9. 5 Brigade: Western Desert and Syria
9. 5 Brigade: Western Desert and Syria
I spent Christmas Day of 1941 with the Twentieth, very pleasantly, but rather sadly; there were so very few familiar faces. For New Year John Gray and I were at Alexandria and in the middle of my convalescent leave I was recalled to Cairo. There I found that a proposition was under discussion for a landing in the Gulf of Sirte, behind Rommel, by the New Zealand 5 Brigade under my command. It filled me with alarm and I was unfeignedly glad when it was shelved. For a few days I was in command at Maadi Camp but had hardly discovered where my office was when on 16 January I was appointed to command 5 Brigade. On the way to the Canal area to take over I lunched at Helmieh Hospital and, feeling very smart in my new red band and tabs, decided to call on one of the sisters. She was out, but later told me that she thought it might have been I who was asking for her as the nurse said that a military policeman with grey hair had called.
The 5 Brigade at this time consisted of the Twenty-first, Twenty-second, Twenty-third Battalions, the Twenty-eighth (Maoris) who usually served with it having just been trans-ferred to 4 Brigade.
In the first few weeks I had a careful look at the units with which I was to serve for the next two and a quarter years. 21 Battalion had an unhappy record of misfortune and at that time was regarded as the unluckiest battalion in the Division. This had its effect on both officers and men and my impression was that its morale was low and its discipline slack. Sam Allen, who had been in charge of the Divisional Signals, came in to command and I felt confident he would pull the battalion together.
22 Battalion had a good record, though it was unhappy at having lost its Maleme position in Crete—after very heavy casualties—and it had a grouch that it had not been fairly treated in decorations. Les Andrew, unfortunately, was going; but I had my choice of John Russell or another good officer to succeed him, chose John, and had no worries thenceforward.
23 Battalion was a grand solid unit, very carefully commanded by Leckie, but not then going through one of its best periods. Too many officers and N.C.O.s were holding temporary appointments, and some absurd provincial jealousies had not yet died out. The worst feature in the Brigade was that the battalions had an odd hostility towards one another which sprang from old antipathies between earlier commanders and was not eradicated for a long time to come.
Brigade Headquarters had to be built anew and there were several changes before we settled down. I believed in making war in as much comfort as possible but it took us some months to get a good mess. Ross came with me from the Twentieth and as Neville had been captured at Belhamed I acquired a new batman, Joe Minogue, who had been strictly trained in that capacity by Hughie Mitchell.
The Sirte Gulf project was revived and we did a full-scale landing exercise in the Gulf of Suez. I liked the plan as little as before and indeed doubt whether General Freyberg would ever have allowed us to take it on. Just before going on the exercise I saw the Middle East appreciation of the courses page 114 open to Rommel, then standing at the Agheila line. It was appreciated that he might fight there or, more sensibly, retire to Tripoli. On the last day of the exercise we heard that he had adopted a third course, not mentioned in the appreciation. He had advanced, scattered the forward British troops, and was again menacing Tobruk. Consequently the project for our employment was again dropped. The Division was by this time on the move to Syria. 5 Brigade Group was hurriedly brought up to strength in transport and ordered to move to the Western Desert with the utmost speed.
Bob Dawson and I set off on 12 February to report to Eighth Army Headquarters near Gambut, leaving the troops to follow by the longest possible stages. We made two stages to Sidi Barrani, got a hurry-up message, and arrived at Army Headquarters next afternoon. General Ritchie told me to report to General Gott, commanding 13 Corps. We found him long after dark, got orders to prepare a brigade box, an unhappy device fashionable at that time, at El Adem, and ended our 700-mile journey after midnight, sleeping under a table at Rear Corps Headquarters. We were up and away before daylight and while I reconnoitred a position Bob took action to hurry up the troops. The C.O.s arrived during the day, the troops, rather travel-weary, on the next day, and we were busy digging on the fifth morning after leaving the Canal. In the event the urgency was unnecessary. Rommel had made a gesture but he did not come on and we worked at our positions for nearly six weeks.
We dug, wired, and mined a very good box, as such things went, and tucked the whole Brigade Group inside it with a perimeter of 14,000 yards. In the May battle it was held by an Indian Brigade against several attacks, and I was gratified to be told in June by General Gott that it was the best of all the boxes in his positions. We took mines from the Tobruk defences, 19,000 of them, with full authority to do so and with a good conscience, for at an army conference I heard the decision that Tobruk was not to be held if the Army had to retire. The attitude and mentality of Eighth Army was distinctly defensive. The only army exercise we did was one envisaging retreat to the frontiers; every unit or formation page 115 was busy shutting itself up inside a box of some sort, out of supporting distance from its neighbour; huge minefields were laid, entirely uncovered by fire, and we reconnoitred or prepared alternative positions farther to the rear. An unduly high opinion of Rommel was prevalent and I more than once checked officers sharply for speaking of him as one of the masters of war. People opposed, to these masters usually get beaten and it is unwise to believe that your enemy is a god of battles.
We were all so busy digging that so far as I could learn neither we nor anyone else did any serious training. We did organize and train our private mobile column. This was composed of a regiment of tanks, a battery, a company of infantry, some carriers, and some sappers. We had a very enjoyable time playing round with this little force, which presented interesting problems for command, signals, artillery, and supply. The idea was that while we were beleaguered in our nice little box it would cavort around outside, biting at the rear of our besiegers. I thought that war should be taken more seriously.
We had one heavy rain when we were all washed out of our beds, our trucks sank to their axles, and we had two thoroughly uncomfortable days. Italian planes did a ‘hit and run’ raid, so much run in it that only one Bofors got into action and it missed by many miles. I visited Belhamed on a sombre black afternoon and saw the graves of my men, also the wadi where I had been a prisoner. On another day I set off to visit General Koenig and the Free French at Bir Hacheim, penetrated the perimeter unseen in a sandstorm, failed to find him, and went out again undetected. We went over the scenes of the Brigade's fighting near Gazala, had a thorough look at Tobruk, most miserable and sordid of desert places, and visited every area that seemed likely to be important in the impending battle. But time went heavily, we disliked being away from the Division, felt no great confidence in the command, and at the end of March were glad to get orders to return to Maadi and thence move to Syria.
The return journey to Maadi was notable for a very page 116 severe khamsin which caught us on the escarpment above Sollum. For a few hours the whole Brigade was scattered and lost, many vehicles being forced to halt until the wind died down.
The troops were glad to be back at Maadi and near to Cairo for a few days, and on the first night they blew off steam by firing fusillades from the numerous captured weapons. This was a bad thing to do, even though most of the firing was into a cliff and no one was hurt, and we deserved the sharp reprimand that came down from Camp Headquarters next morning. Being in the wrong we were all the more annoyed and resentful at such fussiness.
Ross and Joe and I left for Syria ahead of the convoy. We camped the first night in the desert near Beersheba. Next morning our petrol pump played up, some Australian officers gave us a spare and we went on with them to Tel Aviv. Next day the spare collapsed near Jaffa and was replaced by one donated by a South African officer. We carried on until in the evening it too went wrong as we were crossing the Lebanon above Beirut. This time it was a French general who came to our aid and we went on to spend the night at Divisional Headquarters at Baalbek.
After inspecting the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter and the delightful little Temple of Bacchus and visiting the Twentieth, we went on next day to Aleppo. 4 Brigade was working on its part of the divisional position being constructed in the Baalbek valley, 5 Brigade on arrival was to relieve 6 Brigade, now under George Clifton, on the Turkish frontier and at Aleppo, and 6 Brigade was then to return to the Baalbek position.
At Aleppo I found that George had his headquarters installed in a palace and was himself living in a very comfortable flat, which I took over. He had of course got to know everyone worth knowing, had acquired a very nice horse for his morning gallop, seen all the sights, run several social functions, and somehow found time to examine every road and track in the big area for which he was responsible. I was surprised that he had not been into Turkey, but the Turks were excessively neutral and apparently that was a page 117 little too risky even for George. During the next two days he took me all round and introduced me to everyone. He also took me to the top of the tower of the Citadel, built on a huge mound and surrounded by a wide and deep dry moat. I have no very good head for heights and was terrified when at the very top he leaned casually with his back against the rickety railing.
6 Brigade held a parade to impress the inhabitants and General Freyberg came up and took a salute from the balcony of the Baron Hotel. Apparently, the troops had not been warned where the saluting base was and nearly all passed without taking the slightest notice; about half the others, startled by the band, gave an ‘eyes left’ to the opposite side of the street. However, the spectators probably thought that this was in order and were suitably impressed. There was a terrific row with the C.R.A., Steve Weir, who came up to discover that George had fired all the Field Regiment's carefully husbanded allotment of practice ammunition in a single concentration. This blew over, my battalions arrived, and we proceeded with the relief. I sent the Twenty-second and Twenty-third to the frontier area at Afrine and Idlib respectively, where each had about a forty-mile sector to watch. The Twenty-first, still in need of some drill and hard training, went to the German barracks at Aleppo, where also we installed 5 Field Regiment, 5 Field Ambulance, and 7 Field Company.
The weather during April and until late in May was perfect, with glorious cool sunny days and fresh nights, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. With Chesterman, Dawson, or McPhail I spent days in travelling round northern Syria. Our role was to cover the heavy-bomber airfield at Aleppo and to impose as much delay as possible on any invasion by the Germans through Turkey before retiring over the Syrian plain 180 miles to Baalbek. Possibly, if the Turks invited us, there would have been an advance into Turkey, but this would have been difficult as their roads had been deliberately allowed to fall into disrepair and they had done nothing to clear up malarial areas.
On our side of the frontier we had thousands of Kurds, the page 118 cruellest-looking people I ever saw, working on construction and repair of roads, erection of bridges and culverts, and in fact doing everything possible to ease things for the Germans once they got into Syria. There was of course an elaborate demolition scheme but road demolitions do not usually take long to repair and the only really important one was that projected for a viaduct in 22 Battalion's area.
There was very good defensive country north-west of Aleppo but not a single possible position in a wide belt to the north. My own opinion was that if an invasion came this way, the only one likely, we would have to scamper very smartly indeed. We made ourselves thoroughly familiar with the ground and in that lovely country, in the delicious spring, it was very pleasant doing so.
I paid a formal call on the Syrian Governor and was received with all the state possible in Aleppo. A space had been roped off outside the Palace. I drove up with outriders and numerous police clearing the populace away, dismounted amid what I took to be cheers, and advanced across the square on a red carpet to the steps, where a bevy of resplendent aides was waiting. These escorted me up three flights of stairs to the Governor's room. The stairs were lined by very bad-looking but very ornate troops, and on each landing an officer wearing a helmet with feathers and a cuirass saluted with his sword, making me duck a little each time. The Governor and I drank coffee, and through an interpreter discussed the recent changes in the Cabinet at Damascus and the rising price of wheat, a delicate subject as His Excellency was known to be one of the chief monopolists.
I departed in a similar manner and later in the day the Governor returned my call. We received him with the Brigade band, which played the Syrian national anthem, which it had learned during the morning, and a very good guard of honour. We drank coffee out of a set which an L.O. procured from the Bazaar just in time, and talked the same banalities and I suppose it helped the war effort in some way.
The British Political Officer took me to dine with the candidate for some Sheikhdom. He was the candidate page 119 acceptable to us, and the idea was that the fact that he had entertained the General from Aleppo would help his prestige. We drove out to the village and stopped at the foot of the hill on which stood the candidate's house. He had rallied a large number of his supporters who appeared to be mostly women in brightly coloured gowns. The candidate and half a dozen other chiefs advanced to meet me. As I got out of the car the elastic of my underpants snapped. I grabbed desperately but, as I was wearing shorts, not quite in time. We shook hands all round, I clutching the while in extreme anxiety, and then advanced to the house amid the plaudits of the crowd and with what I should imagine was a concerned expression. Ross took a photo from the rear showing a very intriguing two inches of white lingerie under each leg of my shorts. It was a great relief to get safely seated on a cushion in the parlour without worse disaster. We smoked cigarettes and drank sherbet for two hours, conversing only by smiles and signs, until the boiled sheep was brought in on an immense tray heaped high with rice and spices. We then hitched our cushions up and had a very good meal. The host's son looked after me, tearing off succulent pieces with his fingers. I enjoyed them and was grateful that he did not offer me the eyes, which Colonel Stirling had told me was possible. When it was finished and we were all replete we chatted awhile by the same dumb show, and I again only just safely negotiated the trip down the hill to the car. On my return to Aleppo Joe and I had words on the matter.
To show the flag we sent the Brigade band to the spring races at Deir es Zor, 260 miles down the Euphrates. McQuilkin and Ensor went with me for the big day. Some 10,000 Arabs were present with more horses than I had ever seen together. The racing was poor except that every rider appeared to be in earnest and we saw some very willing fights behind the totalisator. There were no bookmakers that we could see. At the conclusion I had to present the prizes, aided by the very attractive daughter of the French Consul. A Syrian band played the Syrian national anthem and our escort presented arms; a Foreign Legion band played the Marseillaise with another present arms; and then the page 120 Brigade band played ‘God Save the King’ and all presented again. All officers of course saluted each time, and the affair must have been quite impressive. There was a dance in the French Officers' Club, a torchlight procession, and a rather pathetic show of work done by the local schoolchildren, fancy work, maps, cakes, knitting, just as at a country show in New Zealand. We found that the British Officers' Club had a quite extraordinary supply of good liquor.
I made another trip to visit the Australians on the coast and saw the Duke of Gloucester take a parade of 9 Australian Division. There was space on the ground for only 200 men from each battalion and without exception they were the most beautiful troops I ever saw. Hardly a man appeared to be less than six feet and they drilled and marched superbly.
Then I suddenly became quite seriously ill with shingles in the head and chicken-pox, and was evacuated to our hospital at Zahle in the Lebanon. On recovery after a fortnight I went to convalesce at the Staff College at Haifa, where I was very kindly treated after an astonishingly chilly reception. Later I heard that Inglis had recently called there and had spoken of the deficiencies of the British armour in the winter battle with more candour and emphasis than tact. I was watched carefully for a few days, but at that time I had no particular grouch and gradually the atmosphere thawed.
On 27 May Rommel opened his offensive in the Western Desert, but all the first reports were optimistic and we had little expectation of being involved. Intelligence reports in the Middle East always breathed the same air of bland cheeriness and patronizing appreciation of the enemy's struggles no matter how badly things were going for us. I don't know at what level commanders were told the truth; corps and divisional commanders may have seen truthful reports. At the Brigadier level they were often infuriating.
There were projects for our employment on the Bosphorus or on the Caspian, with Libya only a likely outsider and Egypt in no one's minds. General Freyberg and Gentry went off to Iraq and almost to the Caspian. I returned from convalescence on 11 June and resumed command. During my absence Bob Dawson had gone to Division and Monty page 121 Fairbrother,1 an original Twentieth officer, had replaced him as Brigade Major. Chesterman had gone to become second-in-command of the Maoris and the new Staff Captain was Dugleby, an original Nineteenth officer.
5 Brigade Group concentrated and we moved into the desert sixty miles south-east of Aleppo to do brigade training. At this time the Brigade Group theory was disastrously popular in the Middle East. We had been asked to adopt it with more than outward conformity. The General agreed to the extent that we were actually organized in brigade groups in Syria and remained so organized during all mobile periods of the war in Africa; but he made it very clear that we would fight as a division with our guns under the C.R.A., and missed no opportunity of making his intention clear. The brigade group organization had many advantages for desert warfare, particularly in mobility and quick readiness for action, so long as the groups kept touch and combined to fight as a division with the guns a single fire unit. Accordingly we went out to exercise as a brigade group. We found a fine piece of desert with good going everywhere and set to work in frightful heat. On the third morning I conducted a T.E.W.T.2 on the subject of an attack by infantry advancing in their trucks at speed, with artillery support, and debussing at the last possible moment to assault, the whole combined and synchronized with a tank attack. Speed and determination were the essence of the idea and much depended upon the nature of the going. I had done this successfully at Bir Chleta, and without tanks did it with moderate success on two later occasions.page 122
In the afternoon we formed up to try out our ideas. The heat was quite overpowering, low oppressive clouds and the feeling of being in an oven. The water in the bottles was too hot to bear on the hands, many trucks had stopped owing to petrol vapourizing, and one went up in flames, apparently by spontaneous combustion. I noticed how white and strained everyone looked and suddenly cancelled the whole affair and we all trundled off to the Euphrates to bathe. The river was yellow and cold, dangerously high and rapid with the spring thaws; but we were able to sit close to the bank up to our necks and there the whole Brigade remained for hours until the worst of the heat was over and there was again some energy in us. We had planned to practise a night attack and we now began preparations. The evening meal was finished and we were about to move out when a signal arrived from Division which ended all thought of exercises. ‘Division moving. Return to Baalbek forthwith.’
1 From here on when I speak of ‘Monty’ I am referring to this officer, not to General Montgomery.
2 T.E.W.T.: ‘tactical exercise without troops’. A group of officers is taken out on to a suitable area and divided into syndicates each of four or five. An imaginary situation is described and each syndicate is asked to say what they would do about it, and how, with the imaginary troops at their disposal. Half an hour or less is given them to produce their solutions, during which time the director of the T.E.W.T. and his assistants, known as the ‘Board’, think up their own answer. The syndicates in turn give their replies. With the help of any ideas picked up therefrom the conducting officer then gives the Board solution, which is right. T.E.W.T.s can be useless or very valuable according to the manner in which they are handled. They are nearly always carried out in rain or a cold wind.