Wrapping up in North Africa
Leave, Calibration, Mena, Burg el Arab
It was with mixed feelings, and many "You lucky B..." that we said farewell to friends of 3½ years on the 14th June 1943. Those who had missed out on the Ballot were told there would be a second scheme where they would be included. It was certainly hard luck on the 4th Reinforcements who had seen all the actions through from Greece and were not mentioned. Any rate Doug and I said our goodbyes to the likes of Mick Hackett and Bas. Mitchell whom we had such comradeship over the years that it was hard to realise it was all over. In fact I can remember him saying as he climbed onto the truck, "If you had been in the draw you would have gone".
Next day Doug and I went into Cairo, to have a couple and just talk. We were sitting at a table on the footpath, eating peanuts and drinking quietly at a place called the 45 Club. Up comes a 'Wog' woman with a baby on her back and the inevitable flies in her eyes and up her nose, saying the magic words "Anna Muskeen, Mafeesh Faloosh". When we told her to go away politely, this Wog woman had the audacity to whip out a tit and squirt milk into our beer. Believe it or not, this curdled the beer and almost made us teetotal.
A couple of weeks leave was being granted to all survivors of the Division. Not all at once, but at least Lin Rowell, Doug and I managed to get away together and headed for Alexandria. Up there we met up with Norm Scully and Snow Prebble, also Jack Bowman. Quite an enjoyable time was had by all, buying presents to send home, and spending quite a bit of time swimming and drinking. All good times come to an end and when we arrived back at Camp it was to be told that the Guns were to be calibrated. This was to be an absolute calibration, compared to comparative which had only been done before.
Imagine my surprise when I was told I was to be the layer for the 5th Field. This involved laying all Guns of the 5th Field on 5 consecutive mornings. For this I was picked up in a Staff Car, driven out to the Range, and looked after as I had never been looked after before. None of that getting up preparing the Gun and cleaning it afterwards. In fact for the first time in my life, I felt as if I was really someone. All I had to do was be ready in the morning, get driven out to the Guns, lay each one in turn and after it was finished, get into the car and be driven back to Camp. No other duties. What a great life.
After that the Reinforcements started to come into the Regiment. Lionel Hankey came back to the Battery from NZ and was once again BSM 27 Battery. When I think of it, we did not get a lot of the new chaps. But the ones we did get all seemed to be good chaps. The likes of tom Hanna, John Morrow, Jack Beale, and Digger Gorinski. In the main they had all served a bit of time in the Army back home and fitted in very well.
So it was a case of settling down, and getting to work together again. "A" Troop was rather lucky as they seemed to have more than the other Troops of 4th and 5th Reinforcements so the leaving of the Furlough draft did not seem to upset the smooth workings of the Troop as much as others.
Once again I received a surprise as I was informed that along with Mick Caughley (27th Bty Capt) and Bernie Rehm, our driver, I was to go to the Indian Division and be attached to an English Regiment to create friendly relations. This Regiment was stationed outside Alexandria and to me they were quite different to us NZ. Any rate after breakfast each day I would wander around with no-one really caring whether you were there or not. Eventually I would run into Mick, and he must have been feeling the same, because we always seemed to finish up in Alex for the day. This went on all week and I might say I was not sorry to get back to 'A' Troop where I felt at home.
While the training continued we were treated to quite a lot of sports and gradually the men due for the next draft to go on furlough were exchanged for reinforcements, and the Divisional Artillery moved out to Mena where there was some advanced training. There was still a bit of it tied to Desert Training but there was a lot of time spent in deploying off roads and tracks, and discipline in road travel.
While out at Mena we heard that Freddie Cantlon had died. It appeared that Henry Foote, Robbie and Fred who had just been posted to 'A' Troop were in Cairo and somehow got into an argument with some Maoris. Unfortunately Fred received injuries from which he never recovered. This was most unfortunate as Fred was an original and had been through Greece, Crete and the Desert Campaigns.
During one of the live shoots manoeuvres the CRA and V Fisher had a contest to verify a short bracket. This V won but the CRA contested it on the pretext that V did not verify his bracket. The old adage that Rank has its privileges certainly was true in this case.
The exercise finished around Helwan and although it is generally thought that those due for furlough under the Wakatipu scheme were drafted out and replaced with the 9th and 10th Reinforcements, I can assure you that a few of us were still left. These included Doug Wiggins, Steve, Les Sheehan and one Allan Boyd in 'A' Troop.
Burg el Arab was the next destination of the Division for Divisional exercises. The vehicles had been painted a greyish colour and this led to all sorts of guessing as to where the Division was headed. England was even bandied about again. But on the 3rd Sept when the invasion of Italy was announced, it became an odds on favourite that Italy was to be it!
To toughen up the troops it was decided the Division would march to Alex. The only exception being the 4th Field as a whole and all Transport parties. The idea was that the 97 miles would be marched in 7 nights, with Units taking the lead on different nights. The night 5th Field led we must have finished a couple of hours before any of the other Units. Bill Thornton at this stage being the CO 5th Field really set a cracking pace. And I am sure those on the march will remember the night 5th Field set the pace. After 6 nights and about 90 miles the march was called off. It appeared that there was not enough preparation given to the Troops and the march was causing havoc with their feet. So it was a case of onto trucks and onto the staging area. So in the finish it was the 5th Brigade Artillery who marched for 6 nights, this being the furthest any of the Units involved marched!
On the Sunday a Regimental Church Parade was called for. So up into the sand dunes we were marched and sitting down it looked as if I was going to be caught for a Service. And as I don't think I had been to a Service since England, was thinking hard. Then up came Bill Thornton and said Fred Prebble would be taking the Service. Still no word of those not wishing to attend Divine Service "fall out". Then just as I thought all was lost, the word came and I was off. Not fast enough, as big Bill yelled "Sgt Boyd", this pulled me up rather quickly, then he said "Sgt Boyd, you will look after those not attending the Service". This curtailed what I had in mind. But sitting down away from the Parade was certainly more to my liking than listening to Fred Prebble.
That afternoon, Stevie, Doug and I decided we had better have a look at Alex before we headed for wherever we were going. When we arrived back we found out those who were due for furlough were leaving that day for Maadi. So back to Maadi we went and left behind a lot of people with whom we had had such hard times, and dare I say, good times together.
During manoeuvres there was an unfortunate accident when about 3 shells fell short and amongst the Maoris. The casualties were 4 killed and 6 wounded. The complications were great, as if the Infantry lost faith in the support given by the Artillery, no one could tell what would happen once the Troops were committed to action again. The cause of the mishap was never discovered. But as all Gunners knew, there is always the chance of a mishap. The Regiments had fired thousands of rounds during their 3 years of action and the thought was always uppermost in their minds whether there would be a short or premature burst. The vagaries of artillery fire one could call it. This did not distract from the sad feeling it caused when it did happen.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.