We lost Darden in a bombing raid outside Mersa Matruh in Libya 1941, something that should never have happened. The division, with its trucks spread out all over the desert floor, suddenly received a message to get out of there and started to turn around, but it was too late. Out of the sky came great big German bombers that let rip on top of us – they couldn’t have missed.
We were told not to be within fifty yards of the next truck but they were all close, packed together. Darden was in a slit trench alongside a light truck. A bomb came down, hit the truck and slid off into the trench beside him. There was no hope for him and it showed me what could happen. I was about a quarter of a mile (approximately four hundred metres) away from him at the time and it made me realise how quickly I could be killed.
In April 1941, my division went into Greece and fought on the Yugoslavian border. At each battle Jerry would attack and knock all our tanks out. One time over eight to ten days, we dug a big hole for our signal equipment covering the roof so it couldn’t be seen from the sky. A couple of mornings after completing all this work the Colonel came over and said, “Pack up, we’re shifting into the next gully.” All the boys said terrible things about what they’d do to the Colonel for making them expend what appeared to be unnecessary effort. The next morning, we packed everything up and shifted it into another gully not very far away, about two hundred yards.
Despite our complaints, we had faith in our Colonel and where he relocated us. We were no sooner in the new gully when a tremendous avalanche of planes above began bombing us; the Jerries made a big rush at it. After it was all over, I being a dispatch rider, hopped on my bike and rushed around to have a look to see what happened in the next gully, the one we just left. When I got there, I could see the Germans had dropped a 500-pound bomb fair in the hole we had only just evacuated. As I came back to my section I couldn’t help myself and I yelled out to the boys, “They dropped a 500-pound bomb right in the hole.” Everyone stopped working and looked at one another. The Colonel said, “Yes, I wondered about that. That’s why I got you to all shift. I saw the plane flying level over us straight above and I guessed he was photographing our position and thought it best to get out of where we were.”
There were about a hundred and fifty men in our section and this showed all of us that the Colonel was right on the job. It wouldn’t have mattered what we did, there was nothing we could’ve done about that bomb. The area had been detailed and the photograph shared with the pilot who did what he was supposed to do.
Each regiment consisted of three batteries and each battery had eight guns. I had the ‘Fire!’ orders from the Battery Commander and each day the battery moved, I delivered the orders. One time I went up to the Battery Commander and handed him the message. “Thanks,” he said, as I saluted him. He turned and drove away only about fifty yards before the whole truck blew to smithereens. Two of our radio operators were in the back of the cab. It was only a little truck made for the job and it had hit a mine. I raced back to headquarters to tell my superiors. It was just terrible. That happened a couple of times.
One chap who had the roof open on his cab finished up dead; just half of him was on the roof, the other half was missing. A few seconds before, he was sitting in his cab and the next second there was just half of him, he was such a nice chap. What could I do? Nothing! If it brought him back by sitting on the ground crying, I’d have done it but there was nothing I could do. I had known that chap for quite some time and he was such a gentleman.
After I was overseas for a while and witnessed the Germans dive bomb us in Greece, it was clear that the guns in Wellington were just hopeless. Bombers could’ve easily flown above, head down and dropped huge five hundred pound bombs right at the base of Fort Dorset, which would have been the finish of us.
Under fire leaving Greece
We lost a lot of navy in Greece, it was appalling. The navy was asked to do things that they weren’t meant for. The British sent boats into evacuate us from Greece and troops kept piling onto boats, about two thousand people on each. The next thing the boats were bombed. The German Luftwaffe sunk destroyers and bigger battleships and the British were just losing them. We lost so many lovely boats carrying thousands of sailors on each.
I was on a boat with about two thousand others headed for Crete when a German dive bomber bore down on us, the bomb targeted to go straight down our funnel. Our Captain who had recently fought in France where lots of people were evacuated using small boats, was trying to get us off Greece precisely because of his experience with German dive bombers. He looked up and saw the bomb headed for the funnel and slammed the boat in reverse. The bomb landed right beside the nose of the boat and exploded underwater causing a terrific eruption that buckled all the plates underneath. I was six decks down on the eleven thousand tonne passenger liner and heard the bang. The boat shot up in the air about fifty to sixty feet (approximately eighteen metres) before slamming down again. We took on a lot of water and needed to abandon ship very quickly. We set four pumps going and she became stable and started handling things better, despite the leaks. They figured we’d probably make it to Cairo if we didn’t get bombed again and we carried on. That’s how I came to be one of the first to make it back from Greece to Port Alexandria, Egypt. The rest of the platoon got dumped on Crete. If we had left our artillery guns on the island with the troops we might have had a greater chance for success. Eventually the Luftwaffe dropped their para-troopers onto Crete and wiped out our remaining troops.
Once back at Maadi Camp we waited for more supplies and reinforcements, guns, trucks and tractors from England. They built the regiment up again and raced us in to the desert to hold the Suez Canal. If the Germans got to the canal first it would be catastrophic as it was the source for oil. We kept manning that line in particular and didn’t let the Germans through.
I can’t think of any action that the Kiwis or Aussies missed out on. We were fighting on each and every front as they came up.
Bir Bel Hammond – hold the hill
Later, after about three of four battles in the desert, we were sent to Bir Bel Hammond, a big high area of solid rock that we couldn’t dig into. The Colonel arrived ahead of us and said, “Get away from that big rock.” He requested a line to Cairo and our best operators on the line. He got hold of them and said, “We can’t get under cover. If you leave us here we’ll be wiped out. Your leaders and regiment will be gone.” Can you imagine? The whole section knew about this within a few minutes as the message came down the line. “The Colonel says that we’re all going to be wiped out.” Back came the message from Cairo, “Hold the hill at all costs.” The Colonel just shook his head and set the guns up as best he could.
If that had been the German army, you could have shifted that regiment straight away, you could’ve called in aeroplanes for help. But our superiors were sitting fifteen hundred miles (approximately two and a half kilometres) away in Cairo sipping cold beer trying to run a war. You just can’t do that – things change so quickly on the ground.
The day before in Cairo, we were issued with trucks but I couldn’t drive as I only had a motorbike licence, I never needed to sit my car licence. America supplied a lot of beautiful trucks and tractors and was pouring them out by this time. Jerry kept firing their automatic machine guns and blasting two pound shells with their tanks. They knew the petrol tanks were in the middle of our trucks under the cab, and they took aim and slammed their shells with deadly accuracy. Then everything was on fire. Nearly two hundred brand new trucks and tractors were all on fire in only a few minutes. I was hiding under my truck and shot out of there like a rocket.
Fifty tanks attacked us and knocked out seventeen of ours, they were all on fire in front of us. We were in a hollow with our tanks and trucks covered in camouflage immediately behind a line of our guns. Each gun was manned by eight men and one sergeant and there were eight guns in this line. The Germans appeared to back off but they came back again, this time with a big machine gun. This machine gun fired point blank at a mile range and was a high-powered, rapid-firing terrible gun about a metre long. I saw more of it later and I have to admit it was a beautiful gun in a way.
The Germans loaded one of the machine guns onto the back of a tank and moved forward, dumped the gun off and tore back behind their line again. Two-minutes later they loaded the big machine gun with ammunition and primed it. The ammunition was on a belt and once firing started, it kept on firing. Suddenly, they opened fire and mowed down our row of eight guns in one swipe, taking everyone out.
Our Colonel knew this could happen and he had tried to tell the officers in Cairo. German tanks swarmed in over the hill and it didn’t take them long. We lost all our gun crews and suffered terrible casualties, we just had nothing left. I think I was one of only a very few who got out alive that night.
I managed to hitch a ride on the back of an eight-pound gun and made my way back to our lines past the pyramids. There was a quarter-mile square (approximately four hundred metres square) of motorbikes and I was reissued with one. I finished up with the infantry before I joined another battery and met my new Colonel. “Simmonds, you are the only survivor. How did you get away?”
“I could run faster,” I laughed in reply.
My previous Colonel asked to be transferred after Bir Bel Hammond as he was devastated by the loss of his men.
The men regrouped and I looked around my new division and couldn’t recognise anyone. As dispatch rider, I got to know a lot people but I couldn’t see one familiar face. I had a different Colonel now and we went straight into Syria.
We were posted to Aleppo, Syria around March 1942 because they thought the Germans were going to come down through that area. Our enemy was led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, a brilliant tactician known as The Desert Fox. He said once that if he was given eight New Zealand divisions he could have won the war. We camped on an airfield eight or nine miles (approximately fourteen kilometres) from Damascus, which I visited later while on leave. I joined a group of signals men from the allied forces and we went quite a distance out into the desert behind enemy lines setting up false signal stations to confuse the Germans.
The Syrians raided our camp once at night. One morning we woke up and a very large tent used by the ladies to supply us with refreshments was gone. Only the frames remained left on the ground.
The army sent scouts out to locate the missing tent and found a village over a hill in a hollow; the missing tent already transformed into clothes for their children. We placed artillery guns around the low hills that surrounded the Syrian village and went down into the hollow. The Syrians’ used mud as a covering for their huts and our men plunged bayonets into any hut with wet mud. We recovered all our stolen gear stored in those huts. The Syrians considered fighting us until the officer in charge pointed out all the artillery on the brow of the hills surrounding them. They didn’t give us much trouble after that.
I was in the camp on the aerodrome at Aleppo for a few months that year before I was sent back to Maadi Camp as the Germans were coming in from below Cairo. They loaded us all up as before, forming a new regiment this time with the Australians known for their efforts in a big battle of deception in the desert, which I believe was related to the Gazala line.
I knew two brothers very well, Arthur and Trevor Reed, from Tauherenikau. I used to go pig shooting with Arthur and he was engaged to my sister Betty at the time. They were infantry officers and as such, were issued with wireless radios. The wireless radio was hoisted onto Trevor’s back, with a big white aluminium rod for an aerial protruding towards the sky and Arthur followed him taking down the messages that came through. In this campaign at that time they issued all officers with these radios and aerials – it was ridiculous.
Over thirty infantry officers were killed the next day. Jerry just sat back and watched them coming; it was too easy for them to spot the big white aerials.
An officer and his batman stepped down an incline and Jerry let one burst go and killed both stone dead – they didn’t know what happened. Trevor was next with the wireless on his back and Arthur followed him passing messages down the radio. The brothers were on the ledge when there was a burst of fire. Trevor got one in his helmet; it came out the back of his head went into the top of his shoulder and came out below his hip. Of course, he was smothered in blood. Arthur later said, “I looked down at Trev and thought he was dead, I thought he was a goner.”
At the same time, Arthur was standing on the ledge just above and he copped eight bullets through his legs. He never survived the war. They got him walking again in Maadi Camp at the hospital and the doctors signed him out as “unfit for further service”. However right at the tail end of the war when the Allies were up in Syria, in trouble and short of men, they rushed into the base camp and jammed a gun into the hand of any man who could hold onto a rifle, including Arthur’s. They don’t know who, but one of the eight men in Arthur’s section stepped on a S-mine; a mine that pops up four feet (approximately a metre) and explodes shooting shrapnel. It killed all eight men in the section, including Arthur. He should have been back home; he wasn’t fit for anything.