Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 12 — Syria
THE next morning we were on the road again, threading our way through the Dead City, which was joyously alive in comparison with some of us, skirting Cairo and Heliopolis, and turning right into the Suez road. Fayid, near the Great Bitter Lake, between Ismailia and Suez, was our destination, and there we went under canvas.
During the fortnight we were at Fayid the transport was overhauled thoroughly, most of the attached personnel left us, and the unit was reinforced to a strength of 515 all ranks and reorganised to include an extra working section—‘platoon’, rather, to use the new term. It now consisted of Company headquarters (two officers and 25 other ranks), four transport platoons (each of two officers, 85 other ranks, and five sections of six load-carriers), Workshops platoon (one officer and 51 other ranks), and two ammunition platoons (each of one officer and 34 other ranks). A Section became No. 1 Platoon, and so on.
When the new platoon was formed everyone whose standing with authority was at all shaky was panic-stricken by the prospect of being drafted into it. With a few exceptions, however, only non-commissioned officers and key men were affected and on them devolved the not unflattering task of teaching the young idea how to shoot, the young idea being drivers from the former 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Section, NZASC (who needed no teaching), NZASC Base Transport, Base hospitals, and like sources. The platoon was commanded by Captain K. E. May,1 under whom were Second-Lieutenant Fitzgerald2 and Sergeants Athol Buckleigh and Morry Evans.3
From the start No. 4 Platoon had a personality, but not, so it seemed to many of our grave and reverend signiors, a pleasant one. As they saw it, their comfortable and well-ordered home had been invaded by a noisy and rather ill-conditioned nephew. The platoon page 199 was up early in the morning, it was much underfoot during the day, and it was pining, they suspected, to lay grimy and destructive hands on the precious transport. It had none of its own yet and they foresaw an evil day when it would be permitted to play with theirs. The policy of keeping it quiet with hard training and unending guard duties had their complete approval.
Within the platoon, too, there were misgivings. Its toilsome days were ordered by Sergeant Buckleigh's whistle, which blew continually, in and out of season. The owner of the whistle, probably, was not unpopular—his nature was as immutable as his opinions and we had found him fiery, approachable, and a disrespecter of persons—but for the whistle itself the rank and file conceived an immediate and immense distaste. It blew for parades, for fatigues, for inspections, and often, so it seemed, for the sheer pleasure of blowing. In the evenings its victims gathered at the NAAFI, where they cemented old friendships and formed new ones, discussed the Whistle in all its aspects, and decided that their future was not necessarily of an unrelieved bleakness. The Whistle might break or get lost. Schemes for breaking or losing it had been formulated already. In the event, however, desperate remedies were not necessary. Buck and the Whistle were marched out to the NZASC Training Depot at Maadi, and Ted Black,4 a man who played no musical instrument, was promoted to fill the vacancy.
The newly-formed Ammunition Platoon—there were two but we denied them their plurality, and so after a while did the unit log—left us unmoved. It was no noisy nephew to interfere with our peace or threaten our possessions. It lived, as it were, beyond the baize door. Its duties, which in Greece and during the Libyan campaign had been performed by spare drivers, consisted in the main of sorting, stacking, guarding, and issuing ammunition, and they were as dull as they sound. As its personnel was constantly in a state of flux it had no chance of developing a corporate personality, and for many months it served chiefly as a clearing house for drivers for whom there was temporarily no place in the platoons and as a convenient threat. It was a limbo to which you were consigned permanently, or a corner in which you were stood for a period, according as you were hopelessly, or only for the time page 200 being, lazy, intractable, or incompetent. From the start many of its members were men of skill and conscience—they needed to be—and later all were to do difficult and occasionally dangerous work, but that time was not yet. For the present it was enough that they had no designs on our transport. No. 4 Platoon had.
Its first driving job, for which it borrowed No. 2 Platoon's lorries, was to take us to Cairo for a formal Christmas dinner at the National Hotel. We pretended to be terrified. Returning home late that night, we added to simulated terror fatigue and a degree of fretfulness. The dinner had been beautifully cooked and served but we had found it on the dainty side for our desert appetites and there had not been a great deal to drink.
The next day, 10 March, A Section—no, we must get used to calling it No. 1 Platoon—embussed troops of the 6th Brigade and set out for a far country, leaving us impatient to follow. Our appetite for the joys of Cairo, immeasurable in the desert but always easily sated when it came down to brass tacks, had been allayed by a week's leave, and what we wanted now was the open road. The wind on the heath would blow with a pleasant astringency after the debilitating atmosphere of the New Royal, the Blue Nile, the Globe, and the Pam Pam. No skull-capped pander, walking backwards in front of us, would extol its beauty and cleanliness, and no legion of filthy imps would badger us into buying worthless imitations.
Satisfaction was universal when we pulled out from Fayid behind the Supply Column on 14 March, with the sun shining brightly. At noon we crossed the canal near Ismailia by pontoon bridge, and then we were in the Sinai Desert, on which the sun blazed down with passion. The surface of the road, where it was not covered by drifting sand, was like old-fashioned liquorice, only softer and stickier, and the prospect on either side of it was exactly what you would expect to see in a desert if your knowledge of deserts was drawn solely from fiction. Former subscribers to Chums or to the Boys' Own Paper felt at home at once. The two tastefully-arranged palm trees were missing and the sailing ship floating upside down in the sky and the despairing footprints disappearing over the nearest sand dune, but the shimmering whiteness was there and the wind-ribbed surfaces and the aching distance. Beyond the tarmac the sand was so soft and deep that when a Petrol Company vehicle page 201 ran off the road the united efforts of three breakdown vehicles were necessary to recover it. After a while the landscape became less like the illustrations in the Boys' Own Paper and more like the kind of desert we were accustomed to—wadis and sandstone ridges—but ever and again it would flick back into pure adventure story.
Just before dusk we halted at Abu Aweigla, having travelled 165 miles. We had reached our staging area, and, wonderfully, there were shower baths.
The next morning we crossed into Palestine and drove on through country that reminded us of the illustrated Bibles of our childhood. On either side were gentle, rounded hills the colour of pea-soup—the kind of hills on which the sermons were preached and the multitudes fed—and down them, dressed as the disciples were dressed (the same kind of striped gingery blanket and head-thing), and disputing, perhaps, as the disciples disputed once, came familiar figures, padding through the grey dust. By wells we went, wells from which the water (for the homeliest, pleasantest miracle) might have been drawn for the wedding feast, and through little villages, catching glimpses of the kind of kitchen in which Martha was careful and troubled over many things.
We travelled through Beersheba, which name, starting a string of others—Abraham, Hagar, Jacob, Elijah—came droning down to us from the sleepy schoolrooms of our boyhood; through Gaza, where Samson (someone attempted to argue in all seriousness that his name was Simpson) was bound with fetters of brass and did grind in the prison-house, and so to Qastina, which said nothing to any of us. Here we spent the night in an Australian barracks with a cinema and a NAAFI. We had covered 110 miles.
The next day we passed through Masmiya, Gedera, Ramle, Lydda, and Petah Tiqva. It was like skimming through an examination paper the answers to which, tauntingly familiar, for the moment elude you, and it was a relief to pass Haifa and then Acre, history's Tobruk, with its wider selection of memories—memories of Saladin, Richard Lionheart, and Napoleon. Finally, at half past two in the afternoon, after travelling 112 miles, we halted at Ez Zib, on the coast.
Early the next morning we crossed the Syrian frontier into the Lebanon and soon we were skirting Tyre, from which for so many aeons the ships of Tarshish and the Greek and Roman galleys and page 202 the high-prowed vessels of the Phoenicians sailed the Mediterranean, loaded with precious woods, jewels, ornaments, and fabrics marvellously dyed, drawn by no other magnet than that in obedience to which the ships leave ‘Frisco, Sydney, and Deptford Pool. In the early afternoon we reached Beirut, which was crowded with people of an interesting appearance, few of whom it was easy to identify with anything so innocent and prosaic as clay-pigeon shooting, clerical vacations, or honourable retirement after forty years as a lady governess. There we refuelled, and at half past ten that night, dead-tired after travelling 142 miles, which brought our total for the journey to 529, we reached our destination, which was an area twelve miles north of Baalbek.
It was not until the next morning that we were able to form an impression of our surroundings. Then we saw that we were camped in a great, wild valley. Our area, which sloped gently to the road, was covered with short, scrubby grass and outcroppings of rock. (Later, when we tried to dig cesspools and rubbish pits, we had to call in the engineers.) Facing us was a mountain which rolled away towards Baalbek, a mane of snow flung over its huge shoulders. In the foothills, tucked away in fold and crevice, were secret villages—huddles of whitish buildings that resembled the nesting places of large, untidy birds. The scene was austerely beautiful, but somehow, uncooperative. It did not look as though it had contributed greatly to the world's fruitfulness. It did not look as though it intended to. The mountain's attitude towards the meagre flocks that fossicked miserably on its lower slopes was that of a St. Bernard with fleas.
It seemed that we should be here for some time. Tents were pitched for living in, messing in, cooking in. There was talk of paths, sanitary arrangements, and regimental guards. It sounded like a lot of work of a peculiarly dull kind. Those who had vehicles could hope for transport jobs, but those whose duties were ill-defined—the drivers of No. 4 Platoon for instance—prepared for the worst. Their forebodings were fully justified.
In the shadows of the tremendous mountain, which must have frowned down on many comparable scenes in ancient times, when the Roman legionaries, under the cold surveillance of the centurions, dug fosses, erected earthworks, exercised their arms, the work went forward, the spare drivers participating fully, the rest page 203 occasionally and under protest. With the guard duties, which called nightly for one sergeant, three corporals, and forty-eight men, and daily for half that number, everyone assisted. Our camp, which our neighbours referred to as Stalag 69, was one of the best-guarded spots in the Mediterranean theatre. However, the approach of spring, an abundance of sport, a fairly liberal allowance of day-leave to Baalbek, together with an exhilarating sense of grievance, enabled us to keep happy.
Meanwhile, at Aleppo, some thirty miles south of the Turkish border, No. 1 Platoon's drivers were enjoying themselves thoroughly. The Vannière Barracks, on the outskirts of the city, provided them with a good home, and their duties, without being burdensome, kept them busy. Under the command of the 6th Brigade they were employed in carrying supplies from Aleppo railway sidings to neighbouring depots, delivering flour to native villages, and providing transport for the infantry. Nearly every lorry was on the road nearly every day, but Captain Gibson allowed his men to make what arrangements they liked about working day on and day off and there was leave every evening for almost half the platoon.
The one fly in the ointment was that our drivers' financial resources were by no means commensurate with the amount of leisure at their disposal. Their pay—nine Syrian pounds a week—gave only an illusion of wealth. One pound would buy one bottle of beer or the first two courses of a daintily-prepared but not very substantial three-course meal. However, there were entertainments at Aleppo that were not charged for. Inter-platoon Association football matches in which an extremely catholic interpretation of the rules was permitted were contested free of charge on the fine sports ground adjoining the barracks. No charge was made for long hours of uninterrupted sunshine or for the soft Syrian evenings, through which, after collecting leave passes, our drivers set out for Aleppo.
The city was rich in historical associations, but that was a kind of riches in which few were interested. Our drivers contented themselves by observing that the old castle on the flat-topped hill resembled a dusty and battered decoration on a crushed birthday cake. All but one candle—the famous minaret—had disappeared. page 204 They were pleased—soldiers on active service are always touchingly pleased by any evidence of what they call civilisation—to find shops, cinemas, and American bars in the main street, and they were prepared to forgive the city its many mosques, quiet courtyards, and mysterious alleys. Shuttered windows and doors heavily bolted against the intruder told stories of old Turkey, but the stories fell mostly on deaf ears, and the listeners were soon bored when sad-eyed Armenians, wearing shiny, navy-blue suits and burning to discuss the Armenian question, spoke of atrocities. Behind such doors, they said, their elderly relatives had been massacred by Turks and Kurds, and even today, behind those shuttered windows, while enlightened elements in Aleppo were wearing their blue serge and going to the pictures and speaking American, plump Turkish ladies were removing their veils to masticate confectionery, and a deadly, soft-footed dullness scented by rose water and interrupted only by indigestion was dragging on in exile, as indifferent to wars and revolutions as to Bing Crosby.
In the poor quarter of the city, where the bazaars were situated, the drivers felt at home. Here was the kind of churning, squabbling, gesticulating life with which Egypt had made them familiar. Here was a corner of the world that could risk comparison with any section of Wogdom—the riot in the quality of its confusion, the livestock in the quality of its liveliness, the vegetables in point of size (cauliflowers like medicine balls: leeks you could have played golf with), and the platters of food in the richness and variety of their colouring. It was fascinating to see a stout French officer, like someone out of Beau Geste, sitting down with a sheik complete with burnous and jewelled scimitar (pure Ethel M. Dell) to a meal like a Cathedral window—a window decorated with snails and purple slugs. A taste for snails, to tell the truth, was something that several of our drivers acquired at Aleppo. Frogs' legs were popular too.
And so were the wines of the country. They were many but our drivers recognised only two types: ‘Woof-Woof’ (white wine) and ‘Purple Death’ (red). Arrack could be bought on the sly but the old ruffian was generally avoided as being too unpredictable a companion for a quiet evening, and the same applied to kummel, chartreuse, curaçao, and a fiery abomination that tasted like curried lollipops.page 205
Naturally no one drank wine or liqueurs in preference to beer. But beer, of which two brands were sold in Syria (one was quite good, the other was barely drinkable), was expensive and difficult to obtain except in the Aleppo NAAFI. This, in consequence, was our drivers' favourite resort.
Almost as popular as the beer—more popular towards the end of the week because it cost nothing—was the NAAFI orchestra, which was led by a talented Russian violinist, who claimed to have had an international reputation. Towards closing time he must often have thought nostalgically of the concert halls and conservatoires of Europe, where matters, no doubt, were arranged differently and the rule was one tune at a time. Doubtless it distressed him to have to saw his way through the Vienna Woods or tell tales of Hoffman while half his audience was deep in its deep purple dream and the other half was coming round the mountain for the twentieth time in succession and plainly intended to go on coming round it until someone put the lights out. He had one method of creating concord, however, and that never failed. He would strike up ‘The Red Flag’. The Moscow front had held, the Germans had been forced to retire, and the patrons of the Aleppo NAAFI, like the rest of the world, were dazzled by Russian courage. Gladly they forsook their mountain and their deep purple dream to unite in proclaiming that the Workers' Flag was deepest red. Nor was their pleasure in the performance lessened by its spice of unconventionality. The singing of ‘The Red Flag’ was not at that time completely hallowed by custom, and only a year before such a demonstration would have been inconceivable in a British canteen and few would have thought it desirable.
‘The Red Flag’, ‘The Marseillaise’, ‘Old King Farouk’. ‘God Defend New Zealand’, ‘God Save The King’, and again in response to repeated demands (‘Once more, you jokers! Give her the tit, Maestro!’) ‘The Red Flag’, and another evening is over. Our drivers straggle out into the night, over the old bridge, across the railway tracks, and up the hill through the oats, while the stars shine down with unimaginable brilliance and fireflies, star-like themselves, swim past on tiny, earnest missions. The hill seems unaccountably steep and more than one reveller, risking the imputation that he's cast, lies down in the oats to cool off. By the railway tracks someone is howling ‘Yours’, and at the entrance to page 206 the barracks, grouped round the embarrassed sentry in his little box, friends of the Soviet Union are giving ‘The Red Flag’ a final flutter, while others, debating across the vast breadth of an invisible rose-lit forum, assert their complete and unalterable solidarity on some point that was at issue earlier in the evening when judgments were less mellow.
‘You were right, Snow. Jacobs was the name of that joker who ran the boxing down your way.’
‘Yes, Jacobs. That's the name—Jacobs.’
‘Bill Jacobs. Yes! That's the joker—BILL JACOBS.’
‘Yes! OLD BILL JACOBS!’
In the graveyards of Aleppo dogs howl with incredible mournfulness and down by the railway station the French guard fires a few bursts from his tommy gun. The French take their guard duties seriously and at night they are best avoided. In the oats it has turned cool, and the sentry in his little box is becoming restive.
‘O.K., you jokers—fair go. Better get along in, eh? Yes, she's apples. Everything good as gold. Better get along in, though.’
And off to bed they go, leaving Aleppo to the dogs, the wandering fireflies, the French patrols.
The reason for our presence in Syria was not, as some were inclined to suppose, that we were in need of a holiday in novel surroundings. The Division was there in the first place because Germany was expected to make a thrust either through the Caucasus or through Turkey, and in the second to foster friendly relations with the people. To accomplish the latter task we did not rely solely on our charm of manner. We came with schemes for the control of malaria and as dispensers of free medicine and distributors of free food. In all these activities the Ammunition Company took part.
For over a fortnight Corporal Owen Miles5 and eighteen others worked under a British political officer, operating first from Homs and then from Hama, towns on the main road between Baalbek and Aleppo. For the most part they were employed in delivering wheat and dates to a tribe that claimed descent from the children of page 207 Ammon. The tribesmen boasted that they could muster 800 horsemen, and their camp, some eighty miles from the main road, was the largest in the district. To come on it suddenly at the end of the day's journey was like driving into the book of Exodus. The tents—there may have been three thousand of them—were woven from goat hair and no doubt they were identical with the ones that St. Paul made. Black they were and of no uniform design, their shape and size depending on the number of crazy flaps and wings spread round them. It was as though in the middle of that vast plain a great flock of pterodactyl, young ones and old, had been gorgonized in the act of alighting.
With the sun burning on the horizon like a blood offering and the air pungent with the smoke of fires, great flocks of sheep and goats would converge on the camp, the shepherds and the dogs leading them in (like all the shepherds in the Bible) and not, as in New Zealand, driving them. In the deepening twilight the camp fires glowed orange and ruby red—there was no nonsense about a blackout—and from the multitudinous dark life, squatting close in the tents, came a continual low murmur as of bees. Every now and then it was drowned by louder noises—the whinnying of a horse, a man's angry shout, the squalling of a hurt child—but it was there always, gentle and monotonous. So must the Israelites have murmured in the camps of Moses, of Joshua, and of Gideon.
Watching and listening, the visitor from beyond the wilderness was conscious of glimpsing the world's infancy, and the shock was considerable when a sudden spurt of flame illuminated two elegant saloon cars of an expensive French make parked nonchalantly near the Sheik's tent. It was like seeing alligators in a village duckpond or opening a Crusader's tomb and finding a cigarette lighter. And the thing became stark nonsense when a bearded patriarch, who might have been old Ammon himself, bent down to remove the ignition keys, and tested, with sandalled toe, the tire pressures.
These visits to the camp were a fascinating experience for our drivers and they were lucky in having Owen Miles with them, for he could speak good colloquial French. On arrival they would be offered minute glasses of sweet tea or thick black coffee—the smaller your glass, apparently, the warmer your welcome. Later they would be shown to a cushion-filled tent, which gave them unlimited opportunities for improvising on the Sheik-of-Araby page 208 theme. Often they were invited to dinner en famille, an ordeal that demanded a strong stomach and exceptionally graceful manners. The whole family—men, women, children, and dogs—would squat round an immense bowl filled with a savoury grey mess from which sheep's eyes peered glutinously. In this everyone plunged a hand, which as often as not came straight from fondling a mangy dog or a scrofulous child. As long as it was the right one—the left was an inferior member—no one minded.
The better our drivers came to know the country the more they were astonished, not by the difference between themselves and their hosts, which was vast, but by the many and often humiliating points of likeness. In incident after incident there was a homely ring. The Sheik, for instance, was open to those suspicions that sadden the lives of the best quartermasters, and when he was attending a conference in Damascus our drivers understood at once why they were asked not to dump their loads outside his tent as they had done in the past but to take them to remote parts of the camp. And they understood what was happening when they saw great wads of dates disappearing into private tents; and when grins of complicity were changed suddenly for ones of murderous rage, and sticks and stones started to fly, they understood that, too. Said someone: ‘It was like those fights that spring up suddenly in the NAAFI.’
Again and again the homely ring. The chuckles of the dozen cut-throats whom our drivers taught to play ‘100-up’, one of the more infantile card games, were echoes of their own mirth, and it was their own spirit they saw, burlesqued rudely, when the game ended at the sound of a rifle shot and the players rushed out into the night brandishing loaded Mausers. Plainly a New Zealander could become a good tribesman without much difficulty and a tribesman a good New Zealander. One man's sheep's eye was another man's toheroa.
By behaving naturally the drivers created a good impression, and when the job ended the political officer wrote to Major Coutts praising them for the tact they had shown in dealing with the natives.
Although we came to Syria with cornucopias, spilling dates, wheat, and anti-malarial unguents among tents and mud-built houses, the page 209 existence of the mailed fist—always extended in friendliness of course—was hinted at from time to time. During April the 26th Battalion, in No. 1 Platoon's transport, made a leisurely 330-mile flag-march-cum-goodwill tour through northern and eastern Syria. The trip took five and a half days and remained a dream of beehive houses (shaped like that because of the shortage of all material except stone and mud), of sudden glimpses of the Euphrates, intent on the tremendous business of sliding from the Armenian uplands to the Persian Gulf—sliding between banks that remembered the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Arabs of the Calipha the Mongul invaders, and now the New Zealanders—of slowly-circling kites impervious to rifle fire, of whirring flights of sparrows in a brutal storm of machine-gun bullets, of the black tents of the barbarians and the khaki bivouacs of the children of progress, of a little tumbledown village perched on a jagged hilltop and resembling a cluster of decayed teeth, but alive, boasting a wineshop and a tiny mosque and overlooking the ruined splendour of Palmyra in which history hardly remembers who feasted and who worshipped.
Doubtless these mild displays of strength together with our affable ways did much to dispose the natives in our favour, but they were a practical people and sentiment was not allowed to interfere with business. In rifling our tool and tucker boxes, in slicing the rubber mud-flaps from our vehicles, in robbing us of canopy ropes, tail-lamps, and other external trifles, they were indefatigable. When passing through a town in convoy we drove nose to tail with a lookout posted in the back of the last vehicle. Single vehicles needed a lookout in the back all the time, otherwise they were likely to arrive at journey's end an empty husk. There was a story, almost certainly true, of six drivers who went to sleep in a tent and woke up the next morning under the clouds.
The ingenuity of the natives filled us with astonished respect, and we took to sleeping with our ammunition under our pillows like love letters and our rifles in bed beside us.
With the purely military object of the Division's stay in Syria, which, briefly, was to establish a forward outpost near the Turkish border and a main defensive position near Baalbek, our unit was concerned only indirectly. The plan of defence postulated roadblocks, strongpoints, and better communications than those that page 210 existed, so we delivered materials to the engineers and helped them to build a road by-passing Baalbek. Brigade exercises were held, and for these we provided transport, the tyros of No. 4 accompanying the elder platoons as spare drivers, which gave them experience of operational work and a rest from camp and guard duties. Their mentors, for the most part, were severe, shrinking in exaggerated distress when a gear was grated.
An indication of the variety of our duties in Syria is given by this typical entry in the unit log:
June 1, Baalbek: All vehicles employed today—23 on 6th Brigade exercise, 8 with NZ Engineers, 9 with Political Officer at Homes, 4 attached to forward ammunition point and 4 to 27th (MG) Battalion, 2 with Field Punishment Centre, Baalbek, 6 on road construction work Baalbek by-pass, and 2 with 19 DID,6 RASC.
Our domestic labours, which devolved on those who were unfortunate enough to be without vehicles, included the construction of paths and roads, a unit swimming pool, grounds for baseball, cricket, and hockey, a YMCA hut (in which Padre J. T. Holland7 worked morning, noon, and night, organising lectures, card evenings, and debates), a rifle range, a small parade ground, and goodness knows what else.
And naturally, with the transport as busy as it was, Workshops was not idle. Our lorries had already covered an average of something like 10,000 miles under vile conditions, and long hauls over the Syrian hills—the Beirut-Baalbek run was a particularly severe test—were causing breakdowns.
But our Syrian interlude was not entirely filled by toil. There was one day on which we did no transport work and no unnecessary camp duties. Instead almost the entire company took part in a ceremonial parade at Baalbek at which the General presented decorations to members of the NZASC. We were pleased and surprised by the number of awards that had been won by our Corps and especially pleased that we ourselves were represented. Sergeant Bob Aro was given the Military Medal for his work with No. 3 Platoon in November 1941.page 211
And there were holidays and pleasures. For a few there was leave to Damascus or Beirut and most of us went at least once to Baalbek, where, among the ruins of the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of Jupiter, and the Basilica of Constantine, Padre Holland made dry bones live. For No. 3 Platoon, which had returned from the Western Desert with the 5th Brigade in the middle of April, there was a belated Christmas dinner at the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek, with Colonel Crump as guest of honour.
And there was bathing, baseball, cricket, football, boxing, wrestling, and some work that was pure pleasure: 24 April: four vehicles go to Damascus to fetch fruit and vegetables. There were jobs that took us to Afrine, in the charming Afrine Valley, twenty-eight miles north-west of Aleppo and only a dozen from the Turkish border, across which our drivers stepped and stepped back, adding another name to their list of countries visited. A detachment from No. 1 Platoon was at Afrine for several weeks with the 22nd Battalion, living near a riverful of fish, which they caught in the scientific manner. The means—Mills bombs—justified the end, for what could be lovelier than a supper of fresh trout and eggs cooked by Dave Falconer and eaten in the cool of the evening?
And that is as good a note as any on which to end our Syrian chapter: the shadows advancing across the Afrine Valley, the Afrine trout emerging from nooks and crannies after the evening bombardment, the gentle sighing of the primus….
The war seemed far removed from Syria. We knew that it was still banging away in odd corners of the world—in the Far East, over England, and, rather feebly, at Gazala—and we were confident that we were still winning. Victory, we never questioned, was now only a matter of time. Some of us were anxious for just one more adventure before we went home. Others were of the opinion that they had done enough and that to tempt Providence was foolish.
The news was soothing. Malta had been awarded the George Cross and doubtless she would hold out until the end unless the Luftwaffe sank her beneath the sea by sheer weight of bombs. Tokyo had been raided by American Fortresses. Hitler had appointed himself Supreme War Lord, and over a thousand bombers page 212 had visited Cologne. Our enemies couldn't stand up to that sort of thing.
Thus the news. Little was said about drowned sailors in the Atlantic Ocean, or of convoys limping into Valetta, Murmansk, and Liverpool. We couldn't see the great hole in the heart of Exeter or the rubbish in the streets of Bath—rubbish that was once Queen Anne houses and the Assembly Rooms—or the wounds of Norwich, York, and Canterbury, England's cathedral cities.
Then Rommel moved in Cyrenaica and there was a battle at a place called Knightsbridge, about seventeen miles west of El Adem. For a while the news was good. Then it was not so good. Then it was as near to being bad as news was permitted to be at that time. By 12 June Rommel had Bir Hacheim, a desert fortress some forty miles south by east of Gazala. (Don't think of frowning walls but of slit-trenches, and barbed wire and food tins, and Free Frenchmen brave as lions.) Without this he would have felt uneasy about his lines of communication. Now everything was just right—the light, the pitch, the bowling.
On 16 June all normal work was cancelled and we were told to tune our vehicles to concert pitch. In the evening No. 1 Platoon, which had returned from Aleppo a fortnight before, marched out to the 20th Battalion. Two days later we dumped our second-line holding of ammunition and by dusk we were packed and ready to move.
We moved at twenty minutes to seven the next morning, following the Supply Column. We crossed the Syrian border early in the afternoon, swept down through Palestine, and down and down until we were running beside the Sea of Galilee, which danced and sparkled in the bright sunshine, and carried on until we reached Tulkarm. It was half past six when we got there and we had covered 197 miles. We were restless and excited, for all day long, like an extra person in the cab, mouthing and chattering, Rumour had travelled with us.
‘I reckon there might be something in it.’
‘I can only go by what Bill told me. He should know.’
‘Anyway, I'm just telling you what the Supply Officer said. He's got a case of beer on it with his driver.’
‘Hell! That would do me, eh? New Zealand!’
A driver who had left home with the 4th Reinforcements an- page 213 nounced his intention of getting married as soon as he stepped off the boat. Basil, with the 20th Battalion, which was two days ahead of us, said that his old man had been putting aside a bottle of beer every Saturday night since January 1940. At that rate something like 130 bottles would be waiting for him.
The next day was sweltering. Our drivers opened their windscreens as wide as possible, tied back their doors to cause a draught, took off everything except their shorts. Beyond Ramle the road wound between orange groves, from which on our way to Syria laughing children had pelted us with ripe fruit, and between nicely ordered fields and neat houses. People waved to us. The women wore pretty flowered dresses and the children looked healthy and handsome. They were Jews but they seemed to have sloughed off the ancient burden of their race. After three months in Syria we had forgotten that people could look so neat, so pretty, and so clean. And our minds, with that vast complacency of which New Zealanders alone are capable, turned home.
We halted at Asluj, in the desert, at half past three in the afternoon, having travelled 128 miles. Under the cold showers in the staging area the drivers chattered like magpies. It was true all right. Embarkation lists had been made out—that was definite. The Division was going home. By nightfall the names of some of the ships were known.
It was cool when we set off at half past five the next morning and presently we ran into a thick white mist. Colder and damper than the mist was the growing conviction, born somehow, somewhere, in the night watches, that it was all lies, that the goal we were racing towards had no connection with marriages and homecomings. A few inveterate optimists were still on their way to New Zealand but the rest of us were bound for a place very different, and something told us that this time it was not going to be pleasant. All but the most careless were silent and a little gloomy.
By twenty minutes past seven we were in Egypt and we crossed the Sinai Desert without stopping. The heat was terrific. It broke over us in waves. The horizon, the black ribbon of road, the outline of the vehicle ahead—everything was dancing in it. The bitumen melted and our engines boiled. Drivers with the 24th Battalion found it necessary to mix a little oil with their petrol to prevent it from vapourising before it reached the carburettor.page 214
After covering 123 miles we halted near the Suez Canal. New Zealand was seldom mentioned that evening. The subject was attended by too much heartache. All the talk was of what lay ahead. From the wireless news it was difficult to gather what was happening in the desert, how big the battle was, and in whose favour it was going. We were wary now of retreats that sounded like advances and advances that sounded like retreats.
Very early the next morning a large party, which included most of No. 4 Platoon, set out for Maadi to collect 120 new vehicles, fifty-seven of which were earmarked for our unit. The rest of us moved half an hour later. We travelled swiftly and smoothly and soon we were rolling through Cairo. No outward signs of crisis were apparent. There was no abatement in the tide of bootblacks, beggars, café idlers, and bull-necked pashas, nor were they in more than their customary state of excitement. As always our old sparring partners leered at us from crowded tram-cars and pointed at us from the pavements, and doubtless it was imagination that made their grimaces seem a shade more sardonic than usual, their gestures a shade more mocking and despiteful.
After we had travelled some distance along the Cairo-Alexandria road we halted for lunch. Traffic was very thick and nearly all of it was heading towards Cairo. We watched it as we munched our bully and biscuits and our hearts sank. We got on to the road again and by now the traffic was thicker than ever: a continual stream. Lorries went past loaded with troops. Nurses in open three-tonners looked strained and weary, and when we waved to them they stared straight ahead or responded only half-heartedly. There were ambulances crawling between vehicles piled high with miscellaneous equipment. One lorry was heaped with all the paraphernalia of an officers' mess, and we gave it an ironical cheer. A good many of the vehicles towed others—two, three, and sometimes four. Most depressing of all were the trailers loaded high with the wingless corpses of British fighter planes. We counted dozens of these and as each one went by the time-honoured jibe (‘All our planes returned safely.’) fell a little flatter. Hell, we thought, there goes our protection.
Was it now or later in the day that we heard the damnable news? It started as a chill whisper, which grew louder and louder until page 215 everyone had heard it. Tobruk has fallen. Tobruk has fallen. Rommel's in Tobruk.
Tobruk had been ours for seventeen months and at the time of our worst reverses its garrison had been a symbol of British tenacity. It was like Gibraltar, like Malta, like England herself. We couldn't believe that it was lost. We hated to believe it. We had to believe it. At every halt, above the murmur of the engines, you could hear our drivers discussing the bitter news.
We reached Amiriya at half past seven in the evening after covering 220 miles. Our transport had been behaving well, only one vehicle having dropped out. We refuelled and each lorry was loaded with enough petrol for a 400-mile journey and each man issued with two gallons of water. Early the next morning we set out for Mersa Matruh.
Traffic flowed east along the coast road throughout the day: ambulances, staff cars, tank-transporters, endlessly the dirty-yellow three-tonners, dusty, battered, with torn canopies billowing in the hot wind and loose ropes trailing behind, and again and again, sending an inward groan along the whole length of our convoy, a trailer carrying a smashed fighter, great rents in its fuselage exposing internal wounds, its red-white-and-blue rondels, like desecrated flags, showing through grease and filth. The road was not wide but often there were three columns travelling abreast, two heading east and one, our own, heading for Mersa Matruh. Some of us had only to close our eyes to be back in Greece.
It was a cheerless journey. Everything—all the vehicles that went past, all the priceless equipment—looked dirty and spoiled. And everything—the wheels, the hammering pistons, the jolting trailers—was saying over and over again: Tobruk has fallen, Tobruk has fallen, Tobruk has fallen. Lost everything in Tobruk. Stores. Transport. Twenty-five thousand men. Thirty-five thousand men. Stores. Stores. The lorries rumbled it as they swept past. They screamed it in low gear on the hills. They ticked it, quietly, persistently, throughout the many hold-ups. Tobruk has fallen, Tobruk has fallen. And our own lorries took up the refrain and repeated it all the way to Mersa Matruh.
That night our transport was dispersed at Smugglers' Cove, a few miles east of the town. We were very tired. In five days we had travelled 908 miles.page 216
During the night, for the first time in months, German aircraft circled above us. We heard the broken beat of their engines and in Mersa Matruh ack-ack coughed and flashed.
The next day was 24 June.
On the beach at Smugglers' Cove—what smugglers were those, we wondered, and what was the point of smuggling anything into Matruh?—the waves folded in grave procession, curtseying and withdrawing in the bright sunlight. Beyond them the water was marvellously clear and blue except where it was stained by long streaks of amethyst or emerald. Blowing in from the sea, the breeze carried that intoxicating holiday smell of shells and seaweed and tarry row-boats. After breakfast everyone felt fine.
We put in a hard day's work on our vehicles and when evening came we had a few quiet hours to ourselves. They were delicious after the rush and bustle of the past week. We bathed, played cards, kicked a football about. It was a lovely evening.
It was a lovely evening and a new spirit was abroad. Gone was the depression of yesterday. The retreat—the withdrawal—no longer seemed disastrous and infinitely sad. It was exciting, challenging; and, anyway, worrying was of no use.
At seven the next evening the first of the new vehicles arrived loaded with ammunition (a pity this because we had already drawn our second-line holding from Mersa Matruh and now much of it would have to be returned), and by midnight sixty-two vehicles were in the area. The drivers reported that the coast road was choked with east-going transport. It was a case of every man for himself, convoy discipline being out of the question. The rest of the new vehicles arrived the next day and a detail from the Petrol Company issued them to the units concerned. After they had collected their brand-new three-ton Chevrolets and loaded them with ammunition our No. 4 Platoon drivers felt happier than they had done for weeks. No longer were they merely the boys around the place, fagging for the seniors. Their platoon was now a going concern and all they needed was a chance to make a name for themselves.page 217
And the chance was coming—it was coming towards us from Tobruk as fast as tracks could carry it and supply lines feed it. It was coming, and we felt it as a tiny tremor in the hand and a clutch at the stomach and a restlessness in the feet.
Originally it had been the British intention to hold the frontier but lack of men and armour made this impracticable, a line not anchored firmly at both ends being an invitation to an out-flanking movement unless there was a strong mobile force in reserve. A line based on Mersa Matruh was open to the same objection (besides there was no time to organise one) so General Auchinleck decided to make a stand sixty miles from Alexandria where his right flank would be protected by the sea and his left by the Qattara Depression. When it came to naming the new line no difficulty arose. Less than a mile from the road there was a cluster of stone buildings, a water tank, and a railway station, called, simply and rather beautifully, El Alamein.
That was the position on 27 June when we pulled on to the main road shortly before midday and headed east under Captain Sampson.8 No. 1 Platoon, though its return was expected hourly, was still with the 20th Battalion, so its ammunition was left at Smugglers' Cove with Second-Lieutenant R. K. Davis9 and a small picket.10 The signal to move had given no clue to our destination, the arrangement being that a guide was to meet us on the main road. The main road was ominously empty, and when they came to a deserted NAAFI our drivers were able to stop, one after another, page 218 continuing on their way the richer by cases of Canadian beer and cartons of English cigarettes. It was Greece all over again except that there were no Stukas or Messerschmitts to worry us.
After a fairly quick run, the convoy dispersed in a vacant area between Qasaba and Fuka, waited there until four in the afternoon, and then headed inland, halting an hour and a quarter later some eighteen miles from the coast road. Workshops was missing, and Captain Sampson, not knowing that the platoon had been ordered farther to the rear, was worried. Later in the evening Second-Lieutenant Davis and the picket arrived from Smugglers' Cove to report that it had been necessary to destroy No. 1 Platoon's second-line holding to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. With the help of engineers they had managed to destroy all but a few cases of small-arms ammunition. The enemy had been very close at the time.
After dark Nos. 3 and 4 Platoons—it was the latter's first important assignment—moved out to establish ammunition points, and half an hour later Company headquarters and No. 2 Platoon moved to an area south of Fuka where they spent what was left of the night. The other platoons reported the next morning with the news that it had been impossible to establish ammunition points because of the enemy's swift advance and the movements of the Division.
At half past nine Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons left under the officer commanding the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company to serve the 4th and 5th Brigades (if they could be found: they were known to be heading east with the Germans after them), and an hour later, travelling behind Rear Headquarters, 2nd New Zealand Division, the rest of the unit set out for Fortress A (again don't think of a fortress), roughly in the middle of the new line, where the 6th Brigade, a centre three-quarter with the sun in his eyes and the play coming fast down the field, was standing ready. By half past eight that night the transport was dispersed in the fortress and everyone who was not on duty turned in. We were dead-tired but some of us found it hard to sleep. It was the night of 28-29 June.
After the twilight the moonlight. The full moon, with a bland and beautiful idiocy, lit everything up, making the lorries throw shadows that might have been cut out of black cardboard. By pulling the blankets over your head it was possible to ignore the page 219 moonlight, but you couldn't shut out, nor was it advisable to, the dread sound, something between a hum and a sob, of approaching bombers. They came over about nine and circled round. They sounded as though they were directly above us, but they were some distance away. When the bombs fell there was an interval of several seconds between the flash and the thud. A vehicle was set alight in the Supply Column's area and more bombers were attracted. From start to finish the raid must have lasted forty minutes, and we heard afterwards that in the Supply Column's area alone fourteen men had been killed. It was a token of what we ourselves could expect.
We were fairly busy on the 29th, very busy on the 30th. By evening we had replenished all the field regiments and No. 3 Platoon had established a Corps dump in the 6th Brigade's area. Workshops, after four days with the Supply Column, had rejoined us that morning, and all the platoons were accounted for except No. 1, which was still, we supposed, with the 20th Battalion. The unit was now operating from Qaret Somara, twenty-six miles south-east of Fortress A.
That afternoon Rommel had arrived in front of the Alamein Line and the issue was now a straight one. They were met together, Rommel and Auchinleck, to find out which of them had the better army, and to decide, perhaps tomorrow or in a week's time, which was the stronger: the little good we believed in and were now defending or the dark, tortured spirit of our enemies. The odds were ascertainable and they were very even. We no longer thought, any of us in the Eighth Army, that fate or Providence had predestined us to victory. We understood now that it was possible for Britain to lose every battle, even the last. We should win only if the courage and endurance of our infantry and gunners, our tank crews and air crews, could equal and outlast, now in this stretch of desert, not yesterday or in a year's time, German courage and endurance, which was known to be very great. And we of the Army Service Corps—British, South Africans, Indians, Australians, and New Zealanders—knew with humility and pride that upon our faithfulness in supply the fighting man with his unappetising rations, his shells and bullets, his petrol and water, the issue page 220 depended also. It was Britain's hour, and the infantry's hour, and it was our hour, too.
And that was how matters stood on the last day of June, while the temperature rose and the flies multiplied, while Axis sympathisers in Alexandria baked cakes and formed reception committees, while Cairo waited, while Shepheard's watched.page break
6 Detail Issue Depot.
8 He commanded the unit between 21 June and 7 August while Major Coutts was at General Headquarters, Middle Fast, supervising the delivery of vehicles and ammunition to the Division.
10 The chief appointments on 27 June were: Company headquarters, Maj P. E. Coutts (with GHQ, ME), Capt S. A. Sampson, Lt O. W. Hill, WO II J. S. Bracegirdle (appointed 14 Feb 42); No. 1 Platoon, Capt R. C. Gibson, Lt T. A. Jarvie (attached 25 Dec 41); No. 2 Platoon, 2 Lt J. R. Arnold (posted 3 Mar 42), 2 Lt R. A. Borgfeldt (posted 19 Jun 42); No. 3 Platoon, Capt W. K. Jones (posted 19 Jun 42); No. 4 Platoon, Capt K. E. May, 2 Lt J. M. Fitzgerald; Workshops, 2 Lt (T/Capt) A. G. Morris; Ammunition Platoons, Lt G. P. Latimer (attached 25 Dec 41), 2 Lt R. K. Davis (posted 23 Nov 41). The following had left us: Capt D. C. Ward (posted to Base Training Depot, 1 Jun 42), Lt (T/Capt) F. G. Butt (posted to Base Training Depot, 26 Apr 42), 2 Lt W. S. Duke (p.w.), 2 Lt A. M. W. West-Watson (admitted to hospital, 11 Jun 42), WO II Dillon (posted to OCTU, 24 Feb 42).