27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 8 — The Bekaa Valley
The Bekaa Valley
Christmas1941, like the previous Christmas, was spent at Baggush, and a Patriotic Fund parcel, a bottle of beer and fifty cigarettes for each man helped to make a good day of it. When General Freyberg arrived during the dinner (poultry, fresh vegetables and all the trimmings) to say a few words of good cheer, one of the sergeants, fortified by the beer, gravely rose to make a carefully articulated reply, concluding with the offer of a noggin, which the General accepted.
If Christmas Day was a success, New Year's Eve was a triumph. Captured enemy flares and Italian hand grenades added colour and liveliness to the celebrations, and as one thing led to another, 25-pounders, Bofors, anti-tank guns, Brens, Vickers and captured firearms were enlisted to keep the party from going stale. The whole Division participated in these high jinks and as the night wore on the illuminations resembled an engagement—so much so in fact that neighbouring Navy and Air Force units asked if the Division was being attacked.
Several men were injured. The machine-gunners' orderly-room sergeant (McManaway)1 was injured by an Italian grenade in a tender spot and for a day or two had to do his work standing up. But his real grievance was that he might be suspected in days to come of having had his back to the enemy.
By this time Colonel Gwilliam had organised a new Battalion Headquarters, and reinforcements had made up most of the battalion's losses. Two companies, 2 and 4, had returned from Cyrenaica practically unscathed, but 1 Company had to replace its headquarters, one whole platoon and much transport and equipment, and 3 Company most of its officers, many men, and equipment. The men recaptured at Bardia, in need of food and rest after their five weeks of incarceration, went back to base, rest camps or hospitals for a spell.
In January 1942 the machine-gunners left Baggush, 4 Com pany going with 5 Brigade to the Combined Operations Training Centre at Kabrit, on the Suez Canal; 2 Company with 4 Brigade to Maadi and later to Kabrit; Battalion Head page 193 quarters and 1 Company to Fayid, not far from Kabrit; and (after 4 Brigade's departure for the Canal) 3 Company with 6 Brigade to Maadi.
The camps in the Canal Zone were bounded on one side by the Bitter Lakes and on the other by bare hills and escarpments; the area was congested with ordnance stores, airfields and lighter wharves. There were a few Nissen huts for adminis trative purposes and stores, but the troops messed and slept in dug-in tents. They practised embarking and disembarking from assault craft, and made landings before dawn on the opposite shore.
When 4 Company carried out an exercise with 5 Brigade in the Red Sea, guns, vehicles and men were loaded on four ‘Glen’ ships, which proceeded down the Canal into the Gulf of Suez, where an opposed seaborne landing was practised. The assaulting troops, followed by the vehicles and guns, went ashore in daylight at Ras el Sudr, on the Sinai coast, bedded down for the night, and re-embarked next day in preparation for a similar landing by night. This, however, was cancelled, and the brigade returned to the Bitter Lakes.
The Red Sea exercise was actually the rehearsal for a pro jected landing by 5 Brigade in the Gulf of Sirte, in rear of the Axis Army's positions at El Agheila. The operation, what ever its prospects, was never attempted. Rommel suddenly emerged from El Agheila and advanced swiftly into Cyrenaica. Eighth Army occupied the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line west of Tobruk and 5 Brigade was ordered back to the Western Desert to hold a strongpoint on the escarpment south of El Adem, where it could cover the Trigh Capuzzo and the El Adem airfield.
The brigade group, again accompanied by 4 Company (com manded by Captain Cooper), left the Canal Zone on 11 February and was assembled at El Adem five days later. It immediately began to dig, wire and mine the El Adem Box, and also organised a mobile column, composed of a regiment of Valen tine tanks, a carrier platoon, a company of infantry, a battery of 25-pounders, anti-tank and ack-ack troops, and 10 Platoon's Vickers.
Hit-and-run raids on the nearby airfield were the only hos tility during the brigade's stay of nearly six weeks. Greater discomfort was caused by a rain storm which flooded men out of their beds and filled weapon pits and trenches. The brigade handed over to South African troops on 22 March, and two page 194 days later, while on the way back to Maadi, ran into a dust storm which cut down visibility to about five yards and tem porarily scattered the convoy. Part of 11 Platoon got ‘hopelessly lost—about 8 miles in wrong direction…. While trying to find others [we] fired spandaus, rifles, pistols, Verey lights, hooted horns, whistles, etc.,’ says Corporal MacLean.2 ‘No success till storm—worst in my experience—had cleared…. Pitched tents and sheltered all day.’
Fourth Brigade, meanwhile, completed its training at Kabrit and 6 Brigade, after a month at Maadi, did the same: this was a tedious repetition of what many had done the previous August, but life was not altogether disagreeable. There was a good supply of beer, and units organised their own canteens. ‘A veritable boon’, 3 Company's canteen made a profit of £68 in just over a fortnight; 1 Company's, run by Reg Walker, was amalgamated with Battalion Headquarters' with profit to both.
Nevertheless homesickness began to spread, probably because long streams of three-tonners were seen bearing Australians to Port Tewfik, where troopships lay at anchor ready to take them home. To aggravate the complaint, news was received that because of losses in the Far East the airmail service to New Zealand was to be suspended. ‘So it was not without relief,’ says an officer, ‘that we heard of the move to Syria.’
There had been rumours about a move to green fields for some time. Now the New Zealand Division was to join Ninth Army, which was guarding against the possibility of a south ward German advance through Syria from southern Russia or Turkey—while Eighth Army faced the more immediate threat to Egypt in the Western Desert.
The New Zealanders were to prepare defences—the Djedeide fortress—protecting the northern entrance to the Bekaa valley, between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. The first troops left the Suez Canal towards the end of February, and the whole of the Division, except 5 Brigade, had completed the move by 12 March.
Battalion Headquarters and 1 and 2 Companies travelled with Divisional Headquarters and 4 Brigade by train from Geneifa (near Kabrit) to Kantara, where they had a long, tire some wait for the Palestine train in which they reached Haifa next morning. They were then packed, twenty-five men to a vehicle, into a fleet of about fifty requisitioned civilian buses, which carried them in comfort through the Palestinian hills.
‘It was a glorious morning,’ writes Major Robbie. ‘Every thing was so fresh and green and life took on a new aspect for page 196 us, especially after the humidity and sand of the Canal Zone … The damp grass glistened and sparkled in the sun…. The air was keen and bracing. All around was a blaze of colour— wild flowers—red, mauve, white—grew in abundance along the roadside.’ On they went through Nazareth to Tiberias, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, misty and sullen, and up into the hills again. ‘Still wild flowers flourished among the rocks and shingly faces along the road, dulled now by the overcast and sullen sky.’ Across the frontier into Syria, ‘stony, wild and desolate, green in places with all the evidence of a big rainfall … it was drizzling and very overcast and getting dark.’ It was dark when they reached Damascus.
After spending the night in a transit camp they passed through the city in RASC three-tonners. Damascus, in a green oasis between the Anti-Lebanon foothills and the tawny Syrian desert, depends on a stream which flows from a steep, narrow gorge into the heart of the city. In this gorge in the First World War a section of machine-gunners of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade trapped the retreating Turks and Germans and caused great slaughter.3 ‘It must have been a machine gunner's dream target. What a place—hard, cruel and sombre.’
Out of this gorge the convoys followed a winding road west wards through the hills to Rayak in the Bekaa valley, where Australians were manning an aerodrome and French airmen and troops were also seen. The New Zealanders' destination was farther north, between snow-covered mountain ramparts. The next town, Baalbek, was a complete surprise: the ruins of temples, built when the valley was one of the granaries of Rome, towered above the trees that obscured many of the houses.
A few miles farther along the road towards Homs the small village of Laboue perched on a ridge, and nearby was the page 197 hutted camp where Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Com pany and 1 Company were to stay. 4 The air is decidedly keen this is going to be good—one will thrive here. I feel very hungry….
Still farther north, at the narrowest part of the valley, was the Djedeide fortress: pillboxes, section posts, gun emplacements observation posts and dugouts within a perimeter of anti-tank ditches, wire and minefields. Its construction had already been begun but much remained to be done. Fourth Brigade was to complete the defences of the eastern sector, and 6 Brigade, which had not yet arrived, was to take over the western sector After a fortnight at Zabboud, a small village on the western side, 2 Company moved across to El Aine, in 4 Brigade's sector.
Sixth Brigade, with which 3 Company travelled, also left Haifa in civilian buses, but instead of going inland through Tiberias and Damascus, took the coastal route past the Cru sader capital of Acre and the ancient Phœnician ports of Tyre and Sidon, now dwindled into insignificance, to the present-day Lebanese capital of Beirut; the convoys then climbed to a height of 5000 feet over the Lebanon range before descending steeply into the Bekaa valley. At Rayak 3 Company changed from the buses to a train, which left shortly after midnight on the 200-mile run northwards out of the valley and through the rolling, central plains of Syria to Aleppo—a total distance of over 600 miles from Kabrit.
Before occupying its sector of the Djedeide fortress 6 Brigade was to watch the Turkish border, and therefore was widely dispersed to the north and west of Aleppo to guard the most likely lines of approach for an invading army—which it could not be expected to hold in check for long; the best it might do if the enemy came would be to delay him by demolitions on the roads and railways and withdraw to the main defences to the south.
For a while the whole of 3 Company occupied barracks in Aleppo, a city dominated by a citadel on a mound surrounded by a dry moat. The machine-gunners guarded petrol, ammuni tion and rations, and exercised with the infantry; later, for about ten days, 7 Platoon was despatched to Idlib, a village between Aleppo and Antioch, and 8 Platoon to Afrine, farther north. New Zealand infantry and artillery, 3 Company, the Royal Air Force and Free French cavalry took part in a cere monial march through the streets of Aleppo, no doubt to page 198 impress the inhabitants, and General Freyberg took the salute from the balcony of a hotel. Shortly afterwards 6 Brigade, having been relieved by the 5th, went south to the Djedeide fortress. With the arrival of 3 Company at Zabboud on 11 April, and with 4 Company (after travelling with 5 Brigade from Egypt) at Laboue, the whole battalion was in the Bekaa valley.
When the first New Zealanders arrived in the Bekaa valley they experienced heavy rains, snow, icy winds and temperatures below freezing point. ‘Issues of coke were made and almost every man … had his little tin of coke alight at night for warmth,’ says Lieutenant Pleasants. ‘Once burning brightly these tins were capable of giving off a fair warmth for a con siderable period. The conventional method to achieve this was to swing the tin rapidly round one's head leaving a trail of sparks which looked from a distance like hundreds of fireflies.’ It was difficult to get fuel for the stoves that were introduced later to heat the Nissen huts, and the men were glad of the occasional rum issue before hurrying between the blankets at night.
By the end of March, however, the valley was enjoying mild spring weather, and in the weeks that followed the men worked and trained vigorously and cheerfully in the exhilarating moun tain air; they played football on grass instead of sand and stones; they ate and slept well—their appetites could no longer be satisfied by the rations previously considered ample.
While the weather was still wintry they spent some time improving their camps by levelling paths and roads and con structing drains. When it was necessary to put in a sump near one of the cookhouses, where the rock was close to the surface the engineers were called upon to assist and ‘Porky’ arrived with his henchmen—all explosive experts. All went well until the charge was fired—according to rumour 25 Ibs of ammonal. Pieces of rock extensively damaged the cookhouse and showered the cookhouse stores, 50 yards away, bringing down on the cooks and orderlies the tinned food stacked on the shelves.
After getting their camps into order the troops began work on the fortress defences. Each morning the working parties were taken by truck to their allotted areas, where they dug and filled sandbags and had lunch on the job. Since much of the country around Djedeide was unsuitable for motor transport, mules were employed to carry equipment and supplies to the higher page 199 positions, and with the co-operation of a Cypriot mule pack company, men were trained in packing guns and gear. Many of the machine-gun positions were resited, and most of the concrete pillboxes already constructed were left vacant. ‘We were not very enamoured with pill boxes and most of us felt better below ground level and in the open.’ The engineers supplied the stores for the field works and assisted with compressors and explosives in rocky ground. ‘Our demands for sandbags, steel stakes, iron and timber, etc., were colossal and we got everything we asked for, not without a little resistance and the accompany ing “blarney”.’
When the men arrived in the morning they found that natives had emptied the sandbags into the trenches before removing them, and had also taken iron and timber. Pickets were mounted and patrols sent out after dark to prevent further losses. Thieves who stole army stores and rifles were seldom apprehended, and raids on villages to recover stolen arms were usually unsuccessful. But the machine-gunners' losses were not heavy. On one occasion Regimental Sergeant-Major Ross, using a revolver as bait, trapped a known trafficker in arms in Laboue. The British provost handed him over to the civil authorities in Beirut, but he was allowed to go unpunished.
A provost sergeant (Aston5 ‘tall and darkly handsome with a pencil-line moustache … ruled the villagers of Laboue with the velvet glove.’ He was immensely popular with them. One night, while returning from a patrol, he was thrown from his motor cycle and killed. The villagers sent a deputation to the battalion asking permission to bury him after their own custom and ‘their sorrow was evident when we refused their wish.’ They all turned out to pay their respects when his body was taken to Ras Baalbek for burial, and a squad of French gendarmerie fired a volley.
The troops bathed in the small, icy-cold stream, the ‘Canal’,6 which bubbles out of the rocks below Laboue. ‘Bathing cos tumes were unknown and this upset the village elders,’ says Pleasants. ‘The local sheik (a courtly gentleman) approached page 200 Bn HQ and pointed out it was the custom for the women of the village to do their washing and draw water from this stream. The sight of the unclad soldiers was causing the women some embarrassment. However, he hastened to add, the village was very pleased to have the soldiers with them, and did not in any way wish to interfere with their customs; so if it was a NZ custom to bathe unclad, then he and the village elders would say no more on the matter. Capt Hume,7 the Bn Adjt, hastened to assure him that such a practice was quite common in NZ so the old man departed satisfied.’
The Lebanese were polite and obliging people, but of course intent on making all the profit they could from the visiting troops. The streets of their villages were narrow, crooked and insanitary, and the shops small and poky, with their wares hanging from the ceiling and ranging from shoes to primuses. The local paper currency ‘gave us a ton of fun for a start’ : one Syrian pound was worth about 2s 3d.
The troops visited Lebanese homes, where they bargained for souvenirs, feasted and drank zibbib or arak, sometimes with disastrous results. ‘Our chaps could not manage the local liquor which some of them would drink despite the fact it was forbidden and we ran a first class canteen which sold the Beirut beer and at times spirits,’ says Robbie. ‘I am afraid the Syrians doped their liquor for sale and the Cherry Brandy and Starboard light8 looked the part and that is about all.’ Two men who ‘got themselves soaked for two days on Cherry Brandy’ required the use of a stomach pump to save their lives. ‘Doc. Adams in his wisdom had these two near corpses carried through the lines on stretchers as an awful example of what “doped” grog could do to the human frame.’
To help fill in the long evenings, Padre Underhill organised cards and talks and persuaded the Q branch to turn on supper. A play was produced. The padre had a wonderful following and there was no question of absenteeism from his church parades. ‘He had a crack at times at people who occupied high places in the Battalion.’
The machine-gunners acquired a boxing ring, which they brought to Laboue ‘from a fair distance’ and erected in a wadi that formed a natural amphitheatre. ‘In setting it was unique, and the assembled crowd interspersed with colourfully page 201 clad natives will long live in my memory,’ McManaway wrote to New Zealand. ‘For some six weeks now my unit has been holding bouts every Sunday afternoon. These have proved most popular and have attracted large audiences, inclusive of the local inhabitants, who I am sure considered that we were slightly crazy.’ A two-day divisional tournament, which attracted seventy-one boxers and over forty wrestlers, was watched one afternoon by General Freyberg.
As spring gave way to summer and temperatures of over 100 degrees in the shade were recorded, the men worked in summer kit—topees, shirts and shorts—in the daytime; reveille was at 5 a.m., and a three-hour siesta began at noon. The shirt sleeves and the legs of the shorts (the infamous ‘Bombay bloomers’) had to be turned down after sunset as a precaution against mosquito bites, for malaria was a real danger. Mosquito nets and anti-mosquito cream were issued, and pickets were compelled to wear head-nets and gloves at night.
Late in May 2 Company, with 12 Platoon attached, left El Aine with 4 Brigade for several days' manœuvres in the Qaryatein area, in the desert north-east of Damascus; 3 Company went out with 6 Brigade on similar exercises, and then guarded an ammunition depot between Baalbek and Rayak; 1 Company, after accompanying Divisional Cavalry on a reconnaissance exercise, which proved to be mostly a gentle drive over the countryside, left Laboue to join 5 Brigade at Aleppo and two days later also went on manœuvres.
The weather was exceptionally hot, but fortunately the Euphrates was close enough for many to go bathing. Sunday, 14 June, was ‘a filthy, sultry, scorching day,’ a 1 Company man wrote in his diary. ‘A thunderstorm passed over so we stripped off expecting a shower, but it didn't come our way.’ When the troops had finished their evening meal and were about to go out on a night exercise, a signal arrived at Brigade Headquarters: ‘Division moving. Return to Baalbek forthwith.’
3 In With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine J. H. Luxford quotes this account by Sgt M. Kirkpatrick: ‘… Through this narrow pass a great enemy column was seeking to escape…. A section of guns (No 4) … reaching the brink of the precipice, quickly took up positions almost invisible to the dense mass of enemy below. The head of the column was felled, and as the unfortunates behind kept pressing forward they were mown down as by some invisible scythe. Horses and men went down together in hundreds, and died in one tangled bleeding mass; many fell into the river and were drowned. The Germans fought desperately from the tops of lorries, but, seeing not where to fire, their shots were wild, and they went down in the slaughter. The water in the jackets of the guns hissed, bubbled and steamed.’
4 Lt-Col Gwilliam became the town major.
6 The land around Laboue, writes Michael M. Alouf in History of Baalbek, ‘is watered by many streams, all fed by several abundant springs. …Tradition asserts that the famous Queen Zenobia dug a canal to convey a large part of this water to her capital, Palmyra. Perhaps this is why the stream, which disappears on reaching the limits of the desert, is called El-Kanat (the Canal).’
8 Crème de menthe.