This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.
A Few Memories of a Civilian Soldier
After forty-four years, memories of one's service with the 1940-45 Middle East NZEF are easy enough to resurrect from the cobwebs, but I fear not so easy to record.
To lead up to a tour of duty with the 28th (Maori) Battalion.
At the beginning I marched into Narrowneck with an early formation of the 21st Auckland Battalion and during the ensuing 4 ½ years I had many postings with various units, finishing up as 2/ic of the 24th Battalion. Of all experiences in the 2NZEF I consider myself very fortunate that fate decreed I was of the thousands who fought with the 28th. My period with them remains an outstanding and proud memory.
I joined the Battalion while it was in a static position in Syria near the village of Arsal (or the soldiers interpretation being the Village of a thousand A---holes), a few miles from Baalbeck in the Beka Valley, which area is prominent in the present day Lebanon, Syrian, Palestinian, bloody fighting. My arrival, which was then my first posting to a combat unit, was one of trepidation for most of the Battalion were seasoned men fresh from the First Libyan Campaign, from whence they had arrived with ample supplies of enemy equipment of all descriptions.
Colonel Tiwi Love and Adj. Ace Wood, together with a number of old acquaintances from earlier years gave a warm welcome and were helpful in my taking up duties as the Battalion Quartermaster.
The stay in Syria was short, ending after the memorable weeks sojourn in Beirut Rest Camp where certain of our quick-witted boys soon had command of our Aussie neighbours Two-up and Crown and Anchor schools. One Australian Officer complained of his unit's monetary losses, but at the same time expressed admiration of the skill displayed by our fellows in the art of these unlawful 2NZEF games.
On return from the Rest Camp the Battalion hurried off within a few days, once again to the Western Desert, a journey of some thousand miles. Half the Battalion moved by truck and the balance with "B" Echelon by train from Beirut, through Palestine, Egypt to Matruh - what a train journey.
When passing Acre, north of Haifa, we saw considerable stone fortifications built by the Crusaders, still in reasonable preservation after 600 odd years. I thought that here we all were in 1943, still fighting to preserve principles. At one point near the Egyptian Border the Palestinian train chief endeavoured to uncouple our two store wagons, claiming it had a hot box or some similar mechanical trouble - it took a showing of a revolver and considerable waving of arms to have the wagon recoupled. Had it not been done, it would have been most likely the last we would have seen of our reserve equipment and rations.
Most of us will remember the chaos we witnessed at Matruh. The seemingly endless procession of exhausted, hungry and disorganised English, Indian and other Allied troops streaming back from the fall of Tobruk and Rommel's determined push to gain Egypt.
The Division's movement from Matruh to Minqar Qaim - the break through from there to Kaponga Box, the disastrous Stuka attacks, the confused (to the individual soldier) movements and counter-movements, coupled with various actions during these months, to finally the formation of the El Alamein Line, and the long hot fly infested weeks there, the memorable night of the 23rd, and the heavy ensuing fighting to consolidate the break through - the long follow up past Sidi Barrani, up Hellfire Pass (Sollum), to finally our temporary rest area near Bardia, was testing to all.
As a very small cog in the div's machinery, I still marvel at the ability of our Commanders to move and plan successfully the Army's quick movements with all its supplies etc, over the thousands of miles of desert.
Historians record, the ground forces during these difficulties, energetic and confused months, were not only vital to the Middle East Campaign but high-lighted the importance of infantry.
At this stage, the role of the QM and his staff started in earnest, and without being dramatic, we had difficult time throughout the months that followed, as did all members of the Battalion.
Supplies from Base were in very short supply for the whole division. Even the indents for a few shirts and personal necessities were critically surveyed by DDOS [Deputy Director of Ordnance Services] ... A small example was the instance of replacing a genuine request for a pair of binoculars (half of the supply having been destroyed by shrapnel) ... Mr. DDOS himself ruled that the Battalion Officer concerned would have to carry on in the meantime with the undamaged ones. Few Officers, at the time, did not enjoy the luxury of binoculars until El Alamein. We will remember that General Montgomery refused to counter Rommel until he had built up a warlike equipment of every description, hence the long trying weeks of the El Alamein line.
Rations were most rigidly issued on the Battalion's actual daily strength, and of course, this state of affairs was amplified when the issue reached the individual ... No wonder the reserve rations carried by each Battalion unit frequently vanished. These reserves rations were supposed to be used only by order from the CO or on some occasions by order from Brigade HQ's only. The supply point got somewhat tired of the 28th's frequent replacement requests based on Enemy Shellfire directed at the particular truck or spot where these necessary reserves were held!!!
To vary the excuse of replacements, on one occasion, a hashed up excuse for loss, was put forward that hungry rats were responsible. The story was not believed by the ASC [Army Service Corps] Officer concerned. He was sympathetic and understanding enough to grant the replacement 'without' Bully Beef for even he would not accept desert rats devouring tins!!!
I must mention with every respect, the Battalion ration clerk and his men, who were daily responsible for collecting from the Supply Point ... at times up to 10 miles away. Time has obliviated names, but this cheerful, conscientious character was a respected friend to all... especially to members of the Supply Point, where I know his likeable personality encouraged generosity. Whether by day or night, and in many cases while the Bn was scrambling on the move, he found his way back over the desert with vital supplies and never missed. If tangible recognition were given to Ration Clerks, he, I feel sure, would have headed the list.
On two occasions, the complete QM store was dumped to make the trucks available to carry personnel. It would bring tears to any Quarter Master, to see the valuable stock of boots, clothing, etc, left in a heap in the middle of the desert, while we raced on with the Brigade ... Replacements took weeks.
Sometime after the El Alamein breakthrough, the QM Staff had the honour of being front line troops and capturing several Huns in the process. Brigade HQ had given us a map reference for rations and petrol, which I feared, at the time, to be incorrect. Nevertheless, we proceeded miles past friendly neighbours, to somewhere near Knights Bridge, arriving at the point where we were straffed. Naturally we scampered, only to find the most suitable cover was occupied by the enemy. Fortunately, they did not like the look of us and thus surrendered. That was one occasion at least, that certain QM staff could relate with pride, to their forward infantry friends.
I must give mention to our water truck driver. Many will remember him and his cumbersome truck, collecting the daily water ration. At some stages we were down to 3/4 gallon per man per day. Half went to the five Cook trucks leaving less than 2 pints per man per day. The ration after a shave, catlick etc, and with evaporation, left little for drinking. One ranking Medical Officer's opinion was that the water problem and its distribution to the individual, was a contributing factor to the serious onslaught of jaundice. At one stage this seriously reduced Bn and infantry divisional strength.
To return to the water truck driver mentioned he was unfortunately later mortally wounded in an air raid. With his leg all but severed, he mumbled concern for his ruined truck and loss of vital water for the troops. Warfare always seems to claim the best. Water supplies improved considerably, depending on circumstances, but during the time up to the consolidation of the Alamein line, it was of continuous concern.
Apart from these brief respites, the battalion was under continuous enemy harassment. The Hun's air superiority at this stage was awkward. Unlike Tunisia and the Italian Campaigns, B. Ech Bn, with its administration Staff which included the QM Staff, Cooks etc, had a reasonably quiet time ... Desert Warfare embroiled all.
To my mind the 28th Battalion during this period, I write of, won battle honours second to none, and our memories must go to the outstanding leaders of all ranks who fell or were wounded and who helped us all through. Memory had dimmed names but personalities are clear in our minds and will remain to the end.
Perhaps, for the time I was with the Battalion, the Minqar Qaim action and the hole in Jerries' attacking forces our Companies helped punch through that night to enable the Div's escape, was one of the Battalion's outstanding glories, certainly it was a spectacular night with heavy fire from all directions and was one of frightening excitement. The action was executed with extreme brevity of orders and the success of the Div's escape undoubtedly displayed the unity and discipline of the individual.
In stemming Rommel and his mates, the Battalion never wavered or lost its particular sense of humour. There was always some bright spark who would raise a laugh to dim the discomfort of flies, dust and water shortage. The Maoris have a sense of humour all their own for someone was always ready to spin a good story or rag personalities at the slightest opportunity, whether in grim or more comfortable circumstances. Perhaps there are some who read this, who will recall and chuckle at the humorous persecution directed at times at their QM.
I wonder if the fellow and his mates who threw a match into a camel train laden with straw and enjoyed the antics and confusion caused, will have regrets after all these years. Who was the soldier working at night who dropped a box of primed grenades from a high truck, and who instantly realising the danger, instinctively yelled "Jesus"!!! as he jumped, calling 'Here I come' - The good Lord must have heard him as fortunately the only result was a shaken soldier.
Somewhere there lives, I hope, an ex-Battalion Wallah who claimed being an orthodox Jew and insisted on his entitlement to passover bread, causing a QM truck to travel many miles back over the Hellfire Escarpment to near Matruh. It was reported he enjoyed his Sacrament coupled with a good slice of Bully Beef and had the sly satisfaction that he was one up on the Quartermaster and his staff.
Who will forget the occasion when some old soldiers of the First Libyan Campaign remembered the whereabouts of the Ities' food and equipment stores in caves near Bardia, returned to the Battalion Lines with large quantities of Zibub or Arric - what a party certain members had that night and what a QM's nightmare to confiscate all enemy equipment and clothing and to re-equip a large number of men in readiness for an imminent Brigade Parade.
One particular recollection that to me showed the spirit of the Battalion was on the occasion when parties of pale and wan men arrived at the QM truck, men who were obviously AWOL from a hospital or rear convalescent Camp and whose only intent was to rejoin their Section and/ or Company. Equipped they were, where possible, but a quiet word to their Officer suggesting LOB, for further recuperation was most often acted on.
No matter what the adverse or nasty circumstances were, members invariably found something of humour, even if it was only an organised gamble or desert beetle races - one particular beetle must have earned quite a few Ackers for a certain HQ cook!!!
I left the Battalion somewhere near Bardia with a real regret. I shall always remember with pride, my service with the Battalion and its cheerfulness in good times and bad.
Ian Howden QM 28 Bn.