CHAPTER 5 — Syria
Five days after their return to Maadi the three New Zealand infantry brigades came under command of Headquarters, British Troops in Egypt, for internal security duties, if required, the political situation at this time being uncertain. On 2 February 6 Brigade, together with various groups from base units in Maadi Camp, moved into Cairo, 25 Battalion to Kasr-el-Nil Barracks, 24 Battalion based on Abbassia, and 26 Battalion to the Citadel. The three battalions had different roles: 24 Battalion was to prevent hostile mobs from crossing the main railway bridge and maintain order in the Shubra area; 25 Battalion was to patrol parts of Sharias Abbas and Bulac and stop mobs from forming and breaking out of the Bulac area; 26 Battalion was in reserve.
During the battalion's stay in the Barracks, the meals were prepared and cooked by its own cooks in Maadi and brought in, in hot food containers, by its vehicles, an arrangement that ‘worked well’. OCTU training on the barrack square was watched with interest by the battalion congregated on the surrounding balcony and apparently all ranks were very much impressed, especially with the very rapid timing of all drill movements. With the ready connivance of the men the battalion's NCOs attempted to drill at an even higher speed, with ludicrous results, and much to the annoyance of the OCTU instructors who, after a time, realised they were being taken off. In consequence, the NCOs received a dressing down.
The situation in Cairo was very tense but soon eased and the troops were withdrawn. Twenty-fifth Battalion marched back across the Mokattam Hills to Maadi Camp on 6 February and found the going very tough through soft sand and old quarries littered with the stone chippings of centuries. The march discipline received unfavourable comment and the RMO reported many soft and sore feet.
B Company had a change of company commanders on 9 February when Captain Wilson succeeded Captain Baker, who was transferred to the Maori Battalion.
Two days later a battalion parade and a brigade parade were held in preparation for an inspection of the Brigade Group page 164 the next day by General Auchinleck, who presented awards gained in the Greece, Crete, and Libyan campaigns, Cathie (MC) and Martin (DCM) being the battalion recipients.1
Meanwhile the fighting in the Western Desert had again flared up. On 21 January the enemy had advanced from his El Agheila position and by 6 February had reached Mechili, 100 miles from Tobruk. The New Zealand Division had been warned that it would be required and on 11 February 5 Brigade started for El Adem in the vicinity of Tobruk. The remainder of the Division, however, stayed where it was, as a further enemy advance seemed unlikely for some time.
On the battalion's return to Maadi on 6 February training was resumed. Equipment and particularly vehicles were in short supply and the numerous reinforcements had to be absorbed. Emphasis had therefore largely to be placed on individual and weapon training, the zeroing of the new Bren guns, testing of signal and other apparatus, and placing the new men to best advantage. Particular attention was paid to the Bren gun. There were 267 men of the rifle companies who were not qualified in this weapon, and of these only 107 qualified when the course was fired. The men not qualified with the rifle, numbering 291, also gave poor results when firing the course, only slightly more than one-third of them qualifying.
After a fortnight at Maadi the battalion moved by train for Kabrit in the Suez Canal Zone, detraining at Geneifa and travelling partly on foot and partly in vehicles (commonly known as leap-frogging) to a tented camping area near the Great Bitter Lake. The camp being close to an airfield, the risk of bombing was very real and all tents consequently were well dug-in. After bad weather the day before, the new camp was occupied under ideal conditions.
At this stage Brigadier Barrowclough left for New Zealand, where he commanded first 1 Division and subsequently 3 NZ Division in the Pacific. Pending the arrival of Brigadier Clifton a few days later, Lieutenant-Colonel Greville2 of 24 Battalion commanded the brigade.
Combined operations was the principal training subject in the new area. It commenced with introductory lectures and page 165 included a general hardening-up process of physical and recreational training and route marches, which everyone in the battalion was required to undertake. On 24 February 25 Battalion commenced its practical training at the Combined Training Centre School. This included practice with boats, special equipment, scaling ladders, and the crossing of wire entanglements. The next day the rifle companies embarked in ALCs3 and moved to beaches on the east shore of Great Bitter Lake for practice assault landings. A very bad sandstorm which rose in the afternoon and continued for twenty-four hours put a stop to further work until the next evening, when the practice landings were repeated.
Six months previously the Division had been warned to prepare for a move to Syria, and although this had been cancelled almost at once, rumours of a move from Egypt persisted. The popular selection was Syria though the concentration on combined training had naturally widened the scope for rumour. However, Syria it was, and the departure of Major Burton for that country and a movement order for an advance party to go there removed all doubts on the matter. The movement order itself must have caused some amusement: after instructing that petrol to bring all vehicles up to a mileage of 280 was to be drawn in ‘non-returnable tins’, the order directed, ‘These non-returnable tins will be returned at the first petrol point.’ It was of course a case of making the maximum use of tins which were not returnable to depots in the rear. (Curiously enough, 25 Battalion Routine Order No. 3 of 3 January 1942 stated: ‘Henceforth containers will not be designated “returnable” or “non-returnable”, but by their nature and capacity only’.)
Syria was of some strategic importance because of the risk that a successful German offensive against Russia might lead to an attack through Turkey and Syria against Egypt. The New Zealand Division would join Ninth Army which was guarding the approaches to Palestine. Syria was also very suitable, for climatic and scenic reasons, for reorganising and training the Division.
Owing to the shortage of transport the journey to Syria had to be made by rail or road as opportunity offered. Advance parties from the battalion and other units of 6 Brigade were sent off by road on 2 March and, staging at El Arish, Tulkarm, and Homs, reached Aleppo, where Advanced Brigade Headquarters was opened, four days later.page 166
From Beirut the convoy turned eastwards through the picturesque villages and summer resorts on the slopes of the Lebanons. This road, winding upwards along the flanks of the Kneisse and Barouk mountains, reached a height of about 5000 feet in 22 miles and low-gear running, boiling radiators, and occasional breakdowns slowed down the buses. From the summit the road dropped almost as steeply into the Bekaa or Lebanon valley to Rayak, where the different gauges of the Aleppo and Damascus railways met. The journey of 44 miles over the hills had taken between five and six hours.
At Rayak the troops changed from the buses to the train— with many complaints of the crowded and dirty carriages supplied—and travelled north out of the Bekaa valley through the central plains of Syria, where stops at the towns of Homs and Hama and the sight of occasional villages, many built of conical beehive houses, relieved the monotony of the rolling, unfenced, and almost treeless region. The journey of about 200 miles from Rayak to Aleppo took seventeen hours. From Kabrit to Aleppo, by the route travelled by the battalion, the distance is over 600 miles and the journey occupied seventy-two hours, made up of forty hours by train, twelve hours by motor vehicles, and twenty hours halted for meals and for changing from one form of transport to another.
On arrival at Aleppo on 10 March, 25 Battalion (with the exception of advance and road parties, and of C Company and a platoon of B Company which had travelled with the 6 Brigade rail party) was taken that day by trucks to Idlib, a town of 25,000 people, about 35 miles to the south-west. The next day it took over the duties of 2/15 Australian Battalion, detailing A Company to provide frontier posts over a wide area. No. 7 Platoon was sent 19 miles to the north-east to Bab el Haoua, 8 Platoon 18 miles to the west to Qnaye, and 9 Platoon 20 miles to the north to Harim, these being the three points where roads from the area crossed into Turkey. The role of these frontier posts was to help the Free French gendarmerie in controlling contraband and passports, and in manning the frontier road-blocks. A detachment of twelve men under Lieu- page 168 tenant Sanders4 was sent also to the control post at Akterine Station on the Aleppo-Baghdad railway, 24 miles north-east of Aleppo and therefore 60 miles from the battalion.
At Idlib 25 Battalion headquarters was in the White House, a rented house, and HQ Company in the French Barracks, formerly the Turkish Barracks. The remainder of the battalion, apart from the detachments on the frontier, occupied a camp of Nissen huts, known as Tin Pan Alley, just outside the town. C Company and 11 Platoon of B Company from the brigade rail party rejoined the battalion on the evening of the 12th.
A further detachment was made on 13 March when 13 Platoon was sent 65 miles north-east of Aleppo to occupy a post at Djerablous, where on the Syrian-Turkish border the Euphrates River was crossed by a ferry.
After a bad winter the food situation in Syria was so serious that families were moving from outlying places to centres where they knew grain was stored. The French had established a rationing system and had seized quantities of hoarded grain, and the British and American Red Cross were collecting and distributing food, New Zealand units being placed in charge of distribution in their localities. The proportions for the various sections of the people–Armenians, Greeks, Moslems, and Protestants–were fixed and the heads of each religious group, under a Free French officer, prepared lists of the poorer families. The New Zealand units placed an armed guard over the wheat or flour and made the distribution under the directions of Free French officers.
The first experience 25 Battalion had with this system was on the 14th when ten tons of flour were received from the United States Red Cross through Dr Carlton of the American University in Aleppo. The flour was for the poor of Idlib.
The arrival of 25 Battalion in the Aleppo area coincided with a heavy fall of rain, followed by frosts and intensely cold winds. The roads and tracks became impassable, even Bren carriers being unable to move over much of the waterlogged ground, but a week of fine weather towards the end of the month brought about a marked improvement.
As soon as the battalion had settled down, training commenced once more and consisted chiefly of route marches and manoeuvres in the hills, country which could well be typical of that in which the battalion might find itself fighting in page 169 future. All the usual operations were carried out and mobile columns were formed or organised to deal with local emergencies.
The normal precautions were taken against misbehaviour, with pickets from the various units patrolling Aleppo and Idlib; certain areas and cafés and all native quarters and houses were placed out-of-bounds, and the sale of the local drink– Arak–to the troops was forbidden, the men being advised to avoid it and to confine their drinking to the selected cafés and canteens in the towns and camps. Sightseeing tours of Aleppo were arranged for Saturdays and Sundays, the principal sights being the Citadel and the underground markets, which were of very great interest.
Partly for the entertainment of the people, but also to give an impression of strength to foster respect and perhaps to curb the more turbulent, 25 Battalion headed by the brigade band marched along the one main road through Idlib, and back again, shortly after its arrival from Egypt. The people lined the street and seemed to appreciate both the display itself and the implied courtesy.
Because of the poverty in Syria, and possibly because of the banditry outlook over the centuries of some of its people, pilfering of army stores was prevalent, so creating at least one similarity to Egypt. Rubber mud-flaps and anything else easily removable would disappear from a truck left unattended, even if only for a few minutes, and the natives showed much daring and ingenuity in their attempts to steal stores. Dumps were of course a natural attraction, but successful and unsuccessful attempts were also made to secure articles from the backs of trucks in transit.
Although not permitted to enter the neutral territory of Turkey, the New Zealanders at the frontier posts were soon on friendly terms with the Turkish soldiers there. The Turks were very sensitive to troop movements near the border and any New Zealand manoeuvres caused increased Turkish activity at observation posts and by sentries. After exercises by the battalion on 4 April, relations were, for a time, merely formal instead of cordial as before.
Commencing on 22 March, various reliefs of outlying detachments of the battalion took place. A Company's detachment at Qnaye was relieved by a platoon of D Company and that at Harim by a platoon of C Company, which with Company Headquarters and 14 Platoon had moved from Idlib to Kafer page 170 Harim. Two days later, A Company, leaving one platoon at Idlib, and with a detachment of 3-inch mortars, moved to Bab el Haoua, while C Company sent one section, together with platoon headquarters, to take over D Company's post at Akterine. One troop of 30 Field Battery was with A Company's detachment at Bab el Haoua, the remainder of the battery being in Idlib Camp, where K Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery, one platoon of 3 MG Company, and one section of 8 Field Company were also stationed, all under command of 25 Battalion.
Every opportunity was taken to continue training and the steep and rocky ground presented interesting tactical problems as well as stiff physical ones. Route-marching along tracks to reach suitable training areas, the use of the compass, judging distance up and down hill, gauging the effect of light in the steep country, tank hunting, attack and defence problems, the action of mobile columns, night exercises, selection and layout of battalion headquarters were included in the programme. The companies in turn left the training entirely to the non-commissioned officers on occasions while the officers undertook tactical reconnaissances to practise them in the selection of tactical positions and to study such factors as observation points, approach and withdrawal routes, use of cover, and positions for covering-fire weapons–guns, machine guns, and mortars.
The tactical training was given direction and emphasis by operation instructions issued early in April. These set out in detail the action to be taken in the event of an emergency arising, such as an attack or the threat of attack; apart from their obvious necessity as a plan of action for active operations, the instructions were valuable in giving definite areas for reconnaissance and realistic training. In the plan laid down, 25 Battalion would have 24 Battalion on the right and 20 Australian Infantry Brigade on the left between the battalion and the Mediterranean coast; 26 Battalion had an internal security role in Aleppo. A squadron of commandos in 25 Battalion's area had an independent role. Within 6 Brigade's area there were also Free French troops, including the Foreign Legion, engaged chiefly in watching the frontier and protecting airfields, and some technical British units mostly in Aleppo, which came under command of the brigade if hostilities occurred.
The threat of war in Syria was taken seriously and far-reaching preparations for it provided plenty of work for all the troops in the area.page 171
One of the great drawbacks to Syria was the prevalence of malaria which, if the most careful measures were not taken against it, could rapidly decimate an army. These measures necessitated the adoption of many tiresome precautions and a strict discipline. The malarial season commenced on 1 April, a rather inconvenient date as many of the precautions involved clothing and a change to summer clothing was shortly due. Quarters were to be sprayed daily, men were to sleep under nets, guards and sentries on duty at night had to wear veils and gloves, shirts and tunics would have long sleeves, trousers or long shorts (the latter having flaps to protect the knees) would be worn after sunset, and the battalion was required to have an anti-malaria squad of an NCO and three men, and two control units each of one officer and six men with twenty-four civilian labourers, to work in the Djedeide and Aleppo areas with 4 Field Hygiene Section.
As can well be realised, these were formidable and irksome precautions relying to a large extent on the common sense of the men for their efficacy if present disaster and future recurring ill-health were to be avoided.
Easter was now at hand, 3 April being Good Friday. Organised inter-company and platoon football matches were played and a shooting match was arranged between the local gendarmerie and the battalion, the former using the latter's rifles owing to an ammunition shortage. The battalion team had an easy victory.
On 9 April the battalion moved by MT to Aleppo to take part in a ceremonial parade of 6 Brigade Group, together with the Free French Foreign Legion and cavalry. The strength on parade was 3152 all ranks with 79 vehicles; this included a detachment of 50 RAF and 750 French. The French cavalry, 100 strong, was given the honour of leading the parade, a distinction which greatly pleased the French residents. General Freyberg took the salute and in a letter to Brigadier Clifton wrote: ‘I want to congratulate you and your staff on the excellent arrangements made for the parade in Aleppo on the 9th. The parade was impressive, the marching good, and the general turnout and bearing of the officers and men were of a high order. Will you please convey to all ranks my personal congratulations….’
On 10 April, preparatory to 5 Brigade relieving 6 Brigade, the battalion advance party left for Zabboud in the Bekaa valley, 140 miles south of Idlib. The battalion (less some page 172 outlying detachments) followed two days later, joining the brigade column at Taftanaz where the Idlib road joined the Aleppo-Homs road. On the way south the three battalions, together with the brigade band, did what was commonly known as a ‘flag’ march through Hama and Homs. Wakeling commented:
‘Sunday, April 12. All on board MT at 8, left Idlib 8.30 and headed for Hama where marched through with fixed bayonets after lunch. Very hot march. Miles and miles of oatfields on way to Homs–a great ride. Stopped at French Barracks for the night.
‘13th. Off at 8. Big stretches of straight road and climbed up to new position about 20 miles from Baalbeck. Camp of tin huts for the whole bde, up from the road. Warm but snow just above on the peaks. 16 in a hut, not bad as semi-circular with concrete slab floors.’
The battalion reached Zabboud a little before noon, followed a little later by its rear party with four suspected terrorists, two of whom were trying to cross into Turkey in the vicinity of Harim. The men were arrested by Second-Lieutenant Gilberd5 and Sergeant-Major Martin of C Company and Sergeant Jarjour Kalim, interpreter, and were interrogated by a field security officer from Aleppo. Another arrest had been made by the Field Security Section the day before the battalion left Idlib, a case of suspicious ploughing having been reported south of Kafer Harim. By ploughing to prearranged patterns it was of course possible to signal information to enemy aircraft or to ground observers across the border, a problem which in the 1914–18 war caused some concern to 1 NZ Division in France. The outlying detachments of the battalion were relieved between 14 and 16 April by 21 and 23 Battalions.
Sixth Brigade was now in the Djedeide fortress area and was responsible for the defence of the left sector on the high ground north-west of Zabboud, 25 Battalion being on the extreme left, five miles from the village, with 26 Battalion on its right, both facing north, and 24 Battalion a mile to the south. The battalion was to assist in the preparation of the defences, but training, especially of specialists, was to be continued. One complete rifle company in each battalion was to be held available for offensive training in hilly country; this training was to take the form of platoon and company treks with pack mules, the troops page 173 moving self-contained for two or three days. In the defences 25 Battalion's task was to construct positions for two companies and a battalion headquarters and to improve some miles of pack-track giving access to the position.
The programme outlined, interspersed with various training exercises, occupied the unit till about the end of May. During this period, on 16 May, the battalion celebrated by a smoke concert the second anniversary of its entry to Trentham Camp, the speakers on the toast list being, in order of appearance, Captain Colledge, Sergeant-Major O'Kane,6 Lieutenant-Colonel George, Corporal Atkins,7 Sergeant Marshall, Sergeant-Major Martin, Captain Witters, Major Burton, Brigadier Clifton, and Captain Porter. Every member of the battalion was expected to attend and free drinks were provided.
Another item of interest was the despatch on a tour of duty to New Zealand of some of the original members of the unit, amongst them Majors McBride and Smith, Captain R. C. Wilson8 and Lieutenant Hollow.9 This took place during the last week in April, and the principal appointments in the unit then were: Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel George; Second-in-command, Major Burton; Company Commanders: HQ, Major Porter; A, Major Hutchens; B, Captain D. A. Wilson; C, Captain McLeay;10 D, Captain Witters; Adjutant, Captain Armstrong.
Divisional manoeuvres commenced towards the end of May and extended for four days, 25 Battalion returning to Zabboud on 3 June. The men had had a strenuous time and no doubt were glad to return to camp. One of the attack exercises was as near to the real thing as it was possible to get, live ammunition being used by artillery and infantry weapons to support it. There is always some risk in such exercises and on this occasion a man of D Company was wounded by a splinter from a mortar shell fired by another battalion.
On 9 June the battalion commenced the return journey to the Idlib area, practising attacks in MT at speed on the way, and reaching its destination the next day. On the 12th the relief of 23 Battalion was commenced. A Company moved to page 174 Bab el Haoua, two platoons of C Company to Harim and one to Qnaye, and B and D Companies to the Tin Pan Alley camp. No. 2 (Anti-Aircraft) Platoon of HQ Company undertook guard duties in Idlib
On the 14th B Company had the good fortune to be sent for a rest period by the sea at Latakia, 70 miles by road to the south-west, but was recalled the following day as the Division had been ordered back to Egypt.
The situation in the Western Desert had been threatening for some time. Rommel's offensive had opened on 26 May, and although early reports had been optimistic, heavy fighting on 10 June had caused a British withdrawal from Bir Hacheim and, five days later, from south of Gazala. On that day 6 Brigade was instructed to prepare for an immediate move and an advance party of Australians had arrived at Aleppo.
The need for the utmost secrecy regarding the pending move was impressed on all ranks. All New Zealand markings on vehicles were painted over, shoulder titles and badges were removed, wireless silence was observed, and during the journey main towns were to be avoided as far as possible. These measures, whatever success they achieved elsewhere, were not successful with the Egyptians near Mena, who greeted the New Zealanders as such when the columns passed through.
Brigade command and tactical reconnaissance parties, including Colonel George and the four rifle company commanders of 25 Battalion, left for the front via Maadi Camp on the afternoon of 16 June and were due there, after a journey of nearly 700 miles, on the latter date the battalion, with the rest of the Brigade Group (except 26 Battalion which moved independently), commenced its long journey, 25 Battalion under Major Burton joining the brigade column at Taftanaz early that morning. The battalion had been provided with thirty troop-carrying vehicles and four 3-ton trucks to augment its own vehicles. Halts for the night were made at Chounchar (15 miles south of Homs), Rayak (35 miles east of Beirut), Tulkarm. (20 miles north-east of Jaffa), Asluj (180 miles from Ismailia), and Ismailia. Amiriya, the transit camp near Alexandria from which the battalion had departed for Greece, was reached on the late afternoon of 24 June.
The journey between Rayak and Tulkarm was particularly trying. A distance of 180 miles was covered in terrific heat, which caused much delay through the petrol vaporising and the tyres bursting and occupied nearly thirteen hours. It was page 175 also a bad day in the Western Desert, the fall of Tobruk, an event as surprising as it was disastrous, emphasising the urgency underlying the New Zealand move towards the battlefield. Naturally the troops expected that they would proceed to the front at once, but greatly to their surprise that was not to be.
That night Brigadier Clifton, describing to the unit commanders the situation in the Western Desert, said that although the rest of the Division was concentrating at Matruh, 6 Brigade was to be in reserve; most of the transport, however, was to go to Matruh to make the Division fully mobile. Twenty-sixth Battalion returned to the brigade from Matruh at dawn the next day, travelling throughout the night to avoid observation and air attack.
For the next two days 6 Brigade remained in Amiriya and then, leaving rear parties in the camp, went to the seaside, 24 Battalion to Sidi Bishr camp near Alexandria and 25 Battalion with the remaining units to Agami camp, five miles from the city; owing to the shortage of vehicles, the troops had a long march. Five hours later, however, the brigade returned to Amiriya, under orders to proceed at once to the Alamein area, where just before midnight on 27 – 28 June the force bivouacked some miles south of the Alamein railway station.
1 Lt-Col McNaught's DSO was also won in the November 1941 campaign but the award was not announced until October 1942.
3 Assault Landing Craft.
10 Captain McLeay left for New Zealand in May 1942.