CHAPTER 8 — From Libya to Syria
As the main part of Supply Column was settling in at Fuka, 5 Brigade Company was moving back into Libya in search of 5 Brigade—and it was literally a search. Fifth Brigade was with 13 Corps pursuing the enemy westward along the coast. Outside Tobruk, when the main part of the New Zealand Division had withdrawn, in the words of the British Ministry of Information, victory had begun ‘to declare itself in what seemed an hour of defeat’. Harassed by Eighth Army, the enemy gave ground and by 12 December was back at Gazala. Here he held an insecure line, with his southern flank exposed and only about fifty tanks to guard it. Against this line on 14 December Eighth Army launched a force that included 5 Brigade. The centre of the enemy's line was breached, and although on the 15th the enemy launched a strong counter-attack that fell on 5 Brigade, he was unable to recover the initiative and again turned and fled.
It was at this stage that the Supply Column group at last found the brigade. The group set out from El Beida on 10 December, going first to Bir el Thalata, only to find that Rear Eighth Army had moved from this area. No information could be obtained of the whereabouts of 5 Brigade. Next day it was learned that the brigade was somewhere in the El Adem area, and the company loaded up with 13,500 rations, 9000 gallons of petrol and oil, 3600 gallons of water and a variety of ammunition.
The company went west again on 12 December to Libyan Sheferzen, but nothing could be learned at 51 FMC there about 5 Brigade. Six tons of ordnance stores were loaded, and the company moved on the next day to 67 FMC, just south of Bir el Gubi. But 67 FMC had no knowledge of 5 Brigade and Roberts was referred to 13 Corps Report Centre at El Adem. Arriving at El Adem at noon on the 14th Roberts was told that there was no New Zealand page 185 brigade with 13 Corps. Fortunately Supply and Transport Rear 13 Corps knew better. Here Roberts found all the information he wanted, and on the 15th took over the supplying of 5 Brigade from a section of 4 RMT which had been acting as the brigade's second-line transport.
Settling near Acroma the Supply Column group immediately began operations, and in addition to the supply point previously operated by the 4 RMT section, established ammunition, petrol and water points nearby.
It was very quickly impressed on the unit that it was back in the theatre of operations. At 11 p.m. on the day it took over it received a demand for 3500 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition and 150,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition. An enemy counter-attack was expected next morning. The 1st Regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery was still under the command of 5 Brigade, and to act as second-line transport for that unit Roberts had fifteen RASC three-tonners added to his composite company. Drawing from dumps around Tobruk, the trucks moved back and forward across the desert to meet continuing demands. There were not enough lorries and so the men worked day and night, but managed to find time to pause twelve miles west of Acroma to pick up five 25-millimetre French anti-tank guns. With wheels removed, they were secured to the ack-ack trucks with U bolts over the trails and cross members, giving them a traverse the width of the tailboard. Never had Supply Column been so well armed. How comforting these guns would have been a week or so earlier.
There was, in fact, no counter-attack on the 16th, and the New Zealanders and two Polish battalions went forward to exploit their previous successes. Demands for ammunition continued to come back to Supply Column until 18 December; then there was silence. Fifth Brigade had completed its task and dropped out of the fight.
For the next week or so the Supply Column group was engaged in moving and supplying 5 Brigade and generally cleaning up scattered ammunition dumps—mostly containing 25-pounder ammunition—that had been left behind. The brigade moved first to El Adem, and here, in a raging dust-storm, spent Christmas—or several hours of it. Though page 186 Supply Column had been known to conjure up unexpected delicacies in the most unlikely places, this was one occasion when circumstances were beyond it. Breakfast on Christmas Day was rice and bully stew, and dinner, bully stew and rice. And that, in the meantime, was that.
No other move in the Second Libyan Campaign so well exemplifies the uncanny navigational skill individual drivers had attained, and the confidence officers placed in it. The 5 Brigade that was being carried back to Egypt was quite different from the 5 Brigade that had set out from Egypt in November. The original Brigade Headquarters was overrun at Sidi Azeiz, and its headquarters officers were relatively inexperienced. The result of this was shown in a movement order for a move to Bir el Thalata laying down column of route as the formation. Column of route for 300 vehicles over open desert!
It was quite fantastic, and it became even more so at 9 a.m. on 26 December when, as this worm-like convoy was stretched across the desert, a raging sandstorm blew up and blotted out the landscape.
Roberts took prompt action. The route, he knew, was roughly south-east to Libyan Sheferzen. His 5 Brigade Company—less the forty-six trucks on troop-carrying work—was travelling in what the Brigade Major considered its rightful place at the rear, and as the sandstorm closed down he swung his convoy away to the south-west and, after four miles, halted. He told drivers to go to El Beida, cross the frontier wire and rendezvous with him there. And away they all went individually through the sandstorm.
After Roberts reached El Beida he drove up the Wire to Libyan Sheferzen. Few vehicles of the brigade convoy had come through the Wire, and Roberts reported to a major of 5 Brigade Headquarters that he had not seen the convoy ahead of him. Roberts picked up the rest of his company and moved east to a point south-west of Sofafi and thence along a telephone line to a point north-east of Misheifa, and so on to Bir el Thalata. Approaching Sofafi he overtook page 187 the head of the 5 Brigade convoy—twenty vehicles. The rest of the 300 were scattered about the desert.
During the night of 26–27 December Latimer and Gibson (Ammunition Company) reported in at Thalata, and early on the morning of the 27th drivers who had been troop-carrying arrived after delivering their troops. Most had done their own navigation from El Adem, without compasses and without maps. By noon on the 27th the company was complete again and in operation issuing rations, petrol, and water.
And now, within sight of journey's end—and the end of a hectic campaign—this ASC group found itself abruptly turned back towards the desert. As Eighth Army chased Rommel back to the west it found itself hobbled by a supply problem which, reports an official booklet, ‘was quite enough to explain the army's lack of strength on the western front and to ensure that it would be weak until at least Benghasi could be made usable.’
On the afternoon of 27 December Roberts was informed that all NZASC transport was to be taken over by G (SD) Rear Eighth Army; in the event, he did not hand over his transport, but operated on instructions from Army. On the 29th Supply Column provided vehicles to carry brigade units back to the railhead at Misheifa and then turned its attention to the demands of the new task. The Ammunition Company section, together with four Supply Column trucks, took aboard 1 Battalion Welsh Guards and set off for Libya. The remainder of the vehicles loaded 1216 Indian Labour Company and rolled off down the coast road with El Adem as their destination.
On the same day at Fuka a second Supply Column group of ninety-one men, under Morris and Burgess,1 was broken out to join another composite company commanded by Captain Coutts,2 of Ammunition Company.
Weather that at first blinded and then bogged Eighth Army aided Rommel's withdrawal in the closing days of December. In addition, the enemy received tank reinforce- page 188 ments and was able to regroup, thus foiling the British attempt to cut off the main body of the retiring troops. The enemy made a stand at Agedabia, then fell back to El Agheila. And here for a few weeks the line rested.
Supply Column was now back in its old role of general carrier, work in which it had shown proficiency during Wavell's campaign twelve months earlier. The task of the Ammunition Company group that included Morris's men was to run from the railhead at Bir el Thalata to Tobruk. Roberts's group was the second link, running from the Tobruk area to a new supply base at Msus. The third link was provided by 4 RMT, which was carrying forward from Msus.
Of the first two links, Roberts's drivers had the hardest task. Msus was reached by setting a westerly course from Bir Hacheim across a dusty, jolting track; here and there salt flats permitted good speeds, but intersecting wadis often brought trucks down to crawler gear. The 300-mile journey—150 miles each way—made heavy demands on petrol, and a platoon had to take seven three-tonners from its load-carrying strength for the sole purpose of carrying fuel for the convoy.
The first convoy out approached its task with some confidence. Track markers—long poles crowned by empty four-gallon petrol cans and placed at four or five-mile intervals—were lined westward, and the trip looked an easy one. Alas, 20 miles out next morning the convoy overtook the marker-laying party, and from then on it was the open desert again. On this trip Latimer was kept busy recovering vehicles that bogged down or suffered mechanical faults.
Despite the difficulties, Supply Column substantially trimmed down the time required for the journey. RASC units had been doing the trip in nine days; the first Supply Column convoy came home in four and a half. The surprised control post thought at first that it had been chased back by the enemy. Average time for the round trip became five days.
Petrol was the main cargo, and again the British Army flimsy proved its worthlessness. One estimate of the amount page 189 of petrol remaining to be delivered by the time the trucks reached Msus is one third. Perhaps Supply Column was doing the trip too fast.
Broken springs were as great a problem as ever, and when a British truck was blown up New Zealanders from Coutts's composite company went in with jacks while the vehicle was still burning and smartly removed its springs.
For three weeks this steady building-up of petrol went on; then with a suddenness that left many people wondering what was happening, Eighth Army went scurrying back towards Gazala and left the supplies for the Germans.
Possibly not even Rommel expected events to take this turn. On 21 January he struck back at Eighth Army in a move that a British communique unwisely called a reconnaissance in force. The thin British line buckled and broke and Rommel was on his way back to Egypt. On the 22nd he had reached Saunnu and Antelat, 40 miles south of Msus.
A 4 RMT convoy that was shelled on that day was, until official word came, unable to convince an incredulous superior officer at Msus that events had taken a fresh turn. Running west from Bir Hacheim, a Supply Column convoy under Latimer soon became aware that something was amiss. First four armoured cars were sighted, and then part of 4 RMT was encountered. The Supply Column men were told that the enemy had taken Antelat. When the convoy reached Msus a 4 RMT convoy was just setting off for Benghazi, and the Supply Column vehicles, after being unloaded, were attached to 239 Wing RAF, consisting mainly of Australians. When the Germans had taken Antelat they had captured all the RAF's petrol there, and the Air Force was anxious that the same should not happen at Msus; Supply Column's task was to leave at dawn next day with all the petrol it could carry, and head for Tmimi.
Throughout the night anti-tank tracer darted through the darkness south of the airfield, and soon after dawn, when the Supply Column convoy had just driven clear, German bombers descended on the airfield. British fighters pounced on them, and half a dozen or more bombers came tumbling down.page 190
The convoy headed first north to Charruba, then east to Tmimi. Here it waited until the aircraft came back to refuel. Then it was ordered to move on to Gazala, since it was not intended to hold Tmimi, and dump the rest of the petrol there.
Back at Tobruk the Column was promptly instructed to load up with ammunition and deliver it to the Poles at Derna. It was an uncomfortable drive, straight towards an advancing enemy. Bombers harassed the convoy at one stage and beyond the Tmimi turn-off there was no other transport on the road. At Derna engineers were tunnelling into a cliff on the roadside preparatory to blocking the highway.
The ammunition was issued, a few trucks bombed, without casualty, and the convoy returned to Tobruk. Here it was learned that New Zealand transport was to go back to Bir el Thalata to await 5 Brigade.
Though met with counter-attacks, the enemy pushed on, and while the New Zealand trucks were rolling back to Egypt for 5 Brigade the line moved back to Gazala. Here there were signs of another thrust, but nothing came of it, and by 15 February it was all over. Each side settled down while it gathered fresh strength.
Fifth Brigade came back to the desert in mid-February and took up a position at El Adem. Its role was to protect Eighth Army's lines of communication from any attack from the south and to shield 13 Corps FMC and the El Adem landing ground.
A 5 Brigade ASC Company had again been formed under the command of Roberts. It was now a waiting war, a war of set positions and constant routine, a war in which there was time to take notice of the discomforts of the desert winter. In these circumstances a man clings to his comforts, and when the air-raid warning gun at brigade barked its message early on the morning of 28 February no one took much notice. The Luftwaffe's whole interest around Tobruk seemed to be on the waterfront, and Supply Column was a good 15 miles away. But on this morning the enemy was interested in El Adem aerodrome, from which Kittyhawks operated. As it happened there were no Kittyhawks there at page 191 this moment, and the disappointed Messerschmitts prowled around for something else to ‘do over’. They found, among other things, Supply Column, and came swooping down. On the ground there was a scatter as men came tumbling out of bed in various stages of undress and dived for slit trenches. The result of the raid: one minor casualty, no damage to trucks or dumps.
Four days later more trouble came from the sky—rain. It came pouring down during the night and by the morning on 4 March the desert was awash and transport hopelessly bogged. ‘It was the sort of downpour that in New Zealand produces pictures in the illustrated weeklies of boats being rowed down the township's main street.’ Movement was impossible for three days.
But there were compensations to be found, even in a wilderness in the middle of a war. The ubiquitous Naafi had set up shop in Tobruk and could supply limitless quantities of cigarettes and beer. It could also supply whisky, provided the order was signed by an officer, and the New Zealanders had no trouble in persuading Captain Cook and Captain Abel Tasman to sign unlimited numbers of chits. Unfortunately the Naafi manager at last felt constrained to complain to 5 Brigade Headquarters that Captain Sydney Bridge, of 29 Battalion, had exceeded all reasonable bounds by buying 15 cases in one day. The complaint had the desired effect.
The shortage of springs was as great a problem as ever, and at one stage the company was almost at a standstill. Sergeant Johnson and Driver Baxter3 went out on a salvaging expedition—thereby earning the displeasure of a salvage unit—and with pickings from the wrecks of the Sidi Rezegh battlefield kept the company awheel.
Fifth Brigade remained in the desert until March. When it moved back to Maadi the Supply Column detachment went too, providing in addition to the supply organisation a refuelling system for the vehicles. This section of the vehicles reached Maadi on 27 March, and the remainder, carrying some of the infantry, next day.page 192
This move produced a certain amount of entertainment. Along with the convoy went the newly created NZ Mobile Laundry, which had among its equipment big trailers. There was some concern at Maadi lest these should be damaged on tow, and the movement order allowed the convoy a speed of 15 miles an hour. The convoy reached its second day's destination at noon and it was decided to ignore the speeds laid down. So instead of leaving each morning at 7 a.m., it left at 10 a.m. and presently found British MPs patrolling the road in a state of agitation because the convoy was late. And on arrival at the next staging area more MPs would be in an uproar because the convoy had arrived before they had gone out to guide it in.
There was a certain amount of joking going on over the laundry unit—though the OC, Captain Gillanders Scott,4 didn't appreciate it—and when approaching the divisional area someone hoisted a flag on the leading truck of Latimer's section purporting to be the standard of the unit—a pair of underpants, soaked in petrol and rubbed with mud from Damascus.
Among the waifs and strays of the Libyan campaign was a small composite group of six trucks—two each from Supply Column, Petrol Company and Ammunition Company—which were assigned to serve Divisional Cavalry. For about three days in the early part of the campaign this group carried out its duties, but called away while its supply transport was absent, Divisional Cavalry moved off without being able to advise the ASC men where it was going.
Finding their step-parent gone, the ASC group at last joined up with an English unit on the Egyptian side of the Wire. No one, of course, had any idea where the divisional administration group might be, but after four or five days the men decided to strike out into Libya and trust their page 193 luck. They did not go far. They came on to 50 FMC some time after the Germans had overrun it, but as they moved towards it they knew nothing of what had happened. A Petrol Company truck, driven by Cunningham,5 was leading, with a Supply Column vehicle about fifty yards behind. As the leading vehicle came opposite a postal tent it halted, and the Petrol Company men were seen to get out. Then they turned abruptly and seized their rifles, and out of the tent came two Germans—an officer and his batman. One of the men advanced towards the New Zealanders, and Cunningham's rifle stopped him short with a bullet through the foot.
In the distance a small convoy that looked Italian was seen approaching at speed. The two prisoners were bundled aboard a truck and the ASC vehicles turned about and fled. The prisoners were dropped off at a prisoner-of-war cage, and the trucks returned to the English unit.
That night a disturbance woke the New Zealanders, and they heard three South African officers shouting that the Germans were coming. The New Zealanders remained where they were, and nothing happened.
When their units returned the men rejoined them.
When Supply Column came out of Libya in December 1941 it was a veteran unit—veteran in experience, in knowledge, in wisdom. It had accomplished with merit its first real test in the field; it had learned the ways of the desert and it had acquired a mature judgment. It was self-reliant.
Whatever else may be said about Crusader, it was undoubtedly the proving ground of the New Zealand Division for the desert battles to come, and the ASC no less than the fighting units drew strength and confidence from the experience. The ASC, which had few casualties and required few uninitiated reinforcements, benefited greatly.
Many things were learned.
Drivers learned how to read the desert, to tell from the colour of the scrub how far inland they were, to navigate with nothing more than a watch and the sun. They learned page 194 to pick the desert to save springs, to recognise features to guide themselves. Officers could with confidence line up a truck and say to the driver, ‘Such and such a battalion is out in that direction somewhere. Find it, deliver the rations, then find us. We probably won't be here by the time you're back.’ And with the uncanny instinct of a homing pigeon, truck and driver would come back.
Officers learned the necessity of correct dispersal and the art of movement in desert formation. They learned to navigate with competence by sun compass or magnetic compass, and to read map and ground on the move; to circumnavigate features and yet not lose the general line; not to follow tracks and telegraph posts. And it was shown that NCOs should be capable of handling map and compass as well.
Officers learned how to establish and close water and supply points quickly to avoid attention from the air, and how to handle a dispersed group. They learned very quickly that in securing many necessities it was quicker and surer to help yourself rather than fight through a tangle of red tape; it was imperative to do so, for in no other way could the unit have been kept mobile and in operation. Thanks to ‘klefty’ tactics and the untiring work of the Workshops Section, which had no material on hand, the Column was kept on the active list. Not only derelict vehicles of other units, but vehicles found abandoned in soft sand were converted; by a process known as ‘cannibalising’ spare parts were obtained. All broken-down Column trucks were salvaged, if necessary rebuilt. In consequence all vehicles, apart from those captured, were brought out.
Both officers and men learned how to move the unit off smartly. In earlier days it often required twenty minutes to transfer from dispersal area to the road, and in the inevitable concertina that developed rear trucks would be doing fifty miles an hour. Now they could shift promptly and efficiently, saving time by leaving the cooks' trucks to pack and follow in their own time. Thus, early abroad, Supply Column men could look with patronising disdain as they drove past other units still breakfasting and preparing.
Many needs were shown; some were remedied, others were not. In Crusader, supply details—the men responsible page 195 for the ‘shop work’ of issuing—had no transport of their own; they and their belongings would be dumped in the desert and left to their own devices until the next move. In Syria, after the unit had been reorganised and supply platoons formed, these men received their own transport and office truck and cooks' wagon, and could move as a self-contained detachment.
Better communication was another need, and also better protection. Better protection was supplied, in effect, when Eighth Army gained air superiority and when, in subsequent campaigns, the battle line was more orderly than it had been in Crusader. But it was shown that if ever another campaign as fluid as Crusader were contemplated, roving convoys needed something better than Bren carriers as escorts.
Rolling thunder, driving rain, tearing winds and dust were the assortment of weather that swept over Fuka and Baggush as the main part of the Division settled in during the last half of December 1941. Caught up by the wind, a swirling cloud of sand would dim the daylight and by night blot out every vestige of starlight. Then rain would pour down, saturating the desert and flooding many underground abodes. And as the clouds dispersed the wind would stir up the dust again. There was some sunshine, and one or two men plunged into the now bitingly cold Mediterranean, but the sky was predominantly grey.
The New Year arrived with a shower of pyrotechnics and tracer. Celebrations began around 8 p.m. on 31 December with a few isolated explosions and odd Very lights, and as the evening progressed Bofors belched out long, red arcs towards the sea, machine guns sent up darting tracer, small arms cracked, Very lights blossomed, and every so often a heavy explosion thumped through the night. As the Division's area took on the aspect of a fully fledged battle, nearby naval and air force units phoned to inquire whether they could be of any assistance in repelling ‘the landing’.
During January the Division moved back to the Delta and Canal areas. Fifth Brigade began its move from Baggush to Kabrit, on the Canal, on 4 January; 4 Brigade went to Maadi. In the meantime, 6 Brigade stayed and trained in page 196 the desert. On the Canal 5 Brigade carried out combined training exercises. When it completed these later in January, 4 Brigade moved down to the Canal Zone from Maadi, and 6 Brigade came in from the desert to Maadi. Early in February 5 Brigade moved back to the desert, and later in the month 6 Brigade went to the Canal for its combined training.
It was proposed at one stage that the New Zealand Division should return to the desert, with 5 Brigade making a landing behind the enemy lines, but Rommel's advance to Gazala altered the complexion of things, and the scheme was washed out.
Supply Column moved by road from Fuka to Fayid, in the Canal Zone; it left Fuka on 7 January and after an overnight stay at Wadi Natrun reached Fayid on 9 January. In the dirty, dusty Canal Zone the unit settled down to a life of routine and training, relieved by inter-platoon and inter-company football and cricket. A recreation hut was formed by joining together two EPIPs; it was flattened during a dust-storm that razed most of the camp, and was re-erected. A unit library was also formed.
There was at least one brief flash of excitement at Fayid. The store and workshops trucks were parked parallel to each other, with a canopy slung between them. Fire broke out in the store truck, flared up through the canopy and reached across the canopy linking the two vehicles. The flames were also dangerously near an EPIP tent. When Driver Crosbie6 arrived on the scene, attempts were being made to tow the vehicles apart. In spite of the flames licking around both sides of the cab, Crosbie jumped into the workshops truck and drove it clear, allowing ready access to fire-fighting equipment on the workshops vehicles and permitting men to attack the fire. When the vehicles were side by side the heat had been too intense to get at the burning sides. His action, which saved both trucks and valuable transport stores, later earned him a ‘meritorious mention’ in routine orders throughout the Division.
On 16 February Supply Column became 1 New Zealand page 197 Divisional Supply Company. Part of a general NZASC reorganisation that brought the New Zealand Division into line with the new British Army establishment, the new company had, instead of echelons, seven platoons: Company Headquarters, three transport, two supply, one workshops. Each of the ASC companies, organised in this manner, could operate more efficiently and with more flexibility; if a quick switch to troop-carrying became necessary, one platoon could carry a battalion, four platoons a brigade.
On 28 February Morris, Burgess, and eighty-one other ranks returned from the desert.
In the closing days of February and the beginning of March 4 and 6 Brigades moved north by rail and road to Syria. Syria, only recently wrested from the Vichy French, was a possible line of attack—as it had so often been for armies in the past—by German forces thrusting down through Turkey. It was the British intention to prepare for an offensive in Libya while protecting the northern flank with delaying forces in Syria. The New Zealand Division, as it passed under command of Ninth Army, became part of these delaying forces.
Shortage of transport made it necessary for most units to travel by rail and civilian buses, but Supply Company, still on wheels, set out by road on 14 March. Crossing the Canal by pontoon bridge north of Ismailia, the convoy threaded along the black ribbon of bitumen that led north across the Sinai Desert. The first overnight stop was at Abu Aweigla, a desolate spot on the Sinai road identified as a staging area by countless empty and battered flimsies that were strewn around the desert.
Driving north in the cool, spring air next morning, the men had their first glimpse of the ‘green pastures’ to come; scattered flowers, struggling grass and corn appeared in the sandy waste. Gradually the desert gave way to a landscape of vivid green splashed with the flagrant colours of wild flowers, and herds of goats and sheep moved across the pastures. Staging that night at Qastina, the company travelled on next day through sun-soaked citrus orchards to Ez Zib, a coastal village near the Syrian border.page 198
After crossing the border on the 17th the convoy halted for lunch beneath the pines on the outskirts of Beirut; then, tracing a tortuous route through the town, it began the long grind into the cool, clear atmosphere above the snow-line of the Beirut hill. Beyond the summit the road twisted down into the Bekaa Valley, which lay between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges; it skirted the Rayak airfield, passed page 199 through historic Baalbek and went north up the valley. Nineteen miles beyond Baalbek the convoy halted near Rasm el Hadi.
On rough, rocky ground so hard that the sappers had to be called in to drill holes for the tent pegs, the company set up camp. Once again the company was settled in picturesque surroundings—not as colourful as its camps in Greece, perhaps, but the Lebanon landscape, presenting the saw-toothed, snow-capped range across the valley, had a rugged beauty of its own. Behind the camp area rose the Anti-Lebanons; on the southern boundary ran a cold mountain stream.
The New Zealand Division was now far from the war; the nearest enemy forces were 500 miles away on the Mediterranean and Aegean islands. The most likely German attack was from the north through the Caucasus.
Running north and south—parallel with the coast—the Lebanon mountain ranges did not offer an obstacle to attack, and to meet invasion a series of five fortresses was planned on the high ground of the ranges covering the coastal area, the Bekaa Valley and the desert approaches to the east. Each fortress was to hold sufficient troops to make sorties against the enemy if he attempted an outflanking movement through the desert.
The fortress taken over by the New Zealanders covered the northern entrance to the Bekaa Valley between the two ranges; centred on the village of Djedeide, it took its name from it. When 4 Brigade took over in March, a broad, deep tank trap, skirted with obstacles and studded with pillboxes, was being carved across the valley floor. In the mountains on either side rambled a maze of wiring systems and trenches, and later steep, winding roads from the rear were built. It was designed to accommodate four infantry brigades and a tank battalion.
In case the fortress should be bypassed, administration instructions were designed to make it self-sufficient for at least sixty days; five days' supplies of all commodities were to be held in each company area, and five days' reserve by each brigade; the remaining fifty days' reserve would be under divisional control.page 200
On its arrival 4 Brigade took over part of the construction work. Sixth Brigade, meanwhile, had gone north to man the frontier positions, where demolitions were being prepared to delay any invading forces. Divisional Headquarters was at Baalbek.
Supply Company was employed carrying rations for 14 British DID and supplies from Beirut and Damascus to 101 NZ DID. From Beirut—a 24-hour turn-around—came fresh meat; from Damascus, fresh vegetables; and from Zahle, ice. In addition there were general transport duties. Loads included fodder for mules, gravel, cement, and reinforcing steel for pillboxes, and bombs and building materials for the RAF. Another load was charcoal, and drivers taking their trucks into the mountains for this commodity had to watch their arms, equipment, and tools closely as the tribesmen were pilferers of above-average ability.
Supply Company itself, for that matter, was reasonably competent in the art of acquiring whatever could not otherwise be obtained. From somewhere a large marquee appeared and by a communal effort was hoisted in the company area; it crashed to earth twice before it was successfully erected. Tables and chairs were knocked up, and the marquee, which with tables removed had a seating capacity of 200, became the centre of the unit's social life. There was tea and biscuits every evening, and periodically debates, talks, discussions, quizzes, brains trusts, concerts, card evenings, chess, draughts, competitions, darts and so on. The prime organiser was Padre Holland.7 Visitors from other ASC companies were frequent.
One memorable evening the Mukta or mayor of Baalbek, clad in flowing robes and equipped with ‘hubbly-bubbly’ and dagger, brought twenty-four children from the town to give a concert of songs, sketches, and recitations. Two priests from a nearby monastery completed the party. The audience understood not a word, but voted the concert a huge success. It was recorded that ‘conscious humour greatly appreciated, unconscious humour more so’.page 201
There was serious work to be done as well, however. Although it was not a fighting unit, the company's men were soldiers and were expected to know something about soldiering. Training, which was carried out without interfering with transport duties, included the hand grenade. There was a marked difference between the studied striving for perfection with dummy throws and the hasty heaving away in live throws. During the live throws there was a total of twenty-five blinds, all of which had to be attended to by the instructing sergeant.
On 3 May an ASC parade was held at Baalbek and the GOC presented awards to six men, three of them, Captain Rawle (MC), Lieutenant Cottrell (MC) and Sergeant Gibbs (MM), from Supply Company. Because of their duties, 982 men of the ASC were unable to attend.
Addressing the parade, General Freyberg remarked that this was the first time he had inspected the entire ASC.
I want to tell you how impressed I was by the parade (he said). The turn-out, marching and arms drill were of a very high order, and the general smartness on the parade ground reflects great credit on all concerned, especially as I know the difficulties under which you all work, being split up with motor transport all over the country, and rarely coming together for a large parade. I was particularly impressed by the appearance of the men. I can say with great sincerity that the demeanour and rugged appearance of the men impressed me tremendously.
I also want to say that the record of the NZASC stands very high with the rest of the Division. We all know what we owe to the Reserve MT and ASC companies, and their great devotion during the campaigns in which the Division has played a part. I want to congratulate you and your officers for bringing this force to the high standard of efficiency which has been reached.
Biting winds, rain, and snow chilled the Bekaa Valley and mountain positions in the early days, and the ASC camp at Rasm el Hadi was flooded out. The wintry weather gave way to spring, and as spring ripened into the full blaze of summer, toiling New Zealanders, stripped to the waist and tanned to a mahogany hue, slowly developed the fortress. In April 5 Brigade relieved 6 Brigade at the frontier positions and 6 Brigade came down to join 4 Brigade in the page 202 fortress, taking up its position on the left-hand defences in the foothills of the Lebanons.
Throughout all this small wars were being waged in various directions: against the native ‘klefty wallahs’ who would lift goods even from moving trucks, against fifth columnists and parachutists, against hashish traffic, and against boredom.
The company suffered one fatality during this period. On 4 May a captured German vehicle carting ice from Zahle ran off the road and crashed into a rock. Three men were admitted to hospital. Driver Legg,8 who was a passenger, died the next day. He was buried that day with military honours in a temporary military cemetery at Ras Baalbek in the grounds of Le Monastère de Notre Dame de l'Assomption. Priests and villagers joined in the procession, children with special vestments and carrying banners and wreaths making a colourful spectacle.
Late in May and early in June 4 and 6 Brigades carried out exercises in the baking, dusty desert around Forqloss. The long days of manœuvring concluded with a full-dress attack under artillery and mortar barrages. Supply Company trucks were among the ASC vehicles servicing the brigades in the field.
On 14 June the Division received orders to return to the desert, and out to the units went coded ‘Prepare to move…’ messages. When the trucks rolled south there were many wondering whether they were desert-bound—or homeward-bound—for New Zealand itself seemed in peril from the Japanese.