20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 9 — Syria
By the end of February reinforcements had brought the battalion up to strength, and on I March the move to Syria began. The road party and the carriers preceded the rest of the battalion and late on the Sunday evening the troops entrained, reaching Kantara some time after midnight and crossing the canal, where a hot meal was served. Despite the late hour the inevitable money-changers were there with the usual eye to business, patrolling the train, rattling bags of change, their quavering voices wailing ‘Palestine mone-e-e. Any 'Gyptian no-o-o-tes’.
Entraining once more, the battalion traversed the dreary Sinai Desert and entered Palestine. One unscheduled halt on the journey proved to be on account of a railway smash the previous day. A detour line had been built, and as the train full of troops steamed slowly past the men gazed speculatively at the battered engine and telescoped carriages.
Leaving the train a few miles south of Haifa on the evening of 2 March, the troops marched two miles to a transit camp at At Tira in the olive groves, where tented accommodation and a hot meal were appreciated after a long day spent in the train. Next day some men took the opportunity to climb Mount Carmel, while others rested, laundered, or wrote letters. The following morning all troops loaded their gear on observation buses requisitioned by the Army but driven by their Jewish civilian drivers. These conveyances were a great improvement on the third-class Egyptian railway carriages, and their comfortable seats and ample window space enhanced the enjoyment of a journey through the hills and valleys of this historic country.
After a halt for lunch in the hills the convoy traversed the plain of Esdraelon, skirted Nazareth, and coasted down to Tiberias on the shores of placid Galilee, whose waters, like the future, were shrouded in misty obscurity. After replenishing petrol supplies the convoy skirted the lake and continued on to page 219 Rosh Pinna, a border check-post, passing the well-known ‘Sea Level’ sign on the way.
Across the border signs of French administration were apparent, and interest was aroused in an aerodrome near which one of the chief battles of the Syrian campaign had been fought. Skirting the snow-streaked slopes of Mount Hermon, the convoy continued through hilly country towards Damascus. Here and there the Arabs endeavoured to wring a meagre living from the inhospitable soil and by labour on the roads, at which work many of both sexes seemed to find occupation.page 220
Damascus was reached in the evening and, after a brief halt, the battalion motored to a staging area in the old French barracks at Kaboun, several kilometres away. The ground was very rough and intersected by deep wheel-ruts. There was no moon and, after stumbling about the area to find the mess and a cup of tea, most of the men had difficulty in finding their way back to their huts.
Next morning the troops breakfasted at half past five and paraded at 7 a.m. Because of the rain overcoats were worn, and, once more festooning themselves with web, packs and other incidentals of necessary equipment, the men marched at 9.30 a.m. down to the RASC trucks in which they were to complete the last lap of this move. The Jewish drivers of the day before had been rather unorthodox. Racing, cutting in, speeding downhill on Syrian roads at well over fifty miles an hour, their driving gave little guarantee of safe arrival. The RASC convoys were more sedate. The road wound through mountainous country once more, with reddish clay soil that provided at times unusual colour effects.
On the foothills at one stage were noticed the tiny huts of an Armenian refugee village. Rain fell, making the surface very slippery. Passing through Baalbek the troops gazed admiringly at ruins which are world famous as examples of ancient Roman architecture. Some 20 miles farther on the convoy halted at its destination, a camp near the village of El Aine, on the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon range. In a dense fog the men scrambled round the slippery, stony hillside in an endeavour to find their allotted huts. These were of the Nissen variety with stone slab floors. Until the arrival of the baggage party, the last section of which did not complete the journey until three days later, sleeping on these hard surfaces was rather cold. Huts without flagstones were provided with bedboards.
The baggage party, under Lieutenant Carlyle,1 moved by rail to Haifa, where everything was loaded on to requisitioned Jewish trucks whose drivers were blissfully ignorant of the orthodox movement of army convoys. An RASC officer acted as guide, he and the OC convoy travelling in a taxi. With the aid of an interpreter the drivers were given an order of march, page 221 but at the signal to advance all vehicles made a concerted rush for the gate leading out of the railway yard. The ensuing confusion was only a foretaste of what lay ahead.
About half a mile out of Haifa some of the trucks began to run out of petrol. This was hard to understand as the convoy had filled up at a petrol point before leaving. The explanation, for once, was simple: the drivers had ‘hocked’ their supply of army petrol to motorists in Haifa. The convoy commander sent back to Haifa for a petrol truck, instructing the convoy to wait until all were replenished once more. When the petrol truck arrived, however, the rest of the convoy was nowhere to be seen, and some of the trucks were finally located in Tiberias and some at the Palestine check-post at Rosh Pinna.
Between this place and the Syrian check-post across the Jordan the road forked, and, in spite of the assurance of the RASC officer that none of the vehicles could possibly go astray, eight or ten trucks took the wrong turning and wandered back and forth across the frontier, at times forging through snow, before they finally reached their destination. Those trucks which did reach the second check-post were instructed to wait two kilometres farther on till the straying vehicles returned. When half an hour had elapsed without any sign of the stragglers, the convoy leader returned from his search to find once more an empty road.
The next stop was Damascus, where the missing trucks were found to be sightseeing at rather more than the usual sedate tourist pace. To collect them together in some semblance of a convoy Lieutenant Carlyle sought the assistance of the CMPs, but on emerging from the police post was rather aghast to find that this time the taxi in which he had been travelling had disappeared—on the perfectly legitimate errand of changing a tyre at the nearest garage. In the end the convoy was reassembled and completed the journey to El Aine without further misadventure.
The Division's chief task in Syria was to prepare a defensive position covering the northern entrance to the Bekaa valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. The centre of the ‘fortress’ was the village of Djedeide—about 20 miles north of Baalbek—which gave its name to the defences. Twentieth Battalion's sector was on high ground east of the valley and page 222 south of the village of Fakehe. It was to be manned by three companies in self-contained forward positions, with the fourth in reserve.
Heavy rain and hail followed the battalion's arrival, but on the Anti-Lebanon hills above, where 19 Battalion perched on windswept heights, driving snow made conditions even more unpleasant. When the weather cleared, however, it was seen that the 20th's camp was really in one of the best situations available. The hillside was stony but well drained, and in contrast to the valley and the camps on the foothills beyond it at Zabboud, would have a minimum of dust.
Training commenced with platoon route marches which gradually made the men familiar with the topography of the country. Daily they marched along the road that led through the village of El Aine and past 18 Battalion at Djedeide. Other routes lay across the valley from Fakehe and along the anti-tank ditch past the Divisional Cavalry, or wound up tortuous goat tracks to the hills and spurs that were soon to ring with the sound of swinging picks.
As soon as company areas were allotted and defensive positions sited the battalion settled down to the strenuous work of digging weapon pits, building sangars, and camouflaging. In places the hard rock required the assistance of compressors from the engineers. Water in camel tanks was carried up by mules from a Cypriot unit near Djedeide. The endurance and agility of these slender-legged beasts was amazing, but equally so was the callousness of their drivers. On one occasion a mule laden with two ‘fantasias’ of water scrambled up the steep slope to Lieutenant Cottrell's2 platoon headquarters. On reaching the narrow ledge on top the mule collapsed and one tank landed on the foot of the Cypriot driver, evoking more amusement than sympathy from the troops.
The tracks to the mortar positions could not be negotiated by the compressor and blasting was carried out after boring holes with hand drills. The explosives were improvised from captured Italian mortar bombs. But this did not constitute the sum total of the mortar platoon's problems. When supplies of curved iron arrived for the roofing of dugouts, these were off- page 223 loaded from the trucks half-way up the hill and then tied on to a mule for transport up the steep tracks to the mortar positions. The beast stood motionless while the iron was firmly tied on its arching back, but at the first few steps it seemed to take a marked dislike to this type of load and went into its customary dance. The load shifted round under its belly, forming a sort of iron cradle. The mule slipped to its knees, then mule and iron slid slowly but surely down the slippery slope.
In April three officers and eleven NCOs were sent to 7 Anti-Tank Regiment for a six-weeks' course on the two-pounder anti-tank gun. Battalion establishments had been expanded to include an anti-tank platoon of two troops of four guns each which was to replace the pioneer platoon, shortly to be disbanded. The chief change among the officers took place in the last week of April when Major Manson,3 OC B Company, succeeded Major Paterson as second-in-command, the latter returning to New Zealand on duty.
Incidental battalion duties consisted of supplying personnel for train guards, Baalbek pickets, bomb- and petrol-dump guards, and on one occasion A and C Companies formed the cordon for a dawn raid on the village of Britel, whose inhabitants were suspected, with reason, of having stolen military stores. Four lorry-loads of army material—mostly engineer stores—were recovered.
The sole evidence of enemy activity was provided when parachutists were reported to have dropped in the Ras Baalbek area. These were later apprehended and their identity as enemy agents established. A ski school was opened at ‘The Cedars’ and was attended by both experienced personnel and learners, who completed an enjoyable if rather strenuous course.
When the defensive position was completed platoon manoeuvres in the hills were carried out to give platoon commanders and their men experience in the operations that would be required in the event of a campaign in this country. Supplies were carried by truck and mule teams to various rendezvous, and in the four days spent by each platoon on these exercises many valuable lessons were learned.
Recreation was provided in the form of leave to Baalbek— page 224 where the ruined temples were visited—weekends at the pretty little mountain tourist resort of Zahle, excursions to Beirut, fishing expeditions, and picnics to the mouth of the Orontes River, whose ice-cold waters made swimmers gasp when emerging after the first dive. Team games were seldom possible, but a hockey team played a friendly game with a neighbouring unit.
Company concerts and an occasional picture show enlivened the long evenings. Shortly after the arrival of the battalion the YMCA cinema was set up on the slopes at the foot of the camp. The main film was preceded by a travelogue in technicolour— its commentator the well-known Fitzpatrick. The troops sat expectantly through the usual prologue, but when the title flashed on the screen read ‘Cairo, City of Contrasts’, the words of the commentator were drowned in a spontaneous derisive roar. The YMCA hut with its seven o'clock evening cup of tea and radio news was the natural meeting centre for men of D and Headquarters Companies. The favourite item of the evening programme was the Anzac Tattoo, ‘From the Enemy to the Enemy’, from Radio Berlin. On the night that this station announced the fall of Singapore the news was preceded by a recording of the song, ‘Come you back to Mandalay’.
The local Arab population was very friendly and ‘Saaeda, Johnny’ replaced the inevitable ‘Saaeda, George’ of Cairo. The children were delightful urchins. Happiest of all were the cheery goatherds whose long-haired flocks grazed all day on the stony hillsides and passed at dawn through the diggings with a scuffling of nimble hoofs and a tinkling of tiny bells. Often could be heard far up on the mountainside the shrill, clear note of a reed pipe played by one of these carefree urchins, seated on a grassy knoll beneath the towering crags.
Spring came, warmly reminiscent of New Zealand. The brown squares of the ploughed fields in the valley assumed a deepening tinge of green as the spears of young wheat rose to the beckoning sun. Poplars burst into leaf, orchard trees were beautiful once more in a mantle of pink-and-white blossom, while grape-vines, sprawled over the landscape like huge spiders, hid their ugly contours beneath a foliage of green. No greater contrast to the searing Egyptian desert could have been imagined.
In any occupied country the health of the inhabitants is one page 225 of the chief concerns of the medical officers in order to avoid impairing the fitness of the troops through disease, epidemics, or bad sanitation. The villagers of El Aine, while not particularly sanitary in some of their street habits, were in fairly good health, but once the presence of a doctor was made known in the neighbourhood there was no lack of clients for free medical attention. So it came about that ‘Doc’ Feltham required to hold two sick parades each morning, one for the troops and another for the locals. Chief among the latter were young women with ailing babies, old men with toothache, and expectant mothers. Their gratitude for his unfailing attention and alleviation of their complaints was expressed simply in gifts of fruit, eggs and poultry. Accordingly, by virtue of their profession, the RAP staff lived on a menu considerably more palatable than that of their fellows.
In the course of his treatment of these native patients the RMO acquired a museum of unique medical specimens, preserved in bottles of spirits. Chief among them was an auxiliary thumb amputated from the hand of a boy who appeared one morning on sick parade. This was nothing, however, to the surprise received by a visitor to the RAP one day when he discovered the ‘Doc’ sitting on the chest of a woman on the floor and wrenching grimly at a stubborn tooth, while an assistant held her head firmly to the flagstones. It appeared that the MO had experienced great difficulty in obtaining the necessary leverage in the early stages of the operation and during the struggle the woman had slipped off the chair on to the floor, the doctor meanwhile maintaining his grip and successfully completing the extraction.
Extremely hot weather was experienced during this month, the thermometer on the 5th registering 101 degrees in the shade. On 8 May a mobile gas unit visited the area and 651 men of the battalion experienced the usual uncomfortable instruction.
Throughout the month the companies continued to dig and camouflage their positions, with a break on 20 May for an inspection by HRH the Duke of Gloucester. Next day the battalion commenced a gruelling week's manoeuvres in the Forqloss area east of Homs, practising attacks by day and night in desert formation as part of a brigade group exercise. Hot page 226 weather made conditions very trying and after an all-night march the weary troops were ready to return to camp. In the past a brigade manoeuvre had often been the preliminary to a campaign. More prophetic than he knew was the staff-sergeant of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment who told his pupils that his NCOs had given three different courses on their guns and immediately afterwards had gone into action with the men they had trained. The pleasant recess in Syria was rapidly drawing to a close.