Jerry raider swooped down and dropped three bombs, all near misses. They put the port engine out of action and temporarily disabled the starboard engine. Several men from Petrol Company who had contrived to get themselves confined in the ship's lock-up, well down below decks, kicked a hole in the door and crawled out.
After four hours the crew got one engine working again, and the Oronsay limped back to Greenock. The raider machine-gunned the crowded decks, causing a number of casualties. A lookout fell from the crow's nest riddled with bullets. At a conference afterwards, Lieutenant Collins recalls, it was reported that the ship's Bren-gunners were all seasick; whereupon the British OC Troops had replied: ‘You must tell your men not to be seasick. I'm not seasick’. Thereafter, the story goes, New Zealanders manned the machine guns. Seven days' survivors' leave followed this adventure, the Petrol Company quota rejoining their unit on 19 November.
By this time the Company had moved back, along with other NZEF (UK) troops, to the Aldershot area and were established in billets at Rowledge Farnham. There they set up page 54 a petrol point and ran daily convoys from the dump to the point. They carted salvage—empty tins and cartons—and road metal for the vehicle park, which was cutting up badly in the prevalent wet weather. On 6 November Second-Lieutenant D. C. Ward14 (‘Dangerous Dan’) joined the Company, and exactly one month later the Company paraded for his wedding to an English lass.
Meanwhile General Freyberg made no bones about his discontent at the splitting-up of the New Zealand Division. In units and detachments under various commands, the First Echelon was scattered over the Western Desert from Cairo to the Libyan border, from Alexandria to Khartoum. The Third Echelon (with only nineteen men for the Divisional Petrol Company) had arrived in Maadi on 29 September. It was time now for the New Zealanders to be concentrated, and prepared for their role as a fighting division.
Three months later the Second Echelon was still in Britain. But the crisis was over. The Luftwaffe had taken a thrashing and Hitler's hopes of invading England were gone for ever. On 18 December one driver wrote home:
Just a few lines to let you know we are still here and I have just had a few days' leave…. Have been working hard since we got back, a trainload of benzine one day, 70 trucks of coal the next, and one day a valve-grind. We did not do much this morning; leave this afternoon and went into town to the pictures, ‘The Frightened Lady’. Tea in town and home at 8.30. It is no fun in town in the blackout; you can't see anything or anyone on the street; so came back here….
But things were starting to move, and in the right direction. On 9 December Petrol Company had a detailed kit inspection (followed by a long list of fines for deficiencies) and a refit of all personnel. Christmas leave, in two parties each of 50 per cent company strength, was granted from 13 to 16 December and from the 17th to the 20th. On 30 December the Company was inspected by Brigadier Hargest,15 Commanding Officer 2 page 55 NZEF (UK), and next day a baggage party comprising Second-Lieutenant Trewby and 12 other ranks left for Newport. By midnight on 2 January Petrol Company (UK), with a unit strength of 4 officers and 126 other ranks, had cleared their billets and entrained at Farnborough.
January 3, 1941.
…. We are all packed up and just waiting for a move. Our stay in England is almost over, dear; a train journey last night, and we can see the seagulls now. We came on board at 11 a.m. and appear to be quite comfortable.
Their ship, the Duchess of Bedford (the ‘Drunken Duchess’), officially HM Transport J24, left Newport at noon on 5 January and anchored off Barry. From there she sailed at 5 a.m. on 7 January with three other transports and a destroyer escort, favoured by mild weather and a calm sea. Near Belfast, after a halt of four days, they were joined by more large troop-carriers (the total now being 21) with an escort of one battleship, three cruisers, and twelve destroyers—a truly mighty convoy.
Conditions in HMT J24, though by no means luxurious, were better than those the Second Echelon shared while going to England in the Aquitania. The Duchess was smaller, and even more congested; but the Company's quarters were not so deep down. Its men occupied a space that had once been the children's nursery, under the dummy funnel. One driver recalls that the beer was ‘crook’; and a sample bottle, taken to a ship's MO, gained the verdict: ‘The horse this came from is dead. Throw it overboard’. Shortly afterwards (the driver relates) all beer aboard the Duchess was ditched.
February 22 (At sea).
…. We have been having a wonderful trip … just sailing along on a calm sea all the time, with never one rough day, just like toy ships on a big pond.
We have had two stops, once for water and fuel, and once for stores, and had a few hours ashore at the second stop. I don't suppose we shall be ashore again until our journey ends.
It was not so bad crossing the Equator from the other side, but we are nearing it again now, and it is going to be a bit different this time. It is warming up nicely now, and we are not doing very much page 56 during the day—boat drill, a few lectures, and under the old showers about fill the bill. The worst part is going down to our messrooms for meals, the perspiration just drips off you. Our messroom is over the engine-room, we are told, and things are not so good; but the food is fairly good, and at present we are getting two bottles of mineral water with our meals—dinner and tea.
The stops made were at Freetown (25-29 January) and Capetown (8-12 February). As the convoy entered the former port an air alert sounded, and an unidentified bomber was fired at by warships and shore AA batteries. The aircraft made off smartly to the north without releasing any missiles. At Capetown general leave was granted on 8 February from two in the afternoon until midnight. For the next three days there were route marches in the morning and leave in the afternoon from 1 p.m. to midnight. The conduct of personnel, notes the Company's war diary, was good. At 6.20 p.m. on 3 March the ships made Port Tewfik; and so, for the first time, the three echelons of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force found themselves in one and the same operational area. Also in that area was part of the 4th Reinforcements, which had arrived at Suez in two sections—the first on 16 December, the other on 28 January.
…. On land again. Travelled all night by train the first night and were only in that camp [Maadi] for 1 ½ days. Spent the next night on trucks and landed here [Amiriya] at 4 a.m. Were told: ‘There's your bed, just where you stand!’ So down we went for a couple of hours. Then joined up with the others and drew more clothes and gear and are now like walking clothes shops when we stagger off carrying all our kit. Certain we have 150 lb at present, though told there is some to be handed back. Meantime we carry it.
Petrol Company's United Kingdom draft joined the others at Amiriya on 8 March 1941. A week later they were still there, groping their way through a three-day sandstorm which put army cookhouses temporarily out of action. For the whole of that week the men had had their gear packed, ready to move. Each night they unpacked greatcoats and blankets (one per man) and bedded down in the sand again.
Then, at last, on 17 March, the Company embarked for its next great adventure—the campaign in Greece.
2 Maj P. E. Coutts, MBE, ED, m.i.d., born Auckland, 4 Dec 1903; salesman; OC I Amn Coy Oct 1941-Jan 1943, Feb-Oct 1945; 18 Tk Tptr Coy Jan 1943-Mar 1944; Div Pet Coy Oct-Dec 1945; killed in accident 20 Feb 1960.