Chapter 6 — Syria
FOUR days after their return to Baggush the Libyan survivors were joined by a large contingent of reinforcements. The first task of the new Battalion Commander, Lt-Col Satterthwaite,1 was to reorganise the unit so that the best use could be made of fully trained personnel. Check parades revealed that HQ Coy outnumbered the others. Battalion HQ had been captured almost intact, and the rifle companies were scarcely able to muster a platoon apiece. Officer replacements arrived from Maadi. Before long most of the empty dugouts were reoccupied and training had recommenced.
All ranks were following with great interest the Eighth Army's counter-attack in Libya. Fifth Brigade was still in the field and was taking a leading part in the action. But the news of Japan's entry into the war caused greater excitement, the thoughts of everyone centring on New Zealand and the possibility of loved ones being in danger. On their journey from Maadi the reinforcements had heard rumours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and for a while were more interested in the BBC news than in settling down amongst their new comrades. There was wild speculation on the future role of the Division, and many hoped that the changed war situation would mean a return to the Pacific. Although rumours flashed through the camp for days, most of the troops realised their wishes could not be considered and were content to await developments.
Living conditions at Baggush gradually improved as the troops became more adept at making their underground quarters weatherproof. The days were warm but the nights bitterly cold. The more industrious went to extraordinary lengths to gain some comfort: fireplaces and chimneys were built from benzine tins and walls lined with sandbags or corrugated iron. Doors were fitted to keep out the cold winds which became more frequent late in December. On several occasions sandstorms reduced page 131 visibility to a yard or so. Men caught outside at night during one of these storms were soon lost and their cries for help echoed through the camp.
Rain fell for short periods on many occasions, but most notable was a thunderstorm which occurred about midnight on Monday, 22 December. Dugout roofs sprung leaks and there was soon constant seepage through the sides of trenches. Flood waters built up against dugout doors until they collapsed, the unfortunate sleepers being almost drowned in the deluge. Many, including the CO, were forced to evacuate their quarters hurriedly, leaving letters, papers, photographs, and all manner of gear to float out with the tide. The evacuees, damp and uncomfortable, spent the rest of the night with more fortunate friends. At dawn all paddled around in the wreckage seeking lost gear and equipment. The anti-tank ditch which formed the camp perimeter resembled the River Avon and many buried mines were washed out.
Meals and messing arrangements improved as the weeks went by. At first the troops had had their meals in the open, but large tents were erected as messrooms and the food became less gritty. Two things tended to improve the standard of cooking. One was the rivalry between company cooks and the other the acquisition of a large stock of flour in a raid on a nearby dump. Christmas 1941 was a day of days. Patriotic Fund Board parcels had already been distributed, and on the 25th there was another issue plus a large quantity of mail. Although outward demonstration may have been lacking, there was no doubt that all ranks appreciated the generosity of the people in New Zealand. The special dinner in each messroom was a masterpiece of preparation. On the menu were soup, roast turkey, mutton, cauliflower, peas, potatoes, plum pudding and custard, and beer, nuts, and fruit bedecked the tables. Festivities were continued in the dugouts long after the meal. Later a special evening meal topped off a memorable day. Amongst the old hands there was a note of restraint for they had not forgotten their absent friends.
On New Year's Eve there was a vivid and prolonged display of fireworks such as never came from the factories of China. Accurate shooting by the Signal Platoon set off several land page 132 mines which added to the din. 1942 was toasted, and everyone hoped the year would see an end to hostilities. Farther west the Axis forces were being driven back towards El Agheila. Tobruk was no longer encircled.
During December little training had been carried out at Baggush, although there had been frequent route marches. These usually ended somewhere along the coast so that everyone could bathe in the cool surf or collect wreckage from ships sunk in the Mediterranean. Tactical exercises began early in January. As part of a brigade competition the companies practised attacking roles over a strenuous course across rolling country. Eventually A Coy was chosen to represent the battalion but was beaten in the finals. The rest of the training was confined to range practice, minelaying, quick debussing from vehicles, and lectures on first aid. At a ceremonial parade on 13 December Brig Barrowclough read messages of congratulation from the GOC Eighth Army and General Freyberg on the valuable part played by the brigade in the recent fighting. The Brigade Commander also welcomed the reinforcements.
The football season, interrupted by the spell in action, was continued under difficult conditions, sandstorms often making playing unpleasant. Only a few of the original battalion team had returned to Baggush, but under Padre Kingan's coaching a new team was selected and welded into a fine side. Four games were played against other units without a loss. Inter-platoon and company games were hotly contested, with vociferous supporters barracking from the sidelines. Although loosened a little by a rake made largely from barbed wire, the grounds were hard and plenty of skin was lost in a hard tackle or tight scrimmage. Soccer, too, became very popular, with enthusiasts training newcomers to the game.
Flooded at Baggush, December 1941
Christmas parcels at the Battalion post office, Baggush
Shells landing among transport at Sidi Rezegh
Company canteens operated smoothly but frequently were unable to meet the demands made on them. Beer, chocolate, and tinned fruits were rationed, and often there were shortages of such items as soap or toothpaste. Regular visits by the YMCA Mobile Canteen helped to make up the deficiencies. Mail arrived regularly by air from Cairo. The Egyptian Mail and NZEF Times kept everyone abreast of local and home affairs. Each night at six o'clock a crowd collected around the battery-operated radio to listen to the latest war news.
After seven weeks at Baggush everyone was pleased to learn that the brigade was returning to Maadi Camp and civilisation. The battalion left in two groups on 23 January. Soon after lunch the rail party marched to the Sidi Haneish siding and clambered into covered wagons, 35 men being crammed into each one. Meanwhile, the road party finished loading the unit vehicles and set out towards the tar-sealed road to Cairo. The train left at 6.30 p.m. and reached Amiriya by breakfast time. A very satisfying meal was served from a cookhouse alongside the station, and it did much to revive those who had tried to sleep curled up on the vibrating steel floors of the wagons. The second leg of the journey was more interesting. Passing the extensive swamps south of Alexandria, ducks (and natives) attracted the attention of marksmen. There was a steady volley of shots until the train was stopped and the miscreants warned. Progress up the Nile Valley was slow, and it was four o'clock before the train arrived at the Maadi siding and the party detrained.
The troops marched to the north-east corner of the camp near the Pall Mall cinema, each company being allotted a group of tents. Before a week had passed there were few who wished to return to Baggush. Water was not rationed and hot and cold page 134 showers were available. The sewerage system no longer consisted of a large hole in the ground as at Baggush, but of tins emptied daily by native labourers. As the newsboy was wont to call—ver' sweet, ver' clean, ver' hygiene! Meals were good, fresh meat and vegetables being very welcome again. Butter replaced margarine and occasionally tasty pies were served. The seven-day leave scheme was continued and each day leave parties went to Cairo; the men were also able to visit the New Zealand hospitals at Helwan and Helmieh to see friends who had left the battalion after being wounded in Libya. The camp offered a wide range of evening entertainment, from beer and a game of housie-housie at the Naafi to light programmes at the two cinemas, concerts at the Lowry Hut, or a card game and supper at the YMCA and Church Army huts. The only cloud on the horizon was the report of Japanese successes in the Pacific. Not only was the situation alarming, but the airmail service had ceased and letters were longer in transit.
Maadi also offered improved facilities for training. Each company paid a visit to the battle-practice range at Abbassia and some strenuous hours were spent on the assault course. To enable officers and NCOs to become more familiar with compasses, night exercises were carried out. With several excellent ranges nearby, firing practices were held regularly. Instructors from the Engineer Depot gave several lectures on the lifting and laying of various types of mines.
Two special parades were held in February. On the 12th General Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, inspected the brigade and afterwards presented decorations won in recent actions. A sandstorm made conditions unpleasant as the three battalions marched past the General in column of companies and advanced in review order. Two days later the brigade assembled to farewell its commander, Brig Barrowclough, who was returning to New Zealand. His successor, Brig G. H. Clifton, joined the brigade at Kabrit. The training syllabus left time for Rugby and soccer, most of the games being played on the hard grounds inside the camp. When the time came for the unit to move to the Canal Zone the Rugby team was still undefeated. The soccer team failed to win either of its matches but held a team from the King's Royal Rifles to a draw.page 135
Early in February a political crisis in Cairo plunged the camp into sudden activity. As a precautionary measure British troops were posted to strategic positions around the city. All leave was cancelled and the battalion moved to the Citadel, an ancient fortress overlooking Cairo from the south-east. Three days later a new Egyptian Cabinet was formed under the then pro-Ally Nahas Pasha, and the crisis was over. Meanwhile, the troops had explored the stone vaults and dungeons of the Citadel and visited the beautiful Mohammed Ali and Turkish mosques nearby. On the 6th the unit returned to Maadi, marching through the Dead City—an evil-smelling burial place for thousands of Egyptians and happy hunting ground for many more thousand flies.
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About a week later 6 Brigade was directed to move to Kabrit, a military camp close to the Great Bitter Lake. The road party was on its way soon after breakfast on 21 February, and about twelve hours later the main body marched to the Maadi siding. It was a particularly cold evening and several hours elapsed before the train arrived. During this interval the Brigade band played popular tunes. Most of the men fell asleep after the journey began and at daylight were surprised to find the train had reached Zagazig, a town in the Nile Delta half-way between Cairo and the Canal. After a stop for breakfast the journey was continued past cultivated areas, through Ismailia and south past the Sweet Water Canal towards Suez. The line skirted huge military encampments, well-stocked RAF aerodromes, and extensive aircraft assembly plants, until at midday Geneifa was reached. Lunch was provided from trucks in the station yard, and after the meal the companies set out on foot for the new camp.
There were only a few miles to be covered, but it was a blistering hot day with the sand radiating the scorching sun, and everyone was relieved when the rows of white tents came into sight. Particularly evident on this trip were the ubiquitous native hawkers who surround troop trains wherever they stop. Their goods ranged from oranges, biscuits, chocolate, local tobacco, peanuts and coloured drinks to the trashiest assortment page 136 of cheap wallets, trinkets, and photos. Perhaps the best known train huckster is the eggs-and-bread walad, who does a good trade with hard-boiled eggs, small elongated loaves of bread and a pinch of salt. All must make enormous profits on the little they do manage to sell.
The camp at Kabrit covered a wide area. It had been set up as a training ground for combined operations, with a naval establishment and training centre at the southern end of the Great Bitter Lake. All around were barren, sandy wastes relieved by stunted scrub growth, a little oasis of palms, some Pines on Kabrit Point, and hundreds of white tents. The tents were widely dispersed, the battalion being spread over several acres with the cookhouse near the centre. On hot, windy days, and there were many, the platoons stationed along the camp perimeter found the trek to meals tedious and unpleasant. Officers and sergeants had messrooms but the remainder ate in the open. Because all water had to be carted, a rationing system similar to that in Baggush was introduced. There was little time for sport, and evening entertainment was limited to occasional picture shows, card games, and reading. Mail was arriving very slowly and leave was curtailed. It was an abrupt change from life at Maadi. The evening of 26 February will be particularly remembered. High winds and the dust-storms which accompany them were always a curse, and on this night several tents were blown down. Vain attempts were made to rescue letters and papers which disappeared at high speed. Such was the disorder caused by this wind that normal training was abandoned on the 27th until the damage was repaired.
For the first few days after their arrival the troops chiselled into the hard rock pan and set their tents below sand level, the spoil being heaped around the sides. As soon as this work was completed training began. Several days were spent practising rowing, ascending and descending vertical ladders, disembarking from dummy landing craft and crossing barbed-wire obstacles, and companies in turn made a general tour of the naval yard. Various types of landing craft were inspected, including the two designed for infantry work—the ALC (assault) and the SLC (support). Later the troops boarded these craft and, with sailors in charge, crossed the lake to practise landings. These page 137 exercises were also carried out after dusk and were generally successful, the co-operation between sailors and soldiers being first-rate. Often an infantryman misjudged the depth of the shallows or some other unrehearsed incident added humour to the exercises. A morning was spent aboard a Glen ship, parent ship to small landing craft. Originally it had been planned to do a landing exercise from this ship, but a raid by enemy bombers the night before caused her to be diverted to a safer anchorage. An excellent lunch was served on board, and officers will testify to the quality of the ship's stock of gin.
The following evening a final practice was carried out from the small craft. A landing was made on the eastern shores of the lake, each man carrying full battle equipment. The companies then advanced across country to take up a defensive position several miles inland. There were a few minor hitches. Some sections became temporarily lost and one or two compasses proved unreliable, but by midnight the men were in position, all shivering in their damp clothes. Artillery and anti-tank batteries had given the infantry close support and their efforts made the exercise more realistic. At dawn the positions were abandoned and the rest of the day was spent in field firing at various targets.
The training of the past weeks had given all ranks some idea of what would be expected of them should they be called on to make an opposed landing. It had also aroused considerable speculation on the future role of the Division. In the Western Desert the Eighth Army was beginning to withdraw from its El Agheila positions in the face of increasing enemy pressure. The Japanese drive through the South Pacific was also gaining momentum. All rumours were temporarily set at rest when, early in March, it was learned that the Division was moving to Syria to relieve Australian forces stationed there. In recent months this country and Palestine had assumed greater military importance, since Axis forces driving into the Caucasus might soon be in a position to turn south through Turkey to the vital Persian oilfields and the Suez Canal.
On 12 March the battalion set out from Kabrit, leaving a baggage party to follow by road. Its destination was Aleppo, in northern Syria. As usual the day before departure had been page 138 spent in dismantling the camp and preparing for the move. That night everyone slept out in the open, and a cold night it was! Reveille was at 2.30 a.m. and breakfast was eaten in the dark. Trucks arrived and the troops scrambled aboard them with still no sign of the dawn. The convoy set out for Geneifa, where there was some delay before the train pulled into the station. During this period a few natives with their usual cunning managed to spirit away a box of rations. The loss was discovered within a few minutes and one of the company QMs, wise to the tricks of the Egyptians, found most of the missing articles by the simple expedient of examining all freshly turned sand.
The train left Geneifa soon after 6.30 a.m. and headed northwards through Ismailia, reaching Kantara West about eleven o'clock. A crowd of Australians was on the platform and they were besieged with inquiries about conditions in Syria. ‘It's been bloody cold!’ was a common retort. The troops detrained and, heavily laden with all manner of gear, clambered onto small ferry punts which carried them across the Canal. Four hours went by before the rail journey was continued. This time the carriages were very crowded. As night fell the men sorted out places to sleep, some on luggage racks, others in the passageways, and still more under the hard wooden seats. A space was generally left for the primus so that the billy could be boiled during the journey. During the night the train crossed the Sinai Desert, and before the travellers were properly awake had pulled into Lydda station. Breakfast was eaten and there was a rush on a nearby fountain, but before many had washed the journey began again. The country the train now passed through resembled parts of New Zealand and was in direct contrast to the barren wastes of Egypt. Trees and sown fields were green with spring growth. At each communal settlement the Jews were using tractors and modern farm implements, but the Palestinian Arabs were tilling the soil in the manner of their forefathers. The contrast between Arab and Jew was dramatically marked in the cities of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, side by side on the Mediterranean. By midday the train had reached Haifa, and the battalion prepared to march to a transit camp three miles away.
A night was spent in this camp, set in pleasant surroundings page 139 with tents scattered amongst olive groves. In the morning everyone climbed into buses; these had seen many years of service, and some, not unexpectedly, broke down temporarily during the journey. The route lay through the modern town of Haifa, with its busy port, huge oil refineries and clustered houses, along the coastal road past Acre and a wonderfully preserved Roman aqueduct still in use, and across the Syrian border. Shattered roofs, bullet spattered walls, and gaping holes in buildings told the story of the Australian land assault and the naval bombardment preceding it. French gendarmerie in their traditional uniforms were policing the towns under Allied administration. Late in the afternoon Beirut came into view. A stop was made for a meal at a camp on the outskirts of the city, and dusk was falling as the convoy turned inland towards the Lebanon Mountains. The road rose sharply from the plain to twist and turn up the mountainside. One by one the buses dropped back, each held up by some minor defect. At length, almost suddenly, the top of the pass—thousands of feet above sea level—was reached. Great sheets of snow on the mountain slopes glistened in the night, only to be swallowed up in a blanket of mist. The rest of the journey was uneventful and by midnight the convoy reached Rayak, where everyone transferred to a waiting train and settled down in trucks and carriages. The local Naafi supplied a hot cup of tea, very much appreciated. A prominent figure on the station platform was the Rayak Town Major, impressively dressed in furs and Russian balaclava.
Shortly after midnight the train pulled out, heading north up the Bekaa Valley towards Aleppo. By 7 a.m. it reached Homs, a fairly large town in central Syria. As soon as breakfast was over the journey was continued through heavily cultivated country. Fruit trees were in blossom, and occasionally glimpses were caught of the huge water wheels (noria) for which this valley is famous. The Syrians appeared to dress more picturesquely than the Palestinians, and their bell-shaped huts clustered together looked in the distance like beehives. The perfectly straight furrows of ploughed land, hundreds of acres in extent and cultivated with primitive implements, were an amazing sight. Later, after lunch was over, the general monotony of the journey was relieved by a young colt which tried to page 140 race the train. Urged on by the troops it kept level for several miles, only to fall back in the end from sheer exhaustion. About five o'clock Aleppo and its huge citadel came into sight. The train pulled into Baghdad station and the long journey was over.
General Freyberg and Brig Clifton were on the platform, and the troops had no sooner detrained than A Coy was detached and sent off in trucks for the frontier outposts. The rest of the unit marched to the German Barracks in the western suburbs of the city and was billeted in large two-storied buildings. Shortly afterwards guards and pickets were posted at various stores, dumps and compounds, including a large RASC dump at Mouslimie (Mussolini) Road and others at the Baghdad and Damascus stations. The natives were cunning thieves, and in the past there had been serious losses of valuable stores. Consequently guards were armed and on the alert for intruders. Natives who worked in the compounds during the day were frequently searched and snap patrols examined suspicious traffic on the roads. The company not on duty was sent on route marches or took part in tactical exercises with mortar and artillery support.
The Australians' warning about the weather proved very true. The road party which was bringing most of the blankets was delayed, and during those few days the troops in Aleppo nearly froze. Throughout March rain fell almost every day and on several occasions there were heavy falls of snow. Icy winds swept down from the mountains and penetrated the thickest of clothing. At the barracks straw-filled palliasses were provided and hot showers were available. As a precaution against malaria mosquito nets were issued. Whenever possible fresh fruit and vegetables were bought at the local markets, but meat of Syrian origin did not compare with that from New Zealand. Aleppo was not unlike Cairo. It had its native quarters and ancient citadel, mosques and minarets, while the European and more modern section of the city contained well-stocked shops, theatres, and cabarets. The Naafi was the most popular rendezvous, as it sold the only drinkable brand of beer.
The company on duty at the frontier—a rotation system was introduced—was given a variety of tasks, including the manning page 141 of outposts and the distribution of flour amongst the villagers. Two platoons were stationed at Soudji and other outposts at the Turkish frontier and shared quarters with French gendarmerie. Syrian troops, clad in colourful costumes reminiscent of comic opera, were also stationed in the locality. Small-scale exercises were often held; during one of these some of the battalion accidentally crossed the frontier and nearly precipitated an international crisis. Several miles to the south, at the village of Azaz, the rest of the company, billeted in Nissen huts, page 142 was more concerned with villagers and flour. Each native sought to gain as much of this commodity as possible and the situation often required delicate handling. The Syrians as a whole seemed to be friendily disposed towards Allied troops. On 9 April British, French, and New Zealand troops took part in a ceremonial parade through the streets of Aleppo. The local inhabitants whom it was hoped to impress turned up in large numbers to watch.
A few days later 5 Brigade arrived in Aleppo and assumed responsibility for the area. Sixth Brigade was directed to move south to the Bekaa Valley, where the main defences of Syria were being prepared. After 21 Battalion took over its guard duties on the 13th, the battalion made ready to leave. Two days later the main body set out in ASC (1 Ammunition Company) vehicles, leaving the heavy equipment and gear to be railed or taken direct to the valley in the unit transport. The route taken by the main party was a long and circuitous one of 330 miles, the order being to move inland via Hamman to Deir ez Zor and south and west through Palmyra to Zabboud in the Bekaa Valley. By this show of force the authorities hoped to impress the natives living farther inland.
Overnight stops were made at Hamman, Deir ez Zor, Palmyra and Homs, and at the first three the men bivouacked on aerodromes or landing fields. Those who knew their history found the journey full of interest. They saw the famous Euphrates River and visited Deir ez Zor, a trading centre for carpets and camel hair and meeting place for camel trains. In places rich belts of vegetation, green with spring growth, ran along the banks of the Euphrates. Along the fringe of the desert there was a carpet of tall grass often smothered with flowers. Here and there were bedouin encampments—flat, black tents, pitched near the grassy patches. Hundreds of black-and-white birds rather like magpies, startled by the noise of the trucks, flew overhead. At Deir ez Zor, a city built around the only bridge over the Euphrates for hundreds of miles, a ceremonial parade was staged before large crowds. An Indian regiment, the Guides Cavalry, and the greater part of a regiment of Troupes Speciales also took part. The salute was taken by Colonel Jago, the area commander, who later entertained officers to a banquet. All page 143 the local dignitaries were present at this function at which the last (reputedly) bottle of Napoleon brandy obtainable locally was drunk. While this was going on the troops were wandering through the streets of the city, some sampling local brands of wine and spirits and others visiting the bazaars and shops.
The remainder of the trip was dull and uninteresting except for a visit to the remarkable Roman ruins west of Palmyra. Continuing westward, the convoy followed a pipeline to halt for the night only a short distance from Homs. No leave was granted, and shortly after midday on the 20th the convoy passed through the village of Zabboud and stopped at the nearby camp. The rest of the battalion was already there; members of the advanced party directed the men to their new quarters, the majority going to Nissen huts and the rest to tents.
Two days later work began on the defences. The narrow valley had become an important link in the chain of defences covering the Suez Canal and the oilfields of Persia. It was separated from the coastal plain by the snowclad Lebanons and from the desert wastes of central Syria by another high range, the Anti-Lebanons. Should the enemy attempt to drive south through Turkey and Syria, he would be opposed by British forces on the coast and New Zealanders astride the inland route. If, as was considered likely, the enemy advance turned south-east to skirt the Anti-Lebanons, 2 NZ Division was in a good position to move forward and effectively harass his long lines of communication. The brigade at Aleppo would only be able to fight a delaying action. As part of the general defence scheme, 24 and 25 Battalions were deployed on ridges on the western side of the valley with 26 Battalion forward on the lower ground. The Colonel was instructed to prepare alternative positions on rocky plateaus on the mountainside. The Divisional Artillery would be sited to cover the approaches to the valley and the proposed anti-tank ditch, minebelt, and wire entanglements.
During the weeks that followed everyone worked hard. The weather improved and shorts and shirts were worn in preference to battle dress. B and C Coys climbed the steep slopes of the mountains to their positions—C Coy to the higher plateau, known as Gibraltar, and B Coy to the lower one, known as page 144 Lower Gibraltar. Because of the hard surface tents could not be pitched in the normal way. Sangars and weapon pits had to be chiselled or blasted out of solid rock. The mountain tracks were in a bad state after the winter and nearly all supplies had to be manhandled part of the way. On the flat working parties had to contend with hard limestone on which picks made little impression. Lieutenant Bird2 and his pioneers set to work successfully with blasting powder.
By the end of May the Division was in a position to sustain an enemy attack. In the battalion sector trenches and firing pits had been dug along a two-company front on the flat, behind an anti-tank ditch and minefields. Roads and mountain tracks had been widened and repaired, and the companies on the mountainside had done all that was possible to make their isolated positions impregnable and habitable.
Throughout their stay the troops were based on the Zabboud camp, where living conditions were quite good. Civilians were employed to carry out most of the camp maintenance, but despite this there was little time for sport or training. B and C Coys spent about a month in the Gibraltar positions before being relieved by the other two companies. Shortly afterwards C Coy was sent to Baalbek on guard duties. This town, the only one in the valley, was cleaner and more interesting than any of the nearby villages and contained an excellent swimming pool. The guard duties were not very onerous and the men thoroughly enjoyed the spell. At Zabboud the monotony was broken by the occasional visits of concert parties and the Mobile Cinema Unit. The Brigade band staged several open-air concerts and impromptu community sings which were very popular. The band also climbed the steep track to Gibraltar to entertain C Coy. Card tournaments were held frequently and a debating club was formed. Mail arrived regularly, and company libraries kept a good stock of books. The general health of the troops was excellent and few cases of malaria had been reported.
The chief social event was the second battalion reunion on 16 May. Two hundred and twelve originals attended, fewer than a third of those who had assembled in Burnham Camp two page 145 years before. Major McQuade was in the chair. After the toast of the King there was a solemn pause as tribute to absent comrades. During the evening items were given by the Maori Battalion orchestra, the Brigade harmonica band, and by men from the unit. Four days later the Duke of Gloucester visited the camp and took the salute at a brigade ceremonial march past. By this time several changes in personnel had occurred. Sufficient reinforcements arrived to bring the battalion to full strength. Colonel Satterthwaite left to return to New Zealand, having during his short stay proved himself a popular and efficient officer. He was replaced by Lt-Col J. N. Peart,3 formerly of 18 Battalion.
Mules were used to carry supplies up the mountains, and all ranks were given instruction in handling and pack-loading these animals. Each company was sent on a mule trek. Two mules were allotted to each section and, although Indian instructors travelled with the companies, the troops were responsible for the care and loading of the animals. The first line of mules carried light machine guns, ammunition, water and greatcoats, and a second line blankets and other less essential gear. The treks, which lasted over several days, were routed over very hilly country, sometimes above the snowline. In many places it was possible only to move in single file, and the sure-footed animals proved their value under such conditions.
During the last week in May and the first few days of June the battalion participated in several manœuvres, culminating in a five-day brigade exercise. Although there were those who still clung to the hope of an early return to New Zealand because of the Japanese menace, the nature of the exercises gave no hint of this. Travelling in RMT lorries, the battalion practised moving in desert formation behind a light armoured screen to consolidate on set objectives. Air cover was provided by the RAF. These exercises were repeated after dusk to give the many newcomers to the unit some knowledge of what was required of them.page 146
On 3 June the battalion returned to Zabboud but stayed there only six days before leaving for Aleppo and the German Barracks. The journey through Homs and Hama was completed in two easy stages, Col Peart taking the opportunity to try out several desert exercises on the way. After 21 Battalion handed over on the 12th, the troops settled down to the routine of guards and pickets once more. On the 14th D Coy left for a rest camp at Latakia on the coast but was suddenly recalled four days later to join the battalion in a rapid move south. Orders reached Battalion HQ on the 17th, and by 8 p.m. the following day the troops had entrained and were away, leaving the rear party to clean up the barracks and follow by road.
The rail party travelled all night and shortly after dawn reached Rayak. The troops detrained and at midday set out in RMT lorries over the Lebanons to the coast. They reached Haifa soon after 9 p.m., but within two hours were aboard another train bound for Kantara East. Few stops were made, and by midday the following day, the 20th, the men were waiting in lines to clamber aboard the small ferries and recross the Canal. At Kantara West a third train was waiting, and it moved off at 4 p.m. Late that night the party reached its destination—Mersa Matruh—and the troops tumbled off the train, erected bivouacs, and went to sleep, too tired to be interested in Rommel's counter-attack in the Western Desert. Over 900 miles had been covered in 55 hours!
The rest of 6 Brigade had not arrived and the battalion came under command of 5 Brigade. The CO, who had been taken ill during the journey, had been evacuated to a hospital at Nazareth, and Lt-Col Watson4 assumed temporary command. In the morning the troops marched five miles to Smugglers' Cove for a rest and a swim. Two days later, on the 23rd, they returned to Matruh to take up a position around an aerodrome, but no sooner had they dug in than orders were received to return to Amiriya, where the rest of 6 Brigade was assembling. The move was made after dusk on the 24th and by dawn the convoy from Matruh had reached the staging camp. Captain page 147 Wilson and the road party from Syria arrived later in the day, having followed the main body at a more leisurely pace. They found the journey through the Sinai Desert extremely unpleasant, the heat being almost overpowering. Flies and swirling dust had added to the discomfort. But at Amiriya there was only one topic of conversation—Rommel's attack. All day streams of traffic had been moving back from the front. Tobruk, the Malta of the desert, had been captured and the Axis armies were sweeping on towards Egypt.