Reforming the Regiment
As some members came back direct from Greece to Egypt and others from Crete, it took quite a few weeks to sort out who had managed to reach the comparative safety of Egypt and a Base Camp. In fact it was a very long time before members started to realise some of their friends would not be coming back and that a fair percentage of the Regiment which had sailed from Wellington in May 1940 would never see New Zealand again. And quite a few would be guests of Hitler for up to four years. May and June 1941 was a very trying time, what with people trying to find out what had happened to this one and that one.
After the survivors had leave, which I think most spent up in Palestine, it was time to settle down to bringing the Regiment up to strength and get it re-equipped because all the guns had been lost or destroyed on the beaches or thereabouts in Greece. The casualties in Greece were moderately light for the actions fought - 46 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. But not quite so good in Crete. Of the 361 men of the 5th Field on Crete, 279 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner - a total of 77%. This was a lot of men to replace and train to take their places in the Regiment, and for a start without equipment.
The 4th Reinforcements had in the main gone to Greece to replace members left behind for various reasons, which left the 5th Reinforcements as the main source of supply to bring the Regiment up to full complement. At this stage the Regiment was at Helwan, and Base Camp and Training Units at Maadi Camp. So, as one can imagine, there was a lot of coming and going between the two Camps.
People are going to ask how we trained without equipment. Looking back I would think the Wogs most likely thought we had some secret equipment. Although we, the 5th Field, had had experience of the 3 Bty Regiment in England, it was after Greece and Crete that the 3 Field Regiments reformed with 3 Btys. Our "C" and "F" Troops making up the 47th Bty, so instead of 27th Bty and 28th Bty with three Gun Troops each, we now had 3 Btys of 2 Gun Troops. A and B Troops making up 27th Bty, D and E Troops 28th Bty and C and F Troops 47th Bty.
So there we were with a Regiment made up of men and no equipment. It must have been a source of amazement to anyone watching to see a Troop head off into the desert, all in formation as if we had vehicles and guns. Taking Actions rear, Actions front. Without Dragropes, prepare to advance. In fact all the drill and no equipment.
Eventually the Division was to all extent up to strength, both in manpower and equipment. And after more intensive training and a calibration of guns, the air was full of rumours as to what was going to happen to the Division.
My mind is a little hazy here as to what was going on in the Division of the 5th Brigade at this time. The 5th Field Regiment being in the 5th Brigade. But at least "A" Troop went to El Maza. This was where the Artillery Training Depot was, just outside Helmieh. Here we did live shoots for the O.C.T.U. and of course gave us some very valuable training.
Much of the shooting was done in the early hours because the haze was not around and the atmosphere was clearer. So it was then a matter of cleaning the guns and having the rest of the day off, which was used to our advantage. There was a lovely swimming pool in Helmieh and this was used a lot. Also there was an Australian Club there which was frequented by the majority of the Troop.
This was a very pleasant interlude and it came as a shock to up anchor and join up once again with the Brigade. Especially as with all rumours we did not finish up with the Division.
The Division headed further North to Baggush and the 5th Brigade stopped at a place called the Kaponga Box, or at least it was the Box after we had dug Gun Pits and fortified the area. The Box was just a little South of El Alamien and was to be used later as Rommel advanced. Not by the 5th Brigade, but if my memory serves me right, by the 6th Brigade.
After working on the Alamein Defences. the Regiment joined up with the rest of the Division at Baggush. Here there was a lot of tactical training, especially with the Ack Ack Regiment and Anti-Tank.
As each Brigade had roughly 1000 vehicles, these had to be protected day and night. Our training was as a Brigade moving and we practised moving by day and night. Must say it was a glorious sight moving across the desert by day. Not so good at night, when everyone strained their eyes to keep the vehicle in front in sight.
Before leaving Baggush to cross the frontier, there are two things I remember well of a very pleasant place.
The first was when the N.Z. Division played South Africa at rugby. It was a beautiful day and I think the whole Division was out to see the game. After all, it was not that many years before when that fine 1937 team from South Africa had made N.Z. look second rate, so here was our opportunity to level the score. We still had a few "All Blacks" in the Division and big things were expected of them. It did not turn out as we would have liked, but for all that the atmosphere was as tense as any Test and a great game to watch.
Doug Gerrard was our I.O. (Intelligence Officer) and a day or two before we moved, the Regiment had to parade while Doug put on the act as to what to do if one was unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner. Micky Hackett was one of the actors and they are the only two I can remember. The whole show was better than the Kiwi Concert Party, perhaps because we knew personally the actors. The whole purport of course to give no information. Under the Geneva Convention, all one was required to give was Name, Rank and Number. And this was made very clear in the act.
Why this particular play remained in my memory is because we left Baggush on the 11th November 1941 and on the morning of the 18th November 1941 Doug Gerrard, with the few left from E Troop, 28th Battery and R.H.Q., were overrun and taken prisoner. Often wondered if giving his Name, Rank and Number was sufficient when he, Doug, was marched off.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.