19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 13 — Baggush to Syria
The latter end of a fray and the beginning of a feast.
OnTuesday, 6 January 1942, the battalion left Baggush and in the chill early evening crammed into cattle trucks to begin the rail journey back to Maadi Camp. The troops were in high spirits, the uninviting means of transport did nothing to depress them, and the night passed with a good deal of skylarking plus such snatches of sleep as the noise and discomfort allowed.
At seven o’clock next morning a stop was made at Amiriya. Hot stew and scalding tea were waiting, trains were changed, and in the comparative comfort of Egyptian State Railways’ third-class coaches the journey was resumed. At the familiar Digla siding in the early hours of the 8th the battalion detrained, clambered aboard unit transport, and finally arrived ‘home’ just as dawn was breaking. Pay and leave followed, and peace to enjoy them was permitted for the rest of the week.
On Monday the 12th training was resumed in earnest; the emphasis was on range practices. Once again the comments of the weapon training officer made doleful and disturbing reading: the battalion as a whole did not excel at the butts. ‘With the exception of a few good individual scores the shooting was mediocre,’ read the official report. Thereafter officers and NCOs concentrated on coaching and the reiteration of the fundamentals of good shooting. It was something of a paradox later, when the brigade competition results were announced, that A team from Headquarters Company—not from a rifle company—was the best rifle team in 4 Brigade.
In contrast to the unit’s poor performance at the range, its programme of short vigorous marches by platoons and companies was profitable and popular. These brisk tramps page 233 across the familiar wastes where the battalion had done its first work in the Middle East were greatly enjoyed. The weather was still pleasantly cool; there was singing en route and cigarettes for the halts; while at the end of the march were showers and the canteen. Of all army activities route-marching ranks first for limbering up morale: ‘The tonic of a wholesome pride’ where the team spirit and fine companionship found among the men in each section is magnified until it encompasses the platoons, the companies, and finally the whole battalion.
The stay at Maadi was brief; on 22 January, a fortnight after its arrival from the Western Desert, the battalion with full packs up marched to the village, had lunch by the roadside, and at 12.30 p.m. boarded the train for Kabrit. With memories of the previous visit still green, the move to the Combined Training Centre on the Canal, despite the attractions of Cairo, was popular and the journey pleasant. Many men had used accumulated pay to buy portable radios and almost every carriage listened to music and to the BBC news while travelling. The train arrived at Geneifa at midnight, and after a mug of tea the journey was completed in MT and the battalion reached its new camp in the early hours of the morning. The day was spent settling in.
In the Western Desert the fighting had subsided with both sides almost exhausted. Halfaya had surrendered on 19 January, but on the 21st Rommel, who had withdrawn his forces to El Agheila—too far away for our depleted army with its strained supply lines to give chase—had launched a counter-offensive. Almost the whole of the Division was now withdrawn from the battle area, and General Freyberg’s headquarters were set up at Fayid. Sixth Brigade arrived at Maadi as the 4th moved to Kabrit, while 5 Brigade moved from Kabrit to the Sweetwater Canal area. All formations were being brought up to battle strength once more.
When the Axis offensive reopened the New Zealand Division immediately came under command of Headquarters British Troops in Egypt for internal security duties in Cairo or in the Delta. Meanwhile training was pressed forward, for page 234 in all units new equipment and new methods had to be mastered: mine detection, infantry wireless procedure, tank recognition, the sticky bomb—their effective use had still to be learned.
At Kabrit, in addition to normal infantry tasks and tactics, 4 Brigade toiled to perfect its training in handling ALCs (Assault Landing Craft) and in surmounting the wire obstacles which bristled on the beaches where they were landed daily. A raid from the sea cutting the long, single artery of the Axis supply line in North Africa might well prove decisive to the British operations in the Western Desert. The troops found this training exhilarating and the programme novel. After the dour desert campaign the visit to Kabrit was a happy interlude.
On the 28th, having attended a screening of a film on combined operations, the battalion began its first full-scale exercise, embarking the following morning on ALCs for a daylight attack on ‘D beach’ on the far side of the Great Bitter Lake. Wellington West Coast and Hawke’s Bay Companies were landed first, and formed a bridgehead through which Wellington and Taranaki Companies and Battalion Headquarters passed and attacked ‘Gravel Ridge’, approximately two miles inland. On completion of the landing operations and the attack, the 19th laid out a defensive position on its objective and at three o’clock the following morning sent out patrols to harass 20 Battalion, which was then landing prior to attacking the position.
On the night 30–31 January a practice withdrawal and evacuation from the beaches was carried out. The 20th Battalion acted as enemy and the position on ‘Gravel Ridge’ was slowly thinned out, a bridgehead again formed, and under the protection of a rearguard the unit embarked in a TLC (Tank Landing Craft) and returned to Kabrit—after enjoying a pantomime performance which involved a stranded ALC, two very junior RN midshipmen, and a grizzled RNR skipper. It had been a useful and strenuous exercise in which each component in the battalion had been called upon to play its part. During the following forty-eight hours another similar exercise was undertaken.page 235
Another night operation of a different character took place when a mob of inebriates with criminal tendencies tried to take the canteen cash from its small but capable custodian, Corporal Gibson.1 The noise of the ensuing battle brought some of Headquarters Company running to the spot and the would-be robbers—with one exception—fled. The exception happened to be the largest of the band and he was unwise enough to mix it with the redoubtable ‘Hoot’. All he collected for his pains was a broken jaw and various abrasions; he certainly got no booty—not even a loser’s purse. The canteen cash balanced to the last piastre.
The 19th remained at Kabrit until 3 March. February was filled by a programme of intensive training and sport, the success of which was soon reflected in the fitness of all members of the unit. Regimental funds were used to buy a considerable amount of sports gear and inter-company competition became very keen. On the 11th the battalion rowing contest was held, and though on an unfamiliar medium for the infantry soldier, the crews handled their craft well. Headquarters Company A team were the winners with Taranaki A team second. Hockey, too, was a popular pastime and the unit fielded several teams in inter-company and inter-unit matches. ‘Major’ was a keen barracker for the battalion, and on 27 February Routine Order No. 44 carried a notice of the dog’s well deserved promotion to the rank of captain.
During the month the battalion was bereft of its ‘wheels’, thirty-eight vehicles being temporarily handed over to other formations. The dismounted drivers came in for their full share of drill and route-marching. Stung by the unkind remarks and undisguised amusement of the rest of the unit, they were soon on their mettle and demonstrated that they were not without prowess in the more mundane if less mechanical side of soldiering.
In the middle of February the BBC announced the fall of Singapore. This was dreadful news indeed. It is worth page 236 recording that in the subsequent exercises at Kabrit the Japanese replaced the usual Italian and German ‘enemy’. Shortly afterwards the airmail to New Zealand was suspended, and to relieve anxiety over events in the Pacific General Freyberg issued a statement to the 2 NZEF which gave information about defence preparations in New Zealand and greatly allayed the men’s fears.
On 13 February the second anniversary of the arrival of the First Echelon in the Middle East had been fittingly, if unofficially, celebrated in the battalion by those who were still serving. The tally of 140 dozen bottles of beer consumed in the Naafi that night was testimony to the thirst acquired in the months spent in the dusty desert.
On 1 March the advance party, commanded by Major C. L. Pleasants, pulled out on its way to Syria. The rest of the battalion followed two days later.
Reveille was sounded at 2.30 a.m. on 3 March. It coincided with an air-raid alert which soon developed into a heavy attack. By the time the planes arrived the companies had sorted themselves out and, despite the pitch darkness, were ready to board the RASC transport which had reported in to carry them from the camp to Geneifa railway station. The first bomb caused an automatic and effective dispersal and, in attitudes acquired through long practice, each man lay low while the Luftwaffe, which had timed its approach to coincide with an eclipse of the moon, bombed and machine-gunned the RN and RAF installations on the Canal. Fortunately the 19th Battalion area escaped their attention and the raiders left when the moon reappeared.
At 4.30 a.m. the interrupted move was resumed, and the train with the battalion aboard left Geneifa at 6.5—only five minutes behind schedule. Three hours later the canal ferry carried the unit across to Kantara East, where a hot meal was waiting and where trains were changed for the trip across the Sinai Desert into Palestine and thence to Syria.
The daylight hours were spent travelling through an almost unbroken procession of rolling sand dunes, the page 237 picture postcard desert which up to now was new to most of the troops, whose campaigning in Libya and Cyrenaica had been done on a vastly different type of terrain—a desert of stone-strewn wastes and rocky outcrops. To the travellers, however, the effect was similar; and as in the long train trips across the Western Desert, the scenery soon proved somniferous and the majority slept or dozed. Shortly before 1 a.m. the orderly officer made his rounds and roused all ranks in preparation for the stop and a four-mile route march ahead.
At a siding south of Haifa the troops, stiff from eighteen hours’ travel, streamed out of the coaches, wrestled in the darkness with their gear, then set off for the transit camp. It was still dark when the marching columns reached their tented lines at At Tira and, thankfully dumping kitbags and equipment, unpacked their mess tins and queued up at the lighted cookhouse for a welcome hot meal.
Dawn disclosed a pleasant camp set among olive groves and reminiscent of some of the battalion’s bivouacs in Greece. The spot was in sharp contrast to most of the resting places of the past few months. Once settled in, the men were granted afternoon leave to Haifa and Tel Aviv. Many of the men were visiting Palestine for the first time and the break was popular. Three roysterers who attempted to capture and drive one of Palestine Railways’ locomotives back to camp created a breeze of official displeasure.
The wet weather which began on the afternoon of the 5th showed no signs of letting up the following morning when the move to Syria was scheduled to resume. But the rain was of small moment, for the mode of travel was found to be both novel and de luxe. Civilian buses with seats upholstered in red plush were awaiting the astonished troops at the end of their short but muddy march from the transit camp.
This unusual convoy moved off at 9.30 a.m. The pace was fast and the troops in each vehicle, exploiting the characteristic recklessness of the Arab drivers to the full, urged them to greater speeds until the move became a race page 238 in which overtaking and passing, without scruple for traffic rules or convoy procedure, were common practice. At noon when the first halt was made the vehicles were in anything but their original order. Many of the hindmost were now up with the leaders for these modern Jehus were devoid of fear, and the normal caution usually observed on narrow stretches or sharp corners was not in their make-up. Three buses went off by a route of their own and arrived at the Syrian frontier some time ahead of the main body. They were held up there by the frontier guards until the column arrived, then much to the chagrin of the drivers were compelled to take their original places in the line of traffic.
The countryside was populous and the scenery beautiful. The troops enjoyed the trip. Passing through Tiberias, the convoy travelled along the shores of the Sea of Galilee before climbing steeply out of Palestine and into Syria, where at the village of Rosh Pinna the first signs of war were seen. Recently used trenches and bullet-scarred signposts were evidence of a last year’s engagement against the Vichy French forces. The whole of the countryside, however, was now at peace and the coming of spring added colour to the surroundings. Hebron and Damascus, of Biblical fame, were passed and at 6 p.m., just off the Damascus-Baghdad highway, the leading vehicles turned into a hutted transit camp and stopped. Three hours later straggling buses were still coming in.
The night was cold and showery but the accommodation was good, and almost all took advantage of this and turned in early for a sound sleep. Some of the battalion officers, however, made the most of their first meeting with members of the United States Forces. Some officers of the American Field Service had just arrived in the mess and a pleasant evening’s fraternising followed. The United States Army would before long serve side by side in battle with New Zealand troops, but it was with mixed feelings that the men some months later learned of the presence of the United States Marine Corps in New Zealand.
The whole area was rich in history, and in his service the following day (Sunday the 8th) Padre Forsman2 gave an interesting sermon on its Biblical importance. Baalbek, with its impressive fragments of the work of the Greco-Roman civilisation, had many visitors during the unit’s stay in Syria.
Zabboud camp was sited at 3000 feet and the crisp mountain air, the sharp spring weather, and the exhilarating exercise afforded by route marches and climbing had a marked effect on every man’s appetite. The cooks found it difficult to satisfy the hungry unit. Football matches began immediately and were played in traditional weather, on grass instead of stones and sand, and with zest and enjoyment by all who took part. So the week passed pleasantly, and early nights and sound sleep were every man’s experience.
Ten members of the battalion were sent from Zabboud to a ski course at Les Cedres and all performed well, Lieutenant Carryer being retained by Ninth Army Ski School at the conclusion of the course as an instructor.
But the unit did not come to Syria to spend its days unprofitably. Zabboud camp was strategically sited, for below in the Bekaa valley lay the route from the north which since ancient days had been regarded as of prime importance by the armies which sought to invade Palestine and Egypt. The Djedeide fortress was now being made and manned lest the Germans should break through the Caucasus or cut through Turkey in an attempt to isolate our forces in the Middle East and gain control of the Mediterranean. The task of the New Zealand Division was to deny the enemy the use of the main routes from the north to southern Syria. Work on the defences began at once.
On 11 March the Commanding Officer and company commanders went across the valley to the Buffalo feature page 241 on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, where 19 Battalion’s sector of the fortress was to be sited. Two days later the move out to the reconnoitred areas began when Wellington Company went by MT to its location, which later became known as ‘Willis Street’. Heavy rain during the night made the move difficult, and the company’s welcome to their new home was frigid indeed. Gear had to be dumped in the snow and deep drifts made unpleasant traps for the unwary. By nightfall tents were pitched on the steep slopes, and the company cooks had set up their establishment and had a hot meal ready for the hungry troops. The local mutton was not up to New Zealand standard but the liberal addition of curry powder to the stew was found to disguise the musty flavour of ram, for the majority of the beasts sold for food were the worn-out progenitors of the village flocks. Fresh meat being a luxury, this mutton could not be condemned because of a slight taint, and so, suitably cooked, these hoary sires of Syrian flocks were served and eaten with relish by men who once had fussily picked over the choicest cuts of prime Canterbury lamb.
Next day (the 14th) Wellington West Coast Company moved out and took up a position to the north. They were followed at daily intervals by Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki and Headquarters Companies. Company administrative and defence areas were soon shaped and the weather during these preliminary operations behaved well. Two companies, Wellington and Wellington West Coast, were taken out for an urgent road-construction job and the whole battalion was kept busy with pick and shovel. Supplies were brought up to the battalion by mule train, a section of 6 Cypriot Pack Transport Company being attached to the unit for this work, for Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay Companies could not be catered for by MT.
At the foot of the mountains the Q and transport area clustered in a hollow rimmed by the steeply climbing main road. ‘Teds’ Town’, as this cheery caravanserai was soon called, was a welcome sight to those whose weary upward page 242 way would be helped by the hot mug of chai always available there to all visitors any hour of the day or night.
On 21 March a bitter wind rose and hail and sleet held up work while the battalion cowered in the slender shelter of its precariously pitched tents. Just as night was falling a report came in from 4 Brigade Headquarters that a parachutist had been seen landing in the battalion area. Patrols went out immediately, but in the gathering darkness they failed to find anything and at last returned, cold and querulous, to their respective bivvies, where their dripping forms were anything but welcome.
It now began to snow heavily and tents soon sagged with the ever-increasing weight. More patrols were called for, this time to rake the snow off the straining canvas. Before they got going properly, however, several tents collapsed and the struggling inmates emerging from the wreckage were faced with a pretty puzzle. There was no spare timber in the area and a broken tent-pole presented a problem of no mean proportions. By the 22nd the whole of the position was thickly covered. Water, wine, and even eggs froze solid. There was an extreme shortage of fuel and any item which would burn—including tent pegs—had to be carefully guarded. In one bivvy, where two of the occupants had been fortunate enough to acquire a wooden stretcher each, the legs were sacrificed for firing at the rate of two inches a night in the interests of warmth and comfort.
The 23rd brought no improvement, but a well-timed issue of rum prescribed by the Brigade Commander, plus a leather jerkin, scarf, balaclava and an extra blanket handed out by the Quartermaster, restored sluggish circulations and revived the drooping spirits of the troops, so much so that some hardy specimens indulged in snowballing. The silent flight of these missiles was a menace to men caught in the open during daylight.
By the 26th the storm had blown itself out; the ground began to thaw and work was at once resumed on defences and road construction. As a precaution against trench feet cottonseed oil was issued to companies. Wellington Company’s cook, mistaking this for cooking oil, put a liberal page 243 portion in a bully stew and the whole company spent a painful and busy night. Despite the ministrations of the MO few were fit for work next morning. However, the programme of pick-and-shovel work went on without further interruption till the end of the month, when General Auchinleck and the GOC paid a short visit of inspection to Jebel el Emside and the battalion’s sector of the Djedeide fortress.
April opened auspiciously with a series of bright sunny days and the scenery took on all the charm of a New Zealand high-country spring. Work on the defences progressed; construction parties sang at their tasks, while in the evenings organised and unorganised entertainment was contrived collectively by companies or spontaneously by small groups. Card tournaments, housie, boxing, even voluntary classes of instruction in German and other outlandish tongues, all had their adherents.
Easter approached and with it came memories of Servia and the battalion position of a year earlier. The present area was not dissimilar to the craggy heights in Greece where the 19th first faced the enemy. What would the stay in Syria hold? The portents were not clear, but the defence position that grew daily with the aid of explosives and hard manual labour inspired the same confidence as had the more hurriedly constructed posts of the previous year. The altitude and the solid stone of the mountains gave a feeling of security. Here was a position which appeared wellnigh impregnable. The ribbon of road in the valley below could be commanded from every angle.
Good Friday was bath day for the battalion and all ranks went by transport in batches to El Aine, where the mobile bath unit operated an efficient and much appreciated service. The bath, though hardly designed for individual enjoyment, at least allowed fifteen minutes of mass pleasure as the hot jets played on the assorted shapes of a platoon or so of pink bodies crowded on the slats below. The man operating the stopvalve was accused by each successive batch of cutting down the time allowed, for never did a quarter hour pass more quickly. The ministrations of these page 244 mobile bath units were one of the less spectacular but most appreciated of all services in the army.
Saturday 4 April marked the inception of anti-malarial precautions. Mosquito nets were issued to all ranks, and those whose duties took them out at nights were made to wear gloves and hoods so that the evening guard parade resembled a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. From constant spraying tents and blankets soon reeked of flytox, but the precautions were well worth while and the malarial rate among New Zealand troops was kept remarkably low.
Weekends were spent in many varied ways. The sightseers in the unit who still retained an affection for ruins or relics strongly supported Padre Forsman’s conducted tours. The first excursion was to Krak des Chevaliers, one of three tremendous Crusader castles which in ancient days defended the pass that runs almost at sea level between the Lebanon Mountains: a pass as important in the present war of Dictators versus Democracy as it was in the far earlier struggle between Christian and Mohammedan. Krak des Chevaliers, standing massive and gaunt, was still complete enough to capture the imagination of the romantic and to impress the more practical on whom the parallel of the commanding castles of the Crusaders and the present construction work on the Djedeide fortress was not lost.
It was appropriate that during this delightful spring and in the lovely setting of the ancient city of Jerusalem, the first wedding of a member of 19 Battalion should be solemnised overseas. The preliminary military formalities having first been complied with and permission (the Army’s) having been granted, Captain David Thomson was wedded to Miss June Adams at Christ Church, Jerusalem, by Captain Innes, CF. Several days before the event the tall, debonair OC Wellington Company was host and guest of honour respectively at pleasant functions held in the unit messes. By training and character a punctilious and efficient officer, Captain Thomson could, however, under the circumstances be pardoned the error in dates which occurred in his official application for permission to marry; in fact, the office work for so unusual an occasion evidently page 245 put the whole of Battalion Headquarters in a dither. Even after the wedding had been solemnised and Captain and Mrs Thomson had received the congratulations of the unit and departed on a brief honeymoon, an official signal was received at Brigade Headquarters giving the time of the wedding ceremony as 0230 hours.
The month progressed with the battalion still hard at work on its defensive position, into which, on the 17th, came a troop of guns from 14 Light AA Regiment. The arrival of the gunners in a fortress area was always a welcome sign for it marked a stage in the work on a position which now became of definite military importance. Road construction was far enough forward to get the artillery pieces in and out. The infantry now turned from digging to tactical training once more.
Companies in turn began a round of four-day manœuvres in the mountains, manœuvres which were designed to give officers and men exercise in movement and use of weapons across the tough terrain where any action which might eventuate in Syria would take place. Night patrols, too, were instituted, each company supplying a detachment for this training twice each week. The break from digging was welcomed and the company stunts were highly successful, a feature being the supply system. For each exercise transport was limited to pack mules and water had to be found and tested before drinking. Field firing, grenade throwing, practices with sticky bombs, etc., were all part of the programme, and each platoon commander submitted a full report on the work of his command. Excellent work was done by all companies, and the area of rough country in front of the defended position was well explored before the series ended.
Late in April the unit discarded battle dress and was issued with khaki drill and topee. Shortly afterwards Routine Order No. 48 carried the following paragraph: ‘All ranks are warned that shorts long pattern will NOT be converted into shorts short pattern.’ As protection against the malarial mosquito, ‘Bombay bloomers’, which transformed every man into a comedy character, were issued, for page 246 those who resented joining the ranks of the ridiculous had been in the habit of lopping off the extra bloomer length and risking the consequences.
An intriguing variety of liquor found its way into the camp—even the official issue of beer included several strange brands. As the demand for all strong drink always exceeded the supply, some of the more scientifically minded managed to rig up a still, but its capacity was very limited and distilling could only be done when circumstances were favourable. The product, derived from potatoes, though potent was an unpleasing pale blue colour and required a highly flavoured base before it could be made palatable.
As the month ended the rumble of blasting on the defence works had its echo from far New Zealand, where feverish preparations were also in progress: preparations which embraced almost every male from sixteen to sixty. To help train and command this new force veterans from 2 NZEF were withdrawn and sent back home. The 19th Battalion learned that those chosen from its ranks were RSM Jim Coull, RQMS Ted Berry, the CSM Taranaki Company, Nigel Hunter, MM, and the signal platoon’s Sergeant Denny Lindsey,3 all four First Echelon men whose efficiency and devotion to duty in the field and during training fitted them for the role they would be required to undertake back in New Zealand. Though they left amid one of the customary cheerful celebrations which marked important occasions within the unit the battalion regretted their going. Events in the Pacific, however, were watched with acute anxiety, and those left in the Middle East drew comfort from the fact that the New Zealand Army authorities were anxious to employ experienced men from the ranks of units whose service abroad entitled them to a place in the defence of their homeland. Two more 19 Battalion men who had earlier returned temporarily to New Zealand were WO II Bert Steele and Sergeant Jim McClymont.4 page 247 They, with Sergeant Lindsey, came back to the Middle East with the 10th Reinforcements in August 1943.
May signalled the sun’s return to some strength and the withdrawal of two of the five blankets on issue to each man. Open-air concerts in the calm, lovely evenings were also a feature of this month. Some excellent performances were given. Concert parties, headed by the gay ENSA show ‘Girls in Uniform’, came in rapid succession: 10 Corps, the UDF, the Kiwi concert parties; and last but by no means least, the New Zealand YMCA Mobile Cinema visited the area.
Summertime began officially on 11 May. Reveille was put forward to 5 a.m. and work began at 6.30. The programme was still mainly construction but now ‘I’ section and other battalion sub-units began to fulfil their specialist functions. The signals hook-up radiated from a well-sand-bagged and solidly built signal centre which housed the exchange and duty personnel. At Battalion Headquarters maps and diagrams of the defensive area were prepared. The ‘I’ section did excellent work here and the large-scale maps they made were highly praised by the Brigade Commander. In company positions communication trenches linked section posts and weapon pits, while each section prepared range cards on which its front was accurately plotted down to the last detail.
On the commanding heights of the Lebanons the Australians were similarly entrenched, while British and Free French forces manned positions on the far slopes on the Anti-Lebanons. The New Zealand Division, with 5 Brigade based forward at Aleppo in a delay-and-demolish role, was now firmly fixed in its fortress.
Gas training, with practical tests in a gas chamber and lectures and demonstrations by the Ninth Army mobile gas unit, reopened a subject which had been in abeyance for some time. The inconvenient respirator, heartily detested by all ranks, was resurrected once more and from now on encumbered every man at his work or recreation.
Divisional boxing and wrestling championships and 4 Brigade’s sports meeting, at which the 19th distinguished page 248 itself by gaining the greatest number of points, were held in the middle of the month. Another event was the visit of the New Zealand Mobile Broadcasting Unit which arranged for fifty balloted men from the battalion to record personal greetings to their folk back home. In several of the companies First Echelon men were accorded the courtesy of first refusal for the limited places available, and all who were fortunate enough to broadcast greatly appreciated the privilege.
On the 20th a ceremonial parade in honour of HRH the Duke of Gloucester was held along the main road between Laboue and Baalbek. The day was gloriously fine and the parade precise and impressive. The Duke paid high tribute to the ‘appearance and bearing of the magnificent veterans of four campaigns’.
The following day (21 May) one of the most memorable exercises ever held by 4 Brigade began with a general move to Forqloss. A platoon of 4 RMT carried the companies, and two officers (Major C. Kolocouris and Captain C. Staroularis) from the Greek Army attended as observers and were attached to the battalion. Mass MT manœuvres marked the first two days, and the drivers’ high degree of efficiency in keeping desert formation clearly demonstrated that past work had not been forgotten. In the afternoon of the 23rd, with the imaginary enemy dispositions given in a 10 Corps’ summary, the brigade began a tactical move along the Tripoli pipeline. The 19th Battalion led and directed this move. After travelling 11 ½ miles a Divisional Cavalry screen operating out in front reported the presence of the enemy. For the infantry the joyride was now ended and the next two nights and days put every man to the test. Approach marches and attacks during darkness and in daylight kept companies constantly on the move. Some of the ground was difficult and the forced pace gruelling, but the unit worked well. Features of the exercise were the excellent control made possible by the use of the No. 18 wireless set and the close co-operation achieved with the aircraft in support.page 249
The manœuvre ended in exceptionally hot weather and the troops, thoroughly tired, embussed once more and returned to the brigade area, arriving in the evening of 26 May. The following day was an army holiday, interior economy being the only duty.
By the end of the month day temperatures were becoming torrid, but the altitude ensured cool nights and the whole unit was at the peak of physical fitness. The Syrian climate, the plentiful food, the solid navvying, the sports’ programme and the mountain marches had all been excellent tonics. But the pleasant Syrian interlude was soon to end.
By June the positions on the Jebel el Emside were almost finished. Battle headquarters for Battalion and companies had been built, and wiring and mining the approaches were the next items on the construction programme. Meanwhile the new road from the foot of the Spiral to the Battalion Headquarters’ area was creeping upwards. The Engineers were busy with water supply problems and substantial concrete tanks were being built. Supply dumps for reserves of fuel and ammunition were already established. Among the gangs of civilian labourers employed by the sappers were many Syrian women, a fact which at first caused much astonishment to the troops, who when passing the toiling parties were always ready to hurl derisive comments at the RE supervisors for their lack of chivalry in permitting women to perform this solid manual work.
With the area now well under way to completion leave facilities were extended, and many took the opportunity to see Syria both by visits to the official leave centres at Baalbek and Zahle and in unofficial excursions into the numerous villages dotted over the surrounding countryside. The wild flowers of spring had now disappeared but the weather, though hot in the afternoons, was still cool in the evenings. Harvest time in vineyard and cornfield was approaching, and the peasants, robbed of much of last year’s yield by the military operations against the Vichy French, were now without reserves. Selected men from the Division took over the roles of grocer and policemen. Flour was distributed to the poverty-stricken villagers, and steps were taken to page 250 prevent hoarding and to ensure the equal distribution of the new harvest.
During this period Palmyra, Aleppo and Damascus, cities of almost legendary fame, were visited by many men, for all were eager to shop in the bazaars which had once yielded the lamp of Aladdin and to see where Haroun el Raschid had ruled in pomp and oriental splendour. Like the countryside, the villages and the cities took on a rich texture, a texture as vivid and romantic as the tapestries which made up so many of the soldiers’ parcels sent to New Zealand at that time.
The inhabitants were friendly and their traditional costumes colourful. The uniforms of the French forces, too, lent an air of storybook unreality to the place. Peace and the leisure time to spend sightseeing and letter-writing yielded rich experiences which the soldier shared through letters and souvenirs sent to his family back home. The first fourteen days of June were enjoyable days. Then on the 15th came a bolt from the blue: orders to move—destination undisclosed—action immediate.