CHAPTER 4 — Into 1942 and Syria
Into 1942 and Syria
‘Christmas made everyone forget for a while the prior miseries of two cigarettes per day, stony ground to sleep on, a few bits of salvaged canvas, with iron or old doors to keep out the weather. The latrines were crude, so was the cookhouse. Men were seen following their mates to pick up cast away cigarette butts. Hunger drove many to behave like pigs at mealtimes— pushing one another about to scrape out empty dixies, etc. Everyone lost weight with dysentry, and medical treatment was poor….
‘… by 4 o'clock on 4 January, everything of importance was set on fire or blown up by the enemy, and by daybreak we were told that Jerry had surrendered, and our column would be in, in an hour or so—cheers by all. About 9 o'clock the first armoured vehicles arrived—our own Div. Cav. What a welcome, what food they gave us, and once more we were free.’— George Orsler, of B Company, liberated when Bardia fell to the South Africans.
From the Western Desert the battalion went back to the Suez Canal area again, to tents at Kabrit, where 200 reinforcements arrived. At a railway station on the way down Mick Kenny had a small tin left over from the rations. He told Arab beggars to hold out their hands, and leaning out of the carriage window, gave them all an equal share—of golden syrup. ‘The way the [angry] Wogs moved their hands reminded us of accordion players.’ Elsewhere, in another part of the battalion, a man produced a precious tin of coffee and milk ‘and about 17 of us brewed up and drank it out of rusty tins. The thing that impressed me was that the owner had not the slightest thought of drinking it himself, he shared it automatically, we were soldiers now.’
At Kabrit they practised for seaborne invasion again, and once again the plan (or ‘boy scout exercises’, as a good many page 132 New Zealanders considered them) was abandoned, much to the relief of 5 Brigade's new commander, Brigadier Kippenberger,1 who gives this opinion of the battalion at the time: ‘22 Battalion had a good record, though it was unhappy at having lost its Maleme position in Crete—after very heavy casualties— and it had a grouch that it had not been fairly treated in decorations. Les Andrew, unfortunately, was going; but I had my choice of John Russell or another good officer to succeed him, chose John, and had no worries thenceforward.’2
For some time now the battalion had known it would be losing ‘February’. Before the Libyan campaign some men had called at his tent to see him about a rumour. It was true all right, said the Colonel, and he was leading the battalion through just one more show. His last show was over now. The battalion's war diary reads for 3 February: ‘This was a sorry day for the 22 Bn for it paraded to say farewell to its original and much respected CO., Lt. Col. L. W. Andrew, who is shortly leaving on his return to N.Z. Lt. Col. Andrew inspected the whole Bn from 0845-1000 after which he said a few words of farewell and asked the troops to live up to the traditions of the Bn whether on leave, in base or in action. After wishing his men the best of luck, Lt. Col. Andrew took the salute whilst the Bn marched past. At lunch-time, he dined with the sergeants and spoke some encouraging words to them.’
‘Not one man on the parade felt anything but regret now that the time had come to say goodbye to a man whom they had always admired, loved and respected, despite the “February” and the 28 days,’ wrote Tom De Lisle.
The Colonel left, but his influence went on to Trieste, where his outlook and memories of his veterans were recalled in a poem attempting to humble some irresponsible horseplay by newcomers to the battalion. When speaking about this man in years to come, some would say he, with his discipline, was an anachronism—a 1914-18 hangover. Others, probably the page 133 majority of men who had served under him in the lean, hard years, would say with affection: ‘There was never another like Old February, or Old Wirewhiskers', and at reunions even notoriously meek men would be found hopefully claiming as a mark of distinction to have served ‘28 days under Old Feb ruary’.3
The battalion's new commander, from Divisional Cavalry, was the son of Sir Andrew Russell, who had commanded the New Zealand Division in France. John Russell took over the battalion in time for combined operations: a move down the Suez Canal and, after a night off Port Tewfik, a brief mock assault off Ras el Sudr, a small promontory in the Red Sea. A Company stayed at home; B and C boarded the familiar HMS Glengyle, and D packed into HMS Princess Marguerite. The men came back from their invasion practice to learn to their disgust that they were booked for Libya again—Rommel was moving out from El Agheila towards Gazala—so back to Libya and to El Adem, near Tobruk, went 5 Brigade, which this time crossed the frontier in farcical fashion. The convoy had halted for tea within a couple of miles of the wire. The column began moving over the remaining two miles into Libya as night came in, but something slipped up, a bemused driver brought his truck round to the rear of the convoy, and other trucks following other tail-lights deftly turned the convoy into a great circle. The circular convoy, a little dizzy, did not make Libya until midnight.
The brigade resignedly dug in on the escarpment south of El Adem to protect the aerodrome and Trigh Capuzzo if the enemy broke the Gazala line. The front ahead remained quiet; no raiders appeared. Untroubled, the brigade built its second ‘box’. Blasting, digging, wiring, minelaying (13,000 mines taken with full authority from Tobruk's defences), salvaging and camouflaging, interrupted by an air raid or two, continued until March, when after a heavy flood and a sandstorm the brigade thankfully made its way back to Maadi.
A pleasant surprise awaited in Cairo, at the New Zealand Club, where ‘the staff was now NZ girls running the Club. page 134 What a difference they made, it was like a touch of home again,’ wrote Dick Bunny.4 ‘They were all so pleasant and everything was clean and a strong contrast to my previous visits when the Wogs held sway.’
At a brigade parade General Freyberg, presenting awards won in Greece, Crete and Libya, decorated these four 22 Battalion men: Colonel Russell, DSO (won while with the Divisional Cavalry), Major Campbell, MC, Captain Donald, MC, and Sergeant Bob Bayliss, MM. Soon afterwards, early in April, the battalion set off for Syria to join the rest of the Division.
The night before the battalion left Maadi a party returning from the pictures saw to their joy near the Pall Mall theatre the door of another battalion's cookhouse swinging wide open —too good to be true—a trap, perhaps? So one member, pre– tending to be drunk, reeled towards the open door calling blearily for ‘Jack’. Nobody lurked inside. Doubling up, the rest of the party carried away cases of tinned peaches (a desert luxury), several sacks of sugar, flour, and quantities of tea. The loot was distributed far and wide. Next day, as the party pulled out for the green pastures of Syria, men looked back innocently on the turmoil in this unit's area: redcaps darting here and there, copious interrogations and note-taking, startled and angry groups denying and protesting.
Most of the men (600 of them with four tons of baggage) left by train. They took with them a new padre, Rev. T. E. Champion,5 after saying goodbye to Padre Thorpe (troubled with failing health), whose ‘fearless and untiring efforts for the comfort and assistance of the troops’ were noted appreciatively in the war diary.
Gaza railway station, the first stop in Palestine, swarmed with young Arabs carrying every imaginable container (buckets, baskets, kerosene tins, big jam tins and even chamber pots) piled with oranges to be exchanged for bully or cheese. Here New Zealanders probably ate the largest amount of fruit in the shortest time in their lives. Soon the floor of every truck was covered with oranges and grapefruit, ‘absolutely delicious, so juicy and so full of flavour. As soon as they had sold all they carried, they rushed off to the side of the station and got another load and as soon as they got to the train they were empty again. This must have gone on for over half an hour, and we were eating them all the time and throwing the skins outside till when we moved off the ground around the station was red with skins. My only regret was that I couldn't have sent some home to you.’
A day and a night passed at a transit camp near Haifa, a small port with oil refineries on the flat and suburbs of stone buildings sprinkled on surrounding hills. Some 22 Battalion men, without money, lazed and read or slept under the olive trees. Others went to town and found it rather ‘stereotyped, not much evidence of individuality’; the native quarter was much cleaner and healthier, with not so much bleating for baksheesh; on the sides of the streets lay huge piles of oranges, and ‘the girls especially the Jewesses were very attractive and would at least look at us and that is more than the white female pop. of Cairo did.’
As the battalion travelled on up the coast the Lebanon hills gradually grew nearer. Fields were being cultivated or were covered with fruit trees and bordered with cypresses and gum-trees. ‘I'll never forget the sound of wind in those bluegums.’ In one field an Arab toiled with wooden plough and an ox or donkey; in the next a Jew on a tractor hauled a double-furrow plough, perhaps helped by Jewish girls dressed in shirts tucked into baggy bloomers. Everywhere spring flowers appeared, ‘purple and white daisies, red poppies and yellow buttercups all page 137 mixed together. In the garden of some peasant I saw the most wonderful roses I have ever seen. The biggest blooms possible and every colour of the rainbow. Just past this are the remains of an old aquaduct built by the Romans and nearly obscured by vegetation.’
John Collins6 saw and was amused at ‘an Arab dressed up to kill riding a pushbike and he passed another Arab on a camel and gave him a look as much as to say “Why don't you travel in a civilised way?”’ Yet occasionally an old village would be passed, unchanged over the centuries, where the women carried water jars on their heads and did all the work while the men sat in the sun and gossiped. ‘That appeals to me, I think it should be introduced into NZ after the war.’
Later, while on leave in Palestine, Collins, like many New Zealanders, was deeply impressed with the farming, financial and social aspects of community life in the new Jewish settlements, the remarkable achievements of voluntary labour, the efforts to improve cultural backgrounds, and especially the community care and upbringing of children, which freed mothers from much drudgery and developed self-reliance and initiative in the children. In the midst of world warfare many New Zealanders thought deeply about this simultaneous welding together of Jews from many races—Americans, Poles, Russians, Germans, French and Palestinians. There is on record at least one 22 Battalion man, a Gentile, who thoroughly enjoyed himself, ‘away from anything to do with the Army’, by working in a Jewish community settlement while on leave.
Where Palestine ended, the hills, covered in scrub and spring flowers, came right down to the coast. Buses took the battalion across the frontier into Syria, which was less highly cultivated and rockier; the hillsides were terraced or patched with olive groves, with here and there old ruins and Crusaders' castles. Then the orchards and vineyards increased again, with wayside cafés selling fruit, wines, and liqueurs at ridiculously low prices. ‘The trousers the Lebanese wear are something like riding pants, but the seat is all baggy and reaches nearly down to the knees. They certainly would be comfortable but a bit draughty in the winter.’page 138
The travellers paused briefly in a transit camp by Beirut, where pay, changed into Syrian pounds (about eight to £ 1 sterling) gave sadly brief sensations of wealth. The last leg of the five-day journey began with the switch to the mountain railway and the unforgettable climb of 5000 feet in three stages over the Lebanon Mountains, almost to the snowline. Villages and towns with grey walls and red-tiled roofs, well known to wealthy tourists, were passed. The curious little train toddled along at about 20 miles an hour, sometimes pausing gratefully while wood was cut for the boiler. Many sat on the roofs of their ‘dog boxes’ or cooked meals on primuses inside. The train reached the top about noon and slowly began spiralling down to the green and beautiful Bekaa valley.
‘That rail trip was the highlight of the trip to Syria,’ wrote Lieutenant O'Reilly, ‘the wild flowers growing in profusion beside the track, the mountainside on its lower slopes liberally covered with trees, the steep little valleys, terraces built in almost impossible places to conserve a few square yards of soil, the mulberry trees and vines and orchards, those attractive looking villages with their square houses of clean stone, the holiday resorts of Syria, the snake-like twistings of the railway up the mountainside, the magnificent view as one looked back down towards Beirut in the blue setting of the Mediterranean.’
In a siding at Rayak box wagons waited, a good sight until soldiers saw only too plainly that the previous passengers had been cattle. The trucks, not washed properly, were a disgusting sight and smell. The medical officer (Captain Volckman) insisted on clean trucks; some arrived, and the trip went on, through country that changed to poorer, stonier soil, with far fewer crops and stunted fruit trees, but mostly herds of sheep and goats. The fact that sheep in Syria followed the shepherd, and were not driven as they are in New Zealand, intrigued everyone. The people, mostly Kurds, lived in curious mud huts shaped like beehives. Workers along the railway lines gladly accepted army biscuits tossed out by the travellers. Lorries waiting at a small station soon took the battalion to its destination, Afrine camp, north-west of Aleppo, early in the afternoon of 14 April. A and D Companies and some Headquarters Company men promptly went off to the forward posts to relieve 24 Battalion.page 139
The Division, resting, building defences, and acting as occupying troops, was to guard and improve the defences of this north-west corner of Syria, through which ran the main road and railway, northwards from Aleppo into Turkey. If the Germans invaded Turkey, 22 Battalion, perched up on the frontier (and now briskly exchanging rice for eggs), would have a grandstand seat.
Syria had endured more than her share of invasions. After the First World War the country, wrested from the Turks, had been handed over to the French as a mandate. Now British, Australians, and New Zealanders had joined the French in Syria, and the Syrian himself was experiencing rather a lean time. Groups of natives, patient, silent and dignified, clustered at unit cookhouses, waiting for scraps. The Army took over distributing flour in Syria, and the New Zealanders were responsible for doing so in their areas. The shortages and semi-famine in some places were due, not to the French administrators, but to Syrian merchants cornering the market. Occasionally bands and parades marched to and fro to impress the Syrians, and certain establishments were ‘closed on religious days as a gesture of respect and goodwill.’ ‘The Syrians,’ wrote one 22 Battalion man, ‘conduct themselves with a dignity, reserve and courtesy which are in marked contrast to the servility of the Arabs in Egypt. Not once since arrival have I been asked for baksheesh or its Kurdish equivalent.’ The New Zealanders soon learned that the French were not liked ‘because they treat us Syrians as though we are Algerians.’
Battalion Headquarters was just outside Afrine, and the camp looked down into the pleasing valley of the Afrine River. The mountains, the river, the creeks (actual waterfalls ‘that we could stand under stripped off’), the grass and the growing crops all around seemed miraculous after the desert—‘too good to be true, the Army is cooking something up for us I'll bet.’ Wildflowers were abundant, especially red dwarf anemones, and as John Russell summed up, ‘the longer they leave us here the happier we shall be.’
Nevertheless a curious little incident had happened on the way up. The carriers, which travelled under their own power part of the way, had stopped at dusk by one of the most beautiful little settlements their crews had ever seen. The local café page 140 was in keeping with the surroundings: a stream ran past tables where drinks were served, and here the men sat at peace and marvelled, ‘until we got too much in, someone was sick into the creek, then another fell in. When we came out of that place everything had changed, we were just drunken soldiers again, yelling our heads off.’ The settlement so unexpectedly—like certain other places met during the war—had revealed only too clearly the loneliness of a soldier's life. Despite all the violence and the movement of troops the settled life of the world went on just the same, ‘and we were only soldiers drifting by’, not the main act, but just a sideshow.
Afrine camp was well spaced, with fairly comfortable iron huts containing stoves, which meant the luxury of morning and afternoon tea regularly. One night a sudden storm swept down the valley, and men half asleep in their beds lay listening to an unfamiliar, yet typically New Zealand noise: rain on a corrugated iron roof. Afrine village, 34 miles from Aleppo, was the administrative centre for about 350 settlements spread over mountainous country along the Turkish border. Troops worked in with the French gendarmerie and the Garde Mobile—and sometimes borrowed their horses for brief and exhilarating gallops.
Roads and tracks led out from Afrine to frontier posts along the rough hillsides and down in the valleys. Here the battalion held strategic positions.7 Sentries and patrols watched bridges, railway lines, roads and tracks. ‘Guard duty on the Turkish border: 2-hours duty at night and an hour by day and free for the rest of the day…. a great job,’ wrote Private Price, of C Company. ‘To hold up all lorries, cars and so on, examine visas, and write down all particulars in a little black book.’ Hidden demolitions and road blocks were planned to smash communications should invasion threaten from the north. Yet further back engineers, supervising great labour gangs of Syrian page 141 men and women (‘babies on their backs and carrying stones on their heads’), hustled about building, improving and making roads and bridges—which would make it all the easier for an invader once he was safely past the frontier.
Probably the pick of all jobs in Syria—excepting, of course, the running of a company canteen—was guard duty at the station of Meidane Ekbes, the last stop of the famous Taurus Express before it passed into Turkey, a ‘cushy’ job indeed ‘until Jack Sullivan arrived with a fund of PT exercises to shake us along a bit. The train used to burst forth (about a mile away) from the tunnel in a cloud of smoke, then come whistling down the grade for all the world like a Hornby model in a stagelike background.’ Many a section here ‘acquired’ foreign currency and goods which were either prohibited in Turkey—or which the troops stoutly maintained should be prohibited in Turkey. One over-zealous searcher was still on board when the express crossed the frontier; he was ‘lost’ for some time. But the New Zealanders were not the only collectors, for Doug George reports how ‘two of us were talking to our officer on the station platform one sunny day. Suddenly, past us swaggered a local villager. He was clad in an Army shirt plus two pips on each shoulder, issue “Bombays” rolled up, and a pair of “Star” football socks—a leading New Plymouth Rugby club—capped off with a pair of sandshoes. We pretended not to notice him of course for reasons which should be obvious to anybody!
Here a platoon would line the rails to prevent passengers leaping away while a British intelligence sergeant went through the train. The search never seemed to last more than half an hour. This imperturbable sergeant, who had lived most of his life in Turkey and other Eastern countries, spoke about four or five languages and confidently went about his job of screening the travelling public. His name may have been Baker; he had escorted American tourists on trips before the war. Geoffrey Mather8 ‘marvelled at the speed with which he sized up the motley group of passengers, the rapid interrogation, and the hauling out of the train for further questioning those who had given themselves away or looked suspicious. Bearing in mind his high linguistic qualifications, his valuable local knowledge, and his soldierly bearing, I thought how well Britain has been page 142 served overseas by her soldiers and others—many of them junior rank like this sergeant whose work must have had a high security value.’
Up at the Fort they used a small donkey for bringing up the stores from the road below, and for carrying the Padre's kit from place to place. The Padre remembers ‘not uncommon’ cries, as he lead the donkey along, of ‘Dad is the one with the hat on’.
Apart from that in the odd shop and café, there was very little fraternisation between members of the battalion and the local inhabitants in Afrine. A detachment of the Transjordan Frontier Force based between Aleppo and Afrine sent patrols up to the Turkish border and also kept an eye on the Kurds who, having been exploited by landlords for generations, had taken to brigandry. This detachment invited the battalion's sergeants to its mess on hospitable and lively occasions (a prominent warrant officer had to spend a few days in hospital). Some men, invited to nearby villages, were embarrassed, first by the strange-tasting and highly seasoned food (the eye of an animal was considered a delicacy), next when no knives or forks appeared, and last at the pained looks when every scrap of food was not eaten. Captain Young recalls ‘a most sumptuous repast with the headman “Mukta” of the village in the loft— above the goat house’. Officers had been asked to spread friendships, and at Radjou Mather diplomatically notes how he ‘entertained local chiefs or whatever they were called at my HQ, and was in turn the recipient of excellent hospitality, dispensed with Eastern charm and generosity.’
Closer understanding was not confined to Syrian relationships. ‘Russell Young was, I think, a territorial officer, and took some time to find the level of the boys, so much so that at The Tunnel he called the chaps together and asked them if anyone would oblige by letting him know some of his faults—he would be available in his digs. The beer ration was right, and some went in and had a fair dinkum pow-wow with him. It was not long after this that he not only knew every man in the company but his Christian name as well—it is safe to assume that later on the boys would have followed him clean to Hell if he wanted them to, and he earned the name of “Brigham Young”.
Easily the busiest men in Syria were the medical men. The page 143 regimental aid posts gladly offered a rough and ready medical service, complicated by language difficulties. Suffering Syrians would point to their stomachs and make agonised faces. ‘The local government doctor in Afrine (paid by the Syrian Government) was rather a casual sort of chap—most of his medical instruments were rusty and he had no stethoscope [he placed an ear against the patient's chest],’ writes Padre Champion. ‘His son was studying to become a doctor at Beirut. I hope he was more efficient than his father. One does not wonder that many of the local people had no confidence in the local medico and preferred to come to our RAP.’ Keen and ready for anything, one RAP sergeant prepared to deliver a child, ordered hot water galore, and looked very excited at the prospect of a new case. Unfortunately the doctor walked in and diagnosed the case—not a baby but a large watery cyst.
‘At Medaine [Meidane] Ekbes,’ writes Mick Bradford,9 who was working with Malcolm McKenzie,10 ‘one day when apparently we had gained the confidence of the people a woman was brought to us with a very inflamed foot accompanied by another woman and three men.
‘The feet of course were stained to a deep russet brown and I hit upon the idea of painting the swollen part underneath with iodine, when a pus sore could be seen. She couldn't put the foot to the ground, so taking the bull by the horns, [I] decided to lance—no lance only a cut-throat razor—advanced on that when with delighted cries from the men and a wild yell from the patient the latter was borne to the floor, the foot held up invitingly by strong hands, and there was nothing for it but to proceed. With plenty of yells from the helpers to drown the anguish of the woman the job was accomplished successfully —much to my own astonishment! We bound it up and away they went all smiles—no conversation, everything by sign language as we had nothing in common.
‘Some days after the sentry on the building sent word up that a deuce of a crowd was down below and thought he recognised the woman by the bandaged foot. She came up loaded with all sorts of veges., eggs etc., and walked about us to show page 144 how she was cured—debbil-debbil gone from the foot, we learned. From that day on we had no peace and the things we were asked to tackle would make your hair curl.
One party came in with all the upper teeth infected including the roof of the mouth—a respirator was required on that one! A sort of scalpel was obtained from a French woman's manicure set and in we went, but that one never came back— God only knows how the deuce it panned out—you'd have to see it to believe it.’
The variety of cases was in keeping with the primitive life: a nine-year-old boy with half his forehead almost lifted off by a kick from a donkey; an unfaithful wife of a hillman, who had attacked her with axe and dagger, fractured her skull and stabbed her by the collarbone; a Kurd, involved in a feud, who had been shot by a Mauser rifle in the leg, ‘an awful mess, he did not cry out, he was a brave man.’ Medical men visited nearby villages and went further afield, climbing up and down hills to reach caves where the sick (and weakling infants) needed attention. ‘To my surprise and joy the little baby lived,’ notes Sergeant Cassidy.11
Busy though he was Captain Volckman spent much time grinding coffee beans and frying them in a pan with a dash of mustard, ‘making a liquor which he bottled, and served us well later in the desert—a great brew really.’
Leave parties went down to Aleppo: Select Club (for officers only); Select Café (warrant officers and sergeants), and Palace Café (other ranks). Some managed to travel further afield, to Damascus and Beirut. The Kiwi Concert Party and YMCA movies came along, and 5 Brigade Band gave several good concerts. Extraordinary band music brought heads out of huts and round corners when Boy Scouts, who were strong in Syria, paraded outside the battalion orderly room for inspection by Colonel Russell in gratitude for motoring them to some festival. After much discussion it was agreed that the scout band was playing our National Anthem.
A good deal of time passed in cards, letter writing, swimming (keeping an eye out for water snakes and freshwater crabs) and reading. A man who secretly enjoyed comics and received page 145 bundles of them from home now wrote: ‘Lay off the comics though as I'm beginning to lose prestige round here.’ Some went off dynamiting a few tasteless trout out of the creeks— Corporal Pat Hughes12 was among the pioneer fishermen-grenadiers. The trout, a bit like our New Zealand perch, or a cross between a mullet and a trout, weren't much good.
Sixteen much-envied men were chosen for the Ninth Army Ski School course in the Lebanons. The skiers might have been used as alpine troops in the Balkans, for a thrust towards Germany through Greece was being advocated by Mr Churchill at this time. Anyhow, of the sixteen skiers, three qualified: Sergeant Cross13 and Privates Tilbury14 and Bunny. Tilbury says: ‘That month at the ski school was the toughest I have ever put in, counting a lot of skiing, tramping and deerstalking before the war. Most of the time we were running round with a rifle and pack.’ Bunny recalls the dumping of an unpopular canteen sergeant, an Australian, in the concrete pool outside the Cedars Hotel. He adds: ‘It was not so very long after leaving the ski school that I had a big fall (without skis) and landed up 800 or 900 feet below ground in a Polish coalmine [as prisoner of war].’
Health was good in Syria's bracing climate. Strict precautions, including the ridiculously cumbersome ‘Bombay bloomers', were taken against malaria. On some hot nights mosquitoes hummed like a swarm of bees. The local drink, arak, was prohibited. Inflamed with arak (‘a destroyer of intellect and constitution’), a drunk gave one company its liveliest moments on the frontier by sending boulders crashing onto the orderly-room roof at Radjou. The incident was closely followed by a debate at the YMCA: ‘Is the early closing of hotels in New Zealand in the best interests of all concerned?’ ‘John Russell walked in and asked if he could have a go, and turned on quite a speech about how we in NZ and NZers in particular needed education in our drinking habits—he was for longer hours and supply from refreshment rooms, grocers, etc., and finished up by saying that he did not like the idea of being told when to drink. Sort of get it where, when and how he wanted it. page 146 Most of us supported that realistic view. He was a favourite, and it was nothing unusual to find him either in front or behind in the mess queue.’
Incidentally, as the result of too much liquor, one night a small party from the battalion put on a wretched guard in Aleppo: ‘This was an unfortunate night,’ writes D. L. George, ‘anyhow … at least two were matted. One fired a burst of Tommygun up the street, and another fell asleep at Bn. HQ. Duly we appeared before John Russell. After hearing evidence, his large benign face looked stern enough, but he, with a twinkle in his eyes, gave the culprits a very light punishment. I remember this incident particularly, because it sheds light on John Russell's big-hearted character.’ A day or two after this the Colonel was writing home ‘… I like the look of my team more every day and guarantee that when our turn comes they will give a good account.’
Indeed, the days in Syria were drawing to a close. The first week of ‘intensive training’ round Afrine camp began with Corporal Ray Mollier15 doing the sprint of his life when a rifle grenade, instead of soaring, just trickled from his rifle. The week ended with a mobile-column exercise with carriers, a few anti-tank guns and a 3-inch mortar detachment. A Syrian scorpion ‘made Haddon Donald jump quicker than any enemy action ever did. He had sat on a stone to which a scorpion considered he had priority. The last we (of C Company) saw of our commanding officer was making post-haste to the RAP.’
On the brief manoeuvres in the desert beyond Aleppo convoy movement, flag signals, and embussing and debussing were practised but these seemed to consist mainly ‘of being packed like sardines in the back of a truck with your mate's rifle sticking into your ribs and then rushed at full speed to a supposed enemy position, at which point the truck driver would spin the truck around on full lock and then pull up dead. We were now supposed to scramble out as fast as possible in full kit and deploy. Here again we began to feel that shortage of drinking water, especially after having had our fill of the precious liquid for the previous six weeks.’
The war diary for May ended with these words: ‘Whatever page 147 the immediate future may hold, the Battalion is in good heart, ready to play its next part in the struggle to end aggression.’
Unhappily the next move meant misfortune for most. On the night of Sunday, 14 June, after the first day of the brigade manoeuvres in the Syrian desert, Gough Smith,16 hip in a hole in the sand, wrapped in a blanket, was looking at the stars when ‘Og’ Wood17 (15 Platoon) loomed up in the darkness: ‘Can you chaps all hear me? Word has just come through from the brigadier that the manoeuvres are off. We are moving on to join the Division at Baalbeck tomorrow. The Brig. stressed the fact that there is absolutely no panic, but we have to be over the canal within a week.’ Smith goes on to record: ‘The silence was broken by a dozen questions, curses and groans. “Are we going into a stink?” “Has Jerry broken through?” “Trust the Pommies to muck it up.”“Well wouldn't that rock you?”“—the —desert”“Shut up and hear the rest.” ‘Og’ resumed his confidential lisping: “That's all we've been told but I suppose we are going up ‘the Blue’; if we do it'll be into a defensive position behind the lines. The Brig. said there is no panic. This is purely a precautionary measure….”
At the end of the next thirty days the battalion would have slept in about twenty-five different places. From the hills of northern Syria the battalion, dismayed at the black news of disaster following disaster, moved a thousand miles, south then west, into the Western Desert, and the last of a thousand rumours about returning home died abruptly. There, in the last week in June, the New Zealanders would take their stand against the enemy driving deep into Egypt. The words of John Collins, writing home when he reached Syria, were only too true: ‘The grapevines are just beginning to sprout, and I suppose by the time the grapes are ripe we shall be a long way from here.’
1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; i NZEF 1916-17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde (Crete) May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943 and 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group in UK 1944-45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946-57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.
3 The total number of men who served 28 days' detention in 22 Battalion's first year, although clearly a 2 NZEF record, cannot be given because the Part II Orders are missing from the unit records for most of 1940.
7 Two companies and a few detachments occupied each sector and changed round once a fortnight. They were in two sectors: Northern Sector: Meidane Ekbes (where the railway crosses into Turkey), North Tunnel, the Fort (guarding the railway viaduct and the south tunnel), the Saddle (a height over the Kara Sou valley, neatly divided by the frontier) and Radjou (forward area HQ) on the southern side of the Saddle. Southern sector: To the south-west, El Hammam (viewing the border and Lake Antioch), Katma (8 miles north-east along the road to Aleppo, by a railway tunnel). Towards the end of April more detachments occupied posts at two main railway bridges in the Afrine-Radjou area.