CHAPTER 7 — Three Interludes: Kabrit, El Adem, Syria
THE reunion of 5 Brigade with the rest of the Division nearly coincided with the end of 1941 and the celebration of New Year's Eve. The appropriate parties held in the Baggush Box were marked by huge fireworks displays in which German flares, Italian grenades and other captured items were used to such effect that neighbouring British units ‘stood-to’, anxiously expecting an enemy seaborne attack. In their dugouts, 23rd officers and men cheerfully toasted ‘Happy New Year—Victory and Home’.
During the next few weeks, the battalion's moves were determined by decisions taken at divisional and higher levels by General Freyberg and General Auchmleck. These, in turn, were directed to countering the moves made by Rommel and the Afrika Korps. Early in January 1942 Rommel had temporarily withdrawn into the strong El Agheila position. Middle East Headquarters considered that a frontal assault on that key defensive position would be materially assisted by a landing in the Gulf of Sirte in the enemy's rear. Fifth Brigade was selected for this task of landing to the west of El Agheila and, on 4 January, set out for Kabrit to refit and undertake further combined training exercises.
A small road party from the 23rd travelled with the unit's own transport, while the main body of the battalion entrained at Sidi Haneish for Geneifa and Kabrit. On this occasion, most of the men had to travel in crowded box wagons, many of which had previously been used for transporting live sheep for Indian troops, whose religion demanded that only butchers of their own faith should handle their meat. After a journey of twentyeight hours notable for cramped limbs and the strong smell of sheep, the battalion arrived at 1.30 a.m. at Geneifa and was quickly taken by trucks to a tented camp at Kabrit.
After a few days spent in reorganising and refitting, during which men from the 6th and 7th Reinforcements were welcomed in what was becoming the traditional 23rd manner, the battalion began training for combined operations. Under the direction of naval officers, all ranks practised scaling rope page 133 ladders when fully equipped, rowing heavy boats, embarking and disembarking from assault landing craft, crashing through barbed wire and other beach defences, and attacking after landing. On 14 January the 23rd carried out a highly successful exercise involving a landing on a hostile coast and the securing of a position seven miles inland. On the next big exercise, a practice dawn landing, nearly everything went wrong that could go wrong. Some of the predicaments in which men found themselves were most realistic.
Although, as from 20 January, up to 50 per cent of the unit at one time was granted a week's leave, general training was continued. The last combined operations exercise concluded on 7 February. On the following day Brigadier Kippenberger, who had taken command of 5 Brigade on 17 January, paid a visit and announced that the brigade was returning to Libya three days later.
On 21 January Rommel emerged from the El Agheila position and began a reconnaissance in force, which developed into an advance when he found the British opposition weak. On 28 January he re-occupied Benghazi, and by 7 February the British forces were falling back on Gazala. These moves shattered any idea of a landing at Sirte. Reinforcements were required in Libya. While 4 and 6 Brigades remained for two or three weeks at Kabrit, 5 Brigade moved to El Adem.
Starting on 11 February, the 23rd moved back to Libya by both road and rail. The road party of 119, under Captain T. B. Morten, OC HQ Company, and Second-Lieutenant Cook,1 Transport Officer, travelled, by not very difficult stages, via Mena, Wadi Natrun, Amiriya and along the Western Desert road. The rail party of 15 officers and 560 other ranks, under Major Romans, the second-in-command, had a slow and cramped journey of forty hours before reaching the desert railhead at Misheifa about 4 p.m. on 13 February.
Under instructions from Lieutenant-General ‘Strafer’ Gott, commanding 13 Corps, Brigadier Kippenberger set his units to construct a defensive position or ‘Brigade Box’ at El Adem. This ‘Box’ was expected to give depth to the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line, to prevent the enemy from severing the supply routes along the Trigh Capuzzo, and to provide local protection for the Corps Field Maintenance Centre and the El Adem landing ground. In these defences the 23rd was given the page 134 western sector and, for the next five weeks, the men were busy developing and improving their positions. First, they dug slit trenches and weapon pits, getting help from the engineers' pneumatic drills where the rock was hard; then they dug crawl communication trenches and erected dannert wire fences; later, they thickened the wire in many places and fitted both wire and weapon pits into the arrangement of minefields laid by the engineers. By the end of February most of this work was complete. The names given by the intelligence section to most company localities and a few platoon positions did not last long enough to immortalise the officers after whom they were given, but Morten's Wadi, Norris Narrows, Grant's Gully, and McKinlay's Gulch, as well as Cooper's Canyon and Davis Ditch, temporarily commemorated the officers most concerned with particular sectors of the battalion defences.
Infantry patrols went out at night and carrier patrols by day, but more for training purposes than with any expectation of meeting the enemy, who had been halted west of the Derna-Mechili line. An inter-unit salvage competition, won by 21 Battalion, was held in the first fortnight of March and a weird assortment of items was collected from the nearby battlefields. The ‘I’ section brought out the El Adem News Herald Tribune with all the ‘Good news’—not that the fall of Singapore on 15 February could be considered good. C Company's football ground was the scene of some vigorous struggles. Sometimes the enemy aircraft, which bombed El Adem landing ground nearly every day, turned their attention to the 23rd transport. At nights, when Tobruk harbour was bombed, the men could see if not hear the ack-ack barrage covering the sky with hundreds of red-hot lances. Occasionally, as on 4 March, heavy rain soaked the area and flooded the dugouts and dug-in bivouac tents. On the whole, the men were, as one private recorded in his diary, ‘fit and healthy and happy’, but they were growing bored with the desert and were glad to hear that the other brigades had gone to Syria and that they were to follow.
On 1 March General Freyberg met the Brigadier and the unit commanders at Gambut to tell them of the Division's move to Syria. Fifth Brigade was not relieved for nearly three weeks, but on 19 March the brigade advance party left for Maadi, and on the 22nd, as 3 South African Brigade had arrived, the 23rd convoy joined the rest of the brigade in moving to near Sidi Rezegh. On 27 March the battalion arrived in Maadi where tents, erected by the LOB party under Captain Connolly, were waiting for them.page 135
The unit's stay in Maadi was short, but on 2 April the first full-scale parade and inspection of 5 Brigade in Egypt was held, after some unit practices and a full brigade rehearsal. General Freyberg inspected the parade and presented decorations won in Greece, Crete and Syria. Captain McPhail, Sergeants Hobbs and Trewby, and Corporal A. D. Smith represented the 23rd on this occasion. On the following day, Good Friday, the battalion made up for its Christmas dinner of bully and biscuits with a dinner in the Pall Mall theatre in Maadi Camp. Several of the original members of the unit who had been posted to duties in Base or elsewhere attended this celebration, which was voted a great success. The next day the advance party left for Syria.
Part of that land bridge which links the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, Syria appeared likely in 1942 to maintain its reputation for being politically and strategically important. Whether or not, in the German grand strategy, an invasion came through Turkey or the Caucasus, it seemed likely that a pincers movement would be directed on the Suez Canal, with one arm coming out of Libya and the other stretching down the Levantine coast through Syria and Palestine. Allied, mainly Australian, forces had occupied Syria in June and July of 1941 to prevent the spread of German influence among the Vichy French and the Syrian natives. Now, with the movement of other forces to the East, the New Zealand Division moved to Syria and came under the British Ninth Army, which was responsible for internal security and for fighting a delaying action in the event of invasion. In late February and early March, 4 and 6 Brigades entered Syria. Thus, before it left the Western Desert, the 23rd knew that the ‘green fields’ to which General Freyberg had said they would move were in Syria, not, as some had optimistically hoped, back home in New Zealand.
On 4 April the advance party, under Major Morten, moved off from Maadi by road. A larger road party left two days later, while the main body of the battalion left by train on the 9th. The routes of the two parties were somewhat different. After crossing the Suez Canal and the Sinai desert with its picturesque sand dunes, the road party camped at Bir Asluj, a recently established petrol and water point, and then travelled via Beersheba, Ramleh and Lydda to the Tulkarm transit camp. They passed through many places with names more exciting or more historically interesting than their appearance seemed to warrant; page 136 they found the local inhabitants, both Jew and Arab, apparently more pro-British than the Egyptians and they enjoyed the oranges and grapefruit of ‘the promised land’. From Tulkarm they moved via Hadera, through Affula on the Plain of Esdraelon, to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, over the Upper Jordan and through the hilly country around Kuneitra to the staging area at Damascus. Thence the route led north through Homs and Hama, past the big groaning water-wheels on the Orontes, to Idlib, where Battalion Headquarters was to be for the next two months.page 137
The rail party, under Major Reid,2 who had taken over command of B Company from Captain M. D. Grant, crossed the Suez Canal at Kantara and continued its train journey to El Kehir, near Haifa. After two days in the tented transit camp at At Tira, the troops travelled by civilian buses to Beirut. ‘'Twas the most hair-raising trip I ever had—either with full-throttle or consistently degeared, the ever-grinning drivers rounded the coastal hair-pin bends with maniacal, reckless abandon,’ wrote one 23rd man later. Next, they travelled by a narrow-gauge railway up over the steep Lebanons—nine miles in seven and a half hours was one estimate—to Rayak, where they changed to the main line for Aleppo. ‘It is marvellous country—wonderful after being in Egypt.’ A New Zealand YMCA party provided a hot drink and a meal at Homs. A story told against one sergeant described how he was told to get his men out for this meal at Homs, woke from a fitful sleep, saw the sign ‘HOMMES’ near a small station, and promptly ordered all his men to parade with mugs or mess-tins. By 16 April all companies had arrived in Idlib.
In Aleppo and on the Turkish frontier, 5 Brigade relieved 6 Brigade, which moved back to assist 4 Brigade in the task of constructing the Djedeide fortress in the Bekaa valley. Fifth Brigade's tasks were to watch the frontier, prepare demolitions, maintain internal security, show the flag among a people of uncertain political sympathies, and continue general training. The 23rd took over from 25 Battalion. Battalion Headquarters was established in a solid stone house on the outskirts of Idlib, a large village about 35 miles south-west of Aleppo. Headquarters Company (Major Morten) occupied the Idlib barracks, which had been built by the Turks and occupied more recently by the French. B Company (Major Reid) and D Company (Captain McKinlay) occupied Nissen huts and tents in a sheltered area among the olive trees about a mile out of Idlib. These companies provided the men for guards and for the mobile columns which were training for rearguard actions. A Company (Captain Connolly) was at Bab el Haoua, right on the Turkish frontier. A Roman triumphal arch, various ruins and a Roman road, which ran alongside and then joined the road into Turkey, gave an air of departed glory to this area. A Company checked passports, covered the demolitions the engineers were preparing and kept guard on an important entry page 138 from Turkey. Farther south along the frontier, C Company (Captain Thomson) covered two more roads into Turkey at Qenaye and at Harim. C Company's duties resembled A's, but they were somewhat more complicated as many Syrian Arabs lived in its area.
On the whole, life in north-west Syria in the spring of 1942 was very pleasant. Green fields and trees made a pleasant contrast to desert sands. Although anti-malaria precautions had to be taken, neither the mosquitoes nor the flies constituted a serious problem. The ration scale in the Ninth Army was not generous by New Zealand standards and parcels from home were much appreciated. The beer ration—two bottles per man per week perhaps—encouraged some to try the wines of Syria. Several acquired a taste for the forbidden arak; others drank liqueurs almost as they normally drank beer, with the result that some members of B Company who drank too much crème de menthe had green lips for days. Leave to Aleppo was given regularly. Here the troops found a city more oriental and more medieval than any they had as yet encountered. Its amenities for soldiers on leave were, however, very limited and its prices for goods worth buying very high.
Major Romans and other officers organised plenty of sporting contests and other entertainments to make up for the inadequacy of the fare in Aleppo. Inter-company cricket matches were the scenes of big hits and much hearty barracking. Debates provided food for argument. Individuals and teams participated in various shooting competitions. The most important of these was a match between a team from HQ, B and D Companies and a team from the local French gendarmerie in which the New Zealanders emerged victorious. Colonel Leckie added to the triumph by defeating Commandant Vabre in a private shoot. An HQ Company XI defeated an Aleppo American College soccer team but was defeated by a local Idlib team. Private Dick Baker3 won the divisional middleweight boxing championship at Baalbek. The Kiwi Concert Party, 5 Brigade Band, and the YMCA Mobile Cinema Unit all visited the battalion. Celebratory and other parties also helped to pass the time and to keep spirits from flagging. Such convivial gatherings marked the second anniversary of the unit's departure from New Zealand, the meeting of the widely separated companies page 139 at cricket or other matches, the arrival of reinforcements and, on 11 May, the happy occasion when Lieutenant Sandy Thomas, who had been left wounded in Crete, arrived across the Turkish border at Dick Connolly's post.4
As part of the ‘showing the flag’ policy, the 23rd extended hospitality both to local notables and to the French officers in the district. This hospitality was usually reciprocated, often to the distress of the officers involved in these gastronomic adventures. It was almost certainly no coincidence that Colonel Leckie needed medical treatment at the end of this Syrian interlude. Thus, the Abdine Agar-Rustum treated twenty of the battalion's officers to a fourteen course meal which lasted from midday to seven o'clock. On one occasion, Commandant Vabre and his officers sent a dashing detachment of cavalry led by a gendarme, who twirled a shining scimitar, to escort Colonel Leckie and his senior officers to a showing of French films. On another, a French military band gave a carnival air to a garden party.
But, despite these pleasantries, training did go on, often quite strenuously. As commonly happened in similar periods out of the line, several officers and NCOs went on courses of instruction. Despite the late arrival of the brigade in Syria, a party of two officers and sixteen other ranks left the 23rd on 17 April to attend the last course for the season at the Ski School at Les Cèdres in the Lebanon. Such experts as Lieutenant Harold Richards5 and WO II Bowie enjoyed the course immensely, but some of the others found it tough going. Probably the most important course for the battalion, especially in view of the intention to equip infantry units at an early date with twopounder anti-tank guns, was the month's training in the use of these guns given to infantry officers by 7 Anti-Tank Regiment. Captain Herbie Black,6 Lieutenant Robin Deans and Second-Lieutenant Don Grant,7 all in turn commanders of the anti-tank platoon in the 23rd, attended this course. Thirtysecond Anti-Tank Battery, attached to the 23rd at this time page 140 and under Lieutenants Betts8 and Slyfield,9 also instructed a number of NCOs and privates in the use of the two-pounder. In addition, several men attended a physical training course in Aleppo.
A Ninth Army course which indirectly influenced the battalion's training was the G (R) course in irregular warfare run in the hills above Eriha by commando officers. Officers and NCOs attending this course learned a great deal about sabotage and commando raids. They reported that the commandos could march 6 miles in one hour, 9 miles in two hours, and 12 miles in three hours. In a fiercely competitive frame of mind, Colonel Leckie claimed that anything the commandos could do, the 23rd could do better, and the order went forth that route marches by day and by night were to aim at both distance and speed. The following company and battalion diary entries indicate something of the outcome: ‘C Company at Kafer Harim are setting new records in marching, fitness and proficiency of all arms. They have attempted several long marches and have come through every one of them in fast time and with an absolute minimum of foot trouble.’ On 27 May an A Company man recorded: ‘Today we carried out a route march to a point in C Company's area—roughly a distance of 20 miles. There were no casualties, everyone finishing the march in good fettle.’ Even HQ Company men, usually anxious to escape route-marching, caught the fever, and the mortar platoon, in particular, went on several long marches. Thus the ‘I’ diary for 26 May: ‘The Mortar platoon left early in the morning for a cross country march to A Coy's position…. All sections of the Battalion have at one time or another gone on long marches, some of them during the night, and the standard of marching, endurance and the lack of complaints speak highly for the fitness of all ranks.’
Although no battalion manoeuvres were possible, some companies did combine in mobile column training. Thus B Company moved as in its anticipated role to the Turkish frontier, where C Company, acting as enemy, put in an attack while B Company fought a delaying action in which it was supported by the carrier and mortar platoons. On the way back to camp, B Company found itself cut off by D Company ‘paratroops’ and a full day ‘battle’, involving attempts at outflanking the D positions, was fought.page 141
During the latter half of May and the first week of June, both 4 and 6 Brigades carried out brigade manoeuvres in the Syrian desert near Forqloss, east of Homs. By 13 June, 6 Brigade had relieved 5 Brigade in order that the latter might take its turn at desert training, including co-operation with infantry tanks. That day the 23rd left Idlib for the northern Syrian desert; the officers brushed up their rusty knowledge of flag signals for moves in desert formation and the men reverted to living in and around their trucks. Next morning the battalion began its training in desert manoeuvres, but as the day wore on, the heat became unbearable—the metal parts of vehicles could not be touched for more than a split second with the bare hand and the petrol was vapourising. Brigadier Kippenberger called off the afternoon exercise; the units withdrew to the Euphrates River and the men relaxed in its cool waters. In the late afternoon orders were issued for a brigade move in desert formation, to be followed by a night attack. But, before this move began, a message arrived from Divisional Headquarters saying that the Division was under notice to move and ordering the brigade to return forthwith to Djedeide. The night attack and other exercises were cancelled. The move to join the rest of the Division began next morning and was completed by 16 June. The 23rd spent 17 June in packing base kits and preparing for the return to Egypt. Next day the battalion left Syria by road. A peaceful and happy chapter in the unit's life had ended.
When they left Syria, all ranks were physically fit and well trained in the use of their weapons. The spirit of the unit was excellent. Unfortunately, the scattered nature of the company localities in Idlib and along the Turkish frontier and the sudden cancellation of desert exercises had prevented the rehearsal of a battalion night attack or any unit or formation training. Lack of this training was the greatest handicap with which the unit entered Egypt.