CHAPTER 6 — Syrian Interlude
The corridor to Tobruk had been opened by 2 New Zealand Division, closed by the enemy, and then reopened by Eighth Army. Rommel, with half his Afrika Korps and two-thirds of his Italian allies destroyed, had retreated from Cyrenaica and was regrouping behind the El Agheila line.
Colonel S. F. Allen,1 who had previously commanded the. Divisional Signals, took command of 21 Battalion on 7 December. He was an Englishman by birth and a soldier by profession; he had had many years of service as a Regular soldier in the New Zealand Staff Corps and had often applied for transfer to a more active command. He was soon known to the troops affectionately as ‘Soldier Sam’.
A battalion precedent had been established in Crete by men returning unexpectedly after having been written off as lost. It was maintained on 9 December, when 118 ex-prisoners of war reported to Battalion Headquarters. After capture the officers had been separated from the troops and had been kept for five days at the bottom of a well near Tobruk before being taken to Benghazi and then to Italy. The men had been dragged around the desert for a week by their Italian captors, themselves on the run, until recaptured by a patrol of the Scots Greys.
A reinforcement draft of 20 officers and 320 other ranks arrived the following day, and the battalion began rebuilding for the third time. It reverted to the command of 5 Brigade, which returned from Cyrenaica on 30 December, and ended a year of reverses and disasters with an all-arms pyrotechnic display on New Year's Eve.
And what of the morale of a unit that had fought three campaigns and been cut to pieces in each one? The troops felt that they had had a raw deal in Greece, Crete and Libya, but page 143 the feeling engendered a manner and a loyalty that is best explained by what happened after General Freyberg's inspection on Christmas Eve. After the parade the GOC addressed the officers, and his remarks began something like: ‘You look a tough lot. You'll need to be. Not many came back last time.’ The men got to know of the General's opening words, and for days they greeted one another with self-critical ironic humour: ‘You look a tough lot. You'll need to be. Not many came back last time. There'll be none next time.’
The new year was ushered in with a terrific sandstorm, followed by wet, wintry weather, but there was a rumour of a move away from the Desert and a tour of duty in Syria. The first leg of what was hoped to be at least a move out of the sandy wastes of the Western Desert began on 3 January, when an advance party under Lieutenant West-Watson2 left by rail for an unknown destination. The transport moved out the following day and the rest of the unit entrained at Sidi Haneish in the evening.
The optimists who were already half-way to Syria took a very dim view of the situation when, after detraining at Kabrit in the early hours of 6 January, they found a course of training for a seaborne landing awaiting them.
Brigadier Kippenberger took over command of 5 Brigade about this time and was not in accord with the nonconformist attitude he found regarding dress, housekeeping arrangements, and the outward and visible signs of an inward soldierly spirit. The self-mocking toughness of the old hands that had been copied by the reinforcements came to a sudden end, and there were red ears among the junior commanders.
The weeks that followed were filled, between dust-storms, with exercises in ladder-scaling, rowing, embarking and disembarking from assault landing craft, stowage and unloading of supplies, the crossing of wired beaches and before-dawn landings. The only bright interlude came on 31 January, when the sergeants beat the officers at Rugby.
The amphibious training exercises reached their zenith on 4 February, when the unit embarked on the Glengyle and page 144 steamed down the Suez Canal to Port Tewfik where, with the rest of the training fleet carrying the other battalions of 5 Brigade, they anchored for the night. The monotony of the not unusual activity of the soldier—waiting for something to happen—was eased by a singsong, punctuated by caustic references to the green hills of Syria, and speculation as to where the landing was going to be.
The journey was continued next day down the Red Sea to Ras el Sudr, where practice landings and assaults were carried out. The troops dug in for the night and carried on the following morning, but before midday the exercises were cancelled and the troops re-embarked. They were back in Kabrit in the morning of 7 February, wondering what it was all about. Actually the High Command had been toying with the idea of landing 5 Brigade at Ras el Aali, in the Gulf of Sirte, behind the position Rommel was holding at El Agheila, until unexpected developments intervened.
All our plans were based on what Rommel should have done —he was behind an immensely strong position and should have stayed there. The High Command may have been right about what he should have done, but that was not what he decided to do. He made a much quicker recovery in men and machines than had been thought possible, and launched a reconnaissance in force. The veteran 7 Armoured Division had been replaced by the inexperienced 1 Armoured Division, which was caught off balance, and the reconnaissance developed into an offensive that was eventually halted on the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line west of Tobruk. Fifth Brigade was hurried forward to El Adem to thicken the defence. The rest of the Division stayed at Kabrit for two or three weeks after 5 Brigade left.
The 21st Battalion left on 11 February by road and rail. The road party bedded down that night at Wadi Natrun, the next at Daba, and the following one near Matruh. On the 14th they met the rail party near Misheifa, where sufficient transport reported to carry everybody, and by nightfall were through the frontier wire and bedded down at Bir Gibni, 20 miles inside Libya. By 4.30 p.m. the following day 21 Battalion and the rest of the brigade were in position at El Adem; the 700 miles could not have been covered much more quickly. The brigade page 145 was to prepare a defended locality on the escarpment south of El Adem, with the intention of preventing the enemy severing the Corps' main supply line to the west, as well as providing protection for the El Adem landing ground.
It was a repetition of the stay at the Kaponga Box, except that the outcrops of rock made digging with pick and shovel extremely hard work, and eventually pneumatic drills had to be used at the worst places. The position was finished by the first week of March, complete with minefields and wire around the whole of its 14,000-yard perimeter. The enemy advance did not continue, although occasional bombing attacks on the airfield at El Adem were a reminder that the war was not far away.
As the desert around was still littered with debris from the previous year's battles, an inter-battalion salvage contest was held. The first week it was won by 21 Battalion, and the next by 22 Battalion, but 21 Battalion was given the decision on points. There was a tendency in some quarters to overdo these salvaging operations. First, four two-gallon jars of rum disappeared from 21 Battalion's ration dump, then the brigade ration dump discovered a shortage of sugar, milk, sausages and jam valued at £35. Finally Headquarters Company's canteen lost a considerable quantity of honey, tinned sausages and tongues. Battalion routine orders were very terse indeed, but the culprits were never discovered.
The ack-ack defences were stepped up with some captured Italian guns and the companies took turns trying to find out how they worked. The cooks felt that they would like to play with the new toys too, and eventually dragged one over to the quartermaster's lines. It was not a very good gun; it had no sights and the recuperator was faulty, but firing practice commenced forthwith. A petrol drum was set up in a wadi and the gun was sighted by looking through the barrel. The direction of the first shell was fine, but the elevation was a bit out, and the projectile went over the top of the wadi into space. Suitable adjustments were made and the next shell hit the ground half-way between the gun and the target. Before they were ready for the third effort, a car approached at breakneck speed and a South African officer asked the embryo page 146 gunners if they would mind not shelling the South African camp. The gun was finally swopped in condition ‘as was’ to another unit for an oversize battle-dress blouse.
The optimists took heart again when all ranks were warned on 13 March that the taking of sterling notes into Palestine was prohibited under threat of confiscation. This was a purely routine warning and had been published many times previously for the benefit of troops going there on leave, but it was regarded as a good omen. To the pessimists an opportunity to transport sterling into Palestine—or anywhere else for that matter—was difficult to visualise, cooped up as they were in a defensive position in the Western Desert. The pointer was real, however, for the unit was relieved by a South African battalion, moved out on 22 March, and was back at Maadi on the 28th.
A letter, which Colonel Allen published in routine orders, was received from the commanding officer of the battalion which relieved 21 Battalion at El Adem. It read:
I would be failing in my duty if I did not write and thank you for the spotless condition in which we found our present camp when we took over from you. We are so accustomed to taking over camps which are in a filthy condition, that this one came as a real pleasure and surprise to us. I would add that never have we found a camp so clean in all our experience and this is the opinion of all our Officers and men. On behalf of the Officers and men of the Unit, I take this opportunity of wishing you the very best of luck in your new venture.
[Sgd] R. M. Blaker, Lt-Col.,
Offr Commanding 1 Imp. Light Horse.
Colonel Allen congratulated all ranks in having won the praise expressed in the letter. He also complimented them on their conduct during the time they had been at El Adem and on the spirit in which they had tackled their tasks and performed them in such a satisfactory manner.
Fifty per cent daily leave enabled renewed acquaintanceship with favourite haunts in Cairo. Paybook balances melted away and even the greenness of the Syrian hills faded a little. Such periods do not last long.
There was a ceremonial parade on 2 April during which decorations won in Greece, Crete, and Libya were presented. page 147 There was also an inspection by General Freyberg, who later informed the Colonel that he had never seen the battalion looking better and expressed his appreciation of its steadiness on parade and bearing on the march. The 21st Battalion was itself again.
The next day, Good Friday, was a day of church parades, after which the advance party really left for Syria. The last doubts were dispelled by some paragraphs in routine orders, which were taken from a letter from General Ritchie, GOC Eighth Army, to the Brigade Commander on the departure of 5 Brigade Group from Libya:
Now that your Bde is to leave the EIGHTH ARMY, I send you a message of warmest thanks for all you have done and my unqualified praise for the way in which you have accomplished it.
Your exploits in actions at the beginning of this campaign in which you were involved in the hardest and most tenacious fighting, won the admiration of everyone in the EIGHTH ARMY and moreover very largely made possible the relief of TOBRUK and subsequent advance into CYRENAICA.
Your recent work in the EL ADEM position has been carried out with that cheerfulness, thoroughness and efficiency which I associate with the troops of NEW ZEALAND.
I would be most grateful if you would convey this message to your Bde and to assure them that the best wishes of myself and the EIGHTH ARMY are theirs in whatever direction their future may be.
The next paragraph of the routine order was rather an anticlimax:
Cariage of Intoxicating Liquors.
Bottles of intoxicating liquors, which are not sealed and wrapped up, will not be carried through public streets of towns, or in any public conveyance, at any time of the day or night.
A pat on the back followed by a kick in the pants—what more could a Kiwi ask for?
The battalion again moved in two parties, the transport by road and the rest by rail. The road convoy, consisting of the vehicles of 21, 22, and 23 Battalions, left on 6 April and moved by easy stages through Moascar by the Sinai Desert road to Asluj, and then to Beersheba, Tulkarm, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, which it reached on the afternoon of the 11th.page 148
The rail party entrained on the afternoon of the 9th, had a hot meal at the Australian transit camp at Kantara, and continued on to Haifa, which it reached that evening. From daybreak until the train stopped at Haifa, the battalion feasted its eyes on cultivated fields, trees, orange groves and the long-looked-for sight of green hills in the distance. It was a greenness of surpassing loveliness to desert-weary eyes, and the strained squint of the sandy wastes changed to open staring. It was possible to capture something of what the Israelites must have felt when they saw this same promised land after their forty years wandering in the wilderness. The headdress of the Arabs was identical with that in the illustrated biblical storybooks of childhood days.
There was, however, one fly in the Palestinian ointment. The ration trucks, delayed in crossing the Canal, had been left behind, and with them the day's rations. Oranges at the rate of two for a cigarette helped to fill the gap, but the hot meal at the Haifa transit camp was more than ordinarily welcome. The next leg from Haifa to Beirut was by bus along the coast road through a pleasant agrarian countryside. Orange groves alternating with vineyards and eucalyptus trees reminded some of Australia and others of the home farm, but in place of post-and-wire fences were cactus hedges, a setting that was neither of Australia nor New Zealand.
Dominion troops, rolling along on rubber tires, looked across a land that had in turn been conquered by Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Mamelukes, Arabs and Ottomans, and where finally the Jews were coming back again after nearly two thousand years.
The buses stopped for a short time at the Customs post on the Palestine-Syrian border. From the top of the steep hill where the two countries meet, the cliffs drop sheer to the sea. A few feet above sea level the New Zealand Railway Construction Engineers were supervising gangs of natives working on the line which would join Haifa and Beirut.
Beirut was reached in the early afternoon, and three hours' general leave enabled everybody to see something of the town. There was no shortage of anything, except small change, of which the merchants and cafés appeared to be entirely bereft.
Officers of 21 Battalion on 21 October 1942 hear the plan for the Battle of Alamein
German tanks burning on the morning of the breakthrough at Alamein
Flooding near Fuka
Enemy dugouts and sangars at the top of Halfaya Pass
Where the Halfaya Pass action was fought
British armour going up Halfaya Pass after its capture by 21 Battalion
The 21st Battalion, in luck for once, relieved 26 Battalion, quartered in the Quartier Vingt Barracks in Aleppo. Duties consisted of picketing the town, maintaining outlying posts at Azaz, Djerablous and Akterine, and operating a snap road patrol. There was 50 per cent daily leave for the remainder of the battalion—when there was any remainder—after guards had been detailed for ration and ammunition dumps.
Still, spring and early summer are pleasant seasons in Syria, and the troops were happy and carefree nearly a thousand miles away from the war. April passed into a May of sunny days and cool nights. The battalion soccer team was defeated by the Divisional Ammunition Company; the officers drew with the sergeants at hockey; the sergeants defeated the officers at basketball; platoons won and lost at Rugby. There were sightseeing tours, discussion clubs, and concert parties.
An afternoon's leave passed quickly enough. First a call at the YMCA or the Salvation Army building where you could read, write home, play games, or enjoy a good cup of tea and fresh cakes; where an orchestra played mixed opera and jazz while you sat in a corner thinking of the far-off days when your only care was how to pass a leisurely weekend. Maybe you were energetic and took a walk through the suq with a vague idea of picking up a bargain to send home. There weren't any bargains and you knew it, but you went just the same. A beer or so at the Naafi, and you strolled back to barracks.
Life in the outposts was not so varied. A day at Djerablous, on the Turkish frontier, is typical of the way the troops passed the time.
Bells from the church in the village ring out an unofficial reveille shortly after five and, while the men are shaving, page 151 ‘George’ the bootblack is looking for custom and ready to voice his opinion on Kiwis who clean their own boots. Things were different when the Aussies were in residence. After George comes Mahomet, who has the job of sweeping and cleaning the huts. He has all the news of the divisional area, most of it surprisingly accurate. Finally Ali arrives for the washing, which will be returned later by the ‘Sergeant-Major’, a bright youth of some thirteen summers, decked out in shorts and a fairisle pullover with half a dozen Aussie and Kiwi patches sewn on his sleeves. He is the firm's accountant; he keeps the accounts—on a cigarette packet—and handles the cash. The Sergeant-Major is definitely the boss of the firm. After breakfast the guard at the check point is relieved and the work of checking passes—Arabic, Turkish and Armenian—continues. A few yards away, in Turkey, a guard marches up and down, rifle slung and bayonet fixed.
For those not on duty there is an hour on the camp parade ground while junior NCOs give their words of command an airing: ‘At the halt, on the right, form squad!’ ‘Slo-o-pe arms!’ ‘Left, right, left, right.’ ‘The squad will retire—about turn!’ Down in the Sigs' hut routine messages are sent and received, while the rattle of dixies in the cookhouse tells of another meal. The RAP hut is a busy place with a score of children fighting and playing around the door. Inside the orderly treats cuts, sores, and such ailments as he is able to deal with. For those not on duty the afternoons are free. They sleep, write letters, play baseball, or perhaps take a walk on the off-chance of a potshot at a hare. In the evenings a few pints in the canteen help to pass the time, then to bed while another day is paraded for inspection.
Maybe you have fluked a fatigue at the QM stores and a trip with the three-ton ration truck that travels daily along the winding streets and in and out of the narrow alleys and gateways of Aleppo. First call is at the petrol dumps to the north-west of the town, where you are surrounded by Kiwis, hungry for news and asking when is the so-and-so mail going to arrive. The war situation is discussed with particular reference to the little yellow Japanese baskets—how far away from New Zealand are they now?page 152
After a heated argument between the cook and the quartermasters about short-weight rations—and what the hell do you think a man's going to use for tea tonight?—you make for the ammunition caves two miles away to the north-east.
This is a quiet, secluded spot behind a perimeter wire. The guard at the gate takes your matches and cigarettes. There's enough ammo there to blow Syria off the map, so fires are discouraged. This cook is tougher than the other one, and while he conducts his war with the quarter bloke the Pacific situation is again thoroughly canvassed. There's a latrine-wireless rumour that the Aussies are going home to defend Australia and we are to follow as soon as transport is available.
One of the guards had had a couple of beers with a bloke who knows a Div Sigs bloke at Baalbek who says orders are being prepared for a move to India. From there the Div is going to march across China and take them in the rear. The strategist in the guard draws a map on the ground and proves that the obvious thing is to land at Darwin in the north of Australia and go in there from the flank if the yellow stinkers try to attack New Zealand.
And there's another rumour that we are going to stay where we are. And so you go from post to post.
Spring slipped into a broiling summer and everything was just fine—except for the unwelcome reappearance of Bombay bloomers. The Syrian malarial mosquito is a dive-bomber by instinct, and an army not conditioned to the climate could be decimated in a season. The most stringent precautions were taken by anti-malaria control squads, and after sundown all ranks were obliged to wear shirt sleeves fastened at the wrist and to have their knees covered. Because men wearing shorts could not cover their knees, the long-shorts were issued again. At sundown the turned-up length of leg was let down and securely tied around the ankles. The Bombay bloomers were efficient, but they were also ludicrous, particularly so when the youth and beauty of Aleppo, almond-eyed and raven-haired, ‘made the promenade’ in the cool of the evening. Lupine noises had no effect whatever, and an uneasy suspicion existed that the smiles, when there were any, were the result of a page 153 comparison between the Kiwi's nether garments and those of the boy-friend. Those Bombay bloomers were a definite blow to morale.
If the troops were enjoying themselves, there were furrowed brows and anxious nights in high places. Intelligence reports had early indicated the possibility of a double thrust at Egypt, one down through Turkey and the Caucasus from the East, the other by the Axis forces under Rommel in the Western Desert. An airborne landing from Greece was not impossible. Syria was seething with disaffection, and Iraq was full of enemy agents.
The Allied solution was to deploy a delaying force in Syria while building up strength to deal with Rommel. The 2nd New Zealand Division was given the task of preparing a fortress position barring the likely line of invasion down the Bekaa Valley, between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. The Division, less 5 Brigade (then in the Desert building the El Adem Box), had done a great deal of work on the Djedeide fortress. Divisional Headquarters had been set up at Baalbek, 20 miles south of Djedeide, and positions had been prepared for a protracted defence.
The 21st Battalion, luxuriating in Aleppo, had not been employed in building the fortress, but the lotus-eating time was nearly over. On 10 June 5 Brigade began to concentrate for training, and the next day moved out to its exercise area 60 miles east of Aleppo. It was while preparing for a night march and night attack on the evening of the 13th that Brigade Headquarters received the signal, ‘Return to Baalbek forthwith’.
Within an hour the practice night march became a real approach march—to Egypt.
1 Brig S. F. Allen, OBE, m.i.d.; born Liverpool, 17 May 1897; Regular soldier; CO 2 NZEF Sigs Sep 1939-Sep 1941; 21 Bn 7 Dec 1941-10 May 1942, 12 Jun-15 Jul 1942; comd 5 Bde 10 May-12 Jun 1942; killed in action 15 Jul 1942.