CHAPTER 10 — Syria
Early in January 1942 the New Zealand Division, except for Divisional Cavalry and 6 Brigade, left the Western Desert and concentrated at Fayid in the Suez Canal Zone to reorganise, refit, and train for whatever the future might hold in store. E and J Signal Sections—with 4 Field Regiment and Headquarters 4 Brigade respectively—did not reach the Canal until later in the month, having been in the meantime at Maadi Camp, where they were relieved on 24 January by G and L Sections, which had left Baggush the previous day with 6 Field Regiment and Headquarters 6 Brigade. C Section, still with Divisional Cavalry in the Tobruk area at the beginning of the month, did not reach Maadi Camp until the 30th, after spending three weeks at Baggush.
During the seven weeks the Division spent in the Fayid area much training was done. In addition to the general training that occupies the various branches of the service in rear areas, there was a Divisional Headquarters road movement exercise in which a new divisional formation was practised; there were also exercises in combined operations on the Sinai shore of the Gulf of Suez, in which both 4 and 5 Brigades practised beach landings; and there was a good deal of reorganisation and section training in Signals.
Lieutenant-Colonel Agar had turned his attention to the design of an efficient mobile signal office vehicle and a properly camouflaged and dug-in signal office shelter for use in static operations. The current arrangement, by which the signal office was accommodated in a 3-ton lorry and in canvas shelters erected on each side of the vehicle, was as unsatisfactory as any that could be imagined. There was little or no protection from shell or bomb splinters, and the confusion within the interior of the vehicle, where orderlies, signal clerks, operators and despatch riders jostled, shouldered, hustled and shouted, each trying to make himself understood above the din, gave page 213 ample evidence of the need for a much more orderly arrangement. Fullerphone instruments and switchboards were often mounted crazily on rickety collapsible signal office tables, and sometimes even on old packing cases, and crammed up in one corner of the vehicle tray where operators strove vainly to copy traffic under the Heath Robinson lighting system. On the steel floor of the tray, against which the men's hobnailed boots resounded in a continuous din, lay kitbags, blanket rolls and sometimes even cooking gear, in the path of bewildered NCO superintendents and orderlies.
Sometimes the Fullerphone terminals and the switchboards would be installed in dug-in shelters under the side canopies, and then the confusion was less noticeable, although the operators still had to peer with strained and red-rimmed eyes under the feeble and uncertain light shed by two or three headlight lamps rigged untidily along the roof of the canopies and fed, more often than not, by a single six-volt wireless battery.
Moreover, each of D Section's four detachments had a different arrangement for setting up a static signal office according to the whims of the detachment NCOs. One detachment might install its switchboards and Fullerphones in the vehicle itself; another would place them in slit trenches dug under one or both of the side canopies. Although some of the various arrangements exhibited intelligent thought, the almost complete lack of uniformity in signal office drill in the section as a whole was a serious defect.
The task of finding a suitable design for both types of signal office—mobile and static—fell to Captain Marshall, who had recently taken command of No. 3 Company after a term as OC J Section with Headquarters 4 Brigade in Libya, where he had had some experience of a dug-in signal office similar in some respects to that envisaged by the Colonel for use at Main Headquarters New Zealand Division.
Before proceeding with his task, Marshall was carefully briefed by the Colonel on the main essentials of the design. The mobile office in each detachment, for instance, would be required to have a uniform layout for terminal equipment such as distribution and protection frames, exchange switchboards page 214 and Fullerphones; lockers would have to be provided for stowing such loose items of equipment as terminal boxes and stationery, and there would have to be arms racks in an easily accessible position in the vehicle. Mobile offices were tentatively defined as vehicle offices for use during moves and in static positions where halts would not exceed twelve hours. If the headquarters remained halted at any stage of an operation for more than twelve hours the signal office would be transferred to a dug-in shelter of predetermined design; its principal features would be a depth of three or four feet underground, extended above ground to an effective height for headroom by sandbagged walls built up around the rectangular perimeter; separate compartments for exchange switchboards, Fullerphone terminals and signal clerks, cipher operators and despatch riders would be provided by sandbagged partitions; and as an adequate covering a large waterproof tarpaulin would be suspended at headroom height over the whole pit on a vehicle canopy or other suitable supports, and properly camouflaged. At the entrance to the signal office the tarpaulin cover would overlap by a few feet to provide an efficient light-trap.
Other details included the provision of a telephone in a wooden box fixed to a stake erected about twenty yards from the signal office. This was for the use of visiting staff and liaison officers, whose attention would be drawn to it by a blue and white painted board nearby inscribed with the words ‘public telephone’ in bold letters. This arrangement, in fact, had already been in use in November in the Libyan battles and had proved its value, not only as an extremely useful facility for visiting officers, who were often at their wits' end to obtain brief use of a telephone in G and administrative offices, but to keep the signal office itself clear of casual callers who aggravated the congestion in the confined space, to the annoyance of signalmasters and superintendents.
Another innovation which had also been introduced in Libya in an experimental way was the remote-control annexe. This was another dug-in shelter, similar in construction to the signal office shelter but much smaller. It would be sited close to the G office and roughly on a line between that office and the signal office. To a six-line universal call switchboard installed page 215 there remote-control lines would be run from all dispersed wireless terminals in the headquarters area. This arrangement would enable staff officers to speak over any wireless link from their own telephones or, if this were impracticable because of line attenuation or low signal strengths for radio-telephony communications, they could go to the nearby annexe itself and speak directly on the remote-control units.
On 25 January the new war establishment for an infantry divisional signals, which had been anticipated to some extent the preceding October by the provision of additional wireless resources at Main Headquarters New Zealand Division and the headquarters of the infantry brigades, was brought fully into use. Its principal feature was the introduction of a new company, Headquarters Company, which took over the responsibilities of M (technical maintenance) Section and the Quartermaster and his staff—henceforth to be known as Administrative Section—who until then had been part of the unit headquarters' establishment.
The new organisation aroused little interest among those concerned, except perhaps Major Smith, who was appointed to command the new company. In No. 1 Company, however, there was a good deal of amused speculation as to what Major Grant would find for a substitute for that persistent but elusive scapegoat on company parade—‘that man in M Section’. Ever since the unit had been formed in Trentham in 1939 until he left for his six months' tour of duty as OC Signal School Base in October 1941, Major Grant had gone through the now familiar procedure on company parades, in which M Section was always drawn up in the rear, of calling the parade to attention and watching the company intently for anything up to a full minute and a half for the merest sign of a fidget or wavering in the steady ranks. Failing to detect any sign whatsoever of unsteadiness—the men knew the drill and played up for him manfully—he would roar suddenly: ‘Stand still—that man in M Section!’ Having got that off his chest, he would then stand the parade at ease and the morning ritual would be over. Now the daily performance was gone forever, because administrative people never held parades if they could possibly get out of it; in any case, the commander of the new company page 216 was not likely to worry about imaginary men with non-existent fidgets in the rear rank of M Section.
The first week of February passed with exercises in beach landings in the Gulf of Suez by 4 and 5 Brigades, in which J and K Sections provided the usual brigade communications after the landings had been made. Generally these exercises were unexciting affairs attended by the usual upsets and chaotic separations of wireless operators from their sets, which were usually found later to have gone ashore from the troopships in another boat. These happenings were dismissed nonchalantly by the men as SABUs or NABUs, according to the degree of disorganisation which attended them. Some of the dawn scenes on these beach exercises were not without their humorous highlights. There was a good deal of ‘scone-doing’ by harassed staff officers, who strode up and down howling irately for ‘operators to work these bloody sets’, or alternatively, according to the unpredictable order of arrival of landing craft from the ships off shore, ‘bloody sets so that we can find out what's happened to so-and-so battalion’.
On 25 February a warning order came from Divisional Headquarters to move on the 27th. Preparations began next day with the striking of tents and loading of stores. That night those who were to travel in the road party slept in the open beside their vehicles. Lieutenant-Colonel Agar and the Adjutant left shortly after dawn on the 27th for Tel Aviv, where they bivouacked for the night. On the second night they reached Headquarters Ninth Army, at Broumana, and conferred with the Chief Signals Officer there. Next day they reached Baalbek in the early afternoon, in time to make an inspection of the signal office and barracks before the road party arrived.
The road party crossed the Canal soon after 8 a.m. on the 27th, but made slow progress at first because of sand drifts on the Sinai Desert road. Promontories of loose wind-driven sand reached across the road every few hundred yards like miniature marching dunes, and as the heavy lorries swung wide to avoid them the outside wheels dropped off the verge and sank into the yielding sand. Then the crews had to scramble out to push and heave until the vehicles lurched drunkenly back on to the blistering bitumen. The road party bivouacked page 217 that night at Abu Aweigla, moved off early next morning, crossed the Palestine frontier and passed through Beersheba on to Lydda, where they bivouacked at Biet Lid Camp the second night. They crossed the Syrian frontier early in the afternoon of 1 March and reached 164 Transit Camp, on the northern outskirts of Damascus, that evening.
This journey through Palestine into Syria was a new and thrilling experience, and the men forgot their usual rude jests as they gazed at the beauty of the countryside. They passed green crops in the fields and orange groves, and saw lush pastures red with a hundred thousand anemones. Many of the wild blooms at the roadside were larger and darker and with a richer beauty than any they had seen under cultivation in New Zealand. In the still of the evening the breeze stirred slightly in the groves, bringing with it the sweet fragrance from the orange plantations and the almond blossom, and the men went about their bivouac tasks with a new vigour.
The journey was continued next day, and the road party reached Baalbek in the early afternoon. An hour later the rail party, which had left Kantara for Haifa on 28 February and had continued its journey by bus, rejoined the rest of the unit. The men were quartered in a former French Foreign Legion barracks—Gouraud Barracks—which consisted of several two-storied stone buildings honeycombed with scores of small cell-like rooms, those on the first floor being fronted along the length of the buildings by narrow balconies fenced in with iron rails.
At the other end of the village were the Wavell Barracks, where Headquarters New Zealand Division was installed. There also were the divisional signal office and offices for the Colonel and the Adjutant.
It was all very pleasant in this sunny village of Baalbek, but Lieutenant-Colonel Agar had no intention of allowing the men to fall into the holiday spirit. He confirmed this the day after the unit's arrival by issuing a training directive which said plainly enough that its object was to achieve a readjustment of signal practice from desert conditions as quickly as possible, to avoid the stationary outlook, and to preserve the principle and practice of mobility. Physical fitness, too, was to receive proper attention.page 218
These edicts had a tone of insistence, and very soon the various sections were hard at work. A (wireless) Section commenced a period of training in the 24-hour maintenance of wireless communication over greater than normal ranges with frequent changes of frequencies, and also in ground station drill and practice in setting up dismounted wireless detachments in dug-in shelters. B (cable) Section spent its time and energies laying and building lines along roads and through built-up areas, in addition to the maintenance of the numerous poled-line circuits which constituted Ninth Army's principal communications in the area.
Perhaps more important than most of these activities were the new designs for dug-in and mobile signal offices, which had been commenced at Fayid a month before and were examined, re-examined, and modified several times a week until finally they began to reach that stage of near perfection at which the Colonel aimed. It was his hope that the new offices, particularly the dug-in shelter, would be completed and brought into use in the forthcoming divisional exercises.
At this stage very little had actually been done in a practical way, and the responsibility for the design and its translation into actual form was transferred to No. 1 Company. Major Pryor, the company commander, set to work with the aid of a copper-wire framework and carefully fashioned pieces of brown paper, representing the outer covering and interior fittings, to construct a scale model in the form in which he thought the finished office should appear. But the D (operating) Section NCO detachment commanders preferred to trace their design with picks and shovels, and soon had their men at work on the first stage of the job, which obviously was a hole in the ground of suitable dimensions. This part of the business completed, they then looked around and decided among themselves the most suitable pattern for dividing the pit into properly partitioned compartments.
And so it went on, each detail being carefully noted and placed in its correct sequence as the work progressed, so that complete uniformity in the method of construction would be maintained by all four detachments of the section. Each man had his task. Some broke the ground with picks while others page 219 with shovels filled sandbags with the spoil, none of which was allowed to lie about outside the perimeter of the pit to indicate earthwork construction to the prying eyes of enemy reconnaissance aircraft. As the bags were filled they went into the making of the outer parapet and the interior partitions. Fresh ideas and modifications were incorporated into the original and indefinite design, and each section detachment strove to outdo the others in construction time and neatness of the finished office. Sergeant Charlie Morris's1 detachment eventually led the field in this competitive enterprise, and it was their office which the Colonel inspected with a satisfied eye during the divisional exercises at Forqloss in May and June.
Nevertheless, for all these intensive training activities and the constant reminders that the unit must be held ready for battle at a day's notice, the change of scene and climate from the monotonous and dreary dun-coloured desert encampments and the debilitating Egyptian summer heat began to show its beneficial effects. In their off-duty hours the men began to look around and examine what was to them a newly found land, where verdant pastures and flower-bedecked fields clothed the lower foothills of the snow-capped Lebanon mountains. The natives, too, far from being despised Wogs, were tall, stern men with severe eyes—until greeted by these strange but friendly Antipodean soldiers; then their saturnine countenances would break into a brief flood of smiles. With barely perceptible inclin- tion of the head and a swift movement of hand from brow to breast in the traditional Islamic gesture of salutation, they passed on their way, aloof and inscrutable.
The Lebanon, of which the Bekaa valley (where Baalbek is situated) is the heart, forms a natural fortress guarding the approaches to Palestine and the Suez Canal from the north. An enemy thrusting south from Turkey would be compelled to make a wide detour to the east across the Syrian Desert unless he could force this natural bastion. The two mountain ranges, the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, dominate all three main routes to Palestine: the coastal road, which passes through Beirut, the Bekaa valley, and the arterial road from Aleppo to Damascus.page 220
The plan of defence for Syria and Palestine included the preparation of tank-proof fortresses sited to deny an enemy the use of all main arteries of communication in southern Syria, Palestine and Transjordan. Altogether there were five of these fortresses, of which Djedeide lay in the Bekaa valley and thus became the responsibility of the New Zealand Division. Considerable work had already been done on Djedeide by the formations previously in the area; the New Zealanders took over the task of completing the defences, which were expected to be ready by mid-May. Signals' part in this task was the construction of signal offices and a remote-control annexe within the headquarters area of the fortress; dugouts for spare wireless sets and those which would not be installed in command offices; and the planning, siting and construction of buried cable runs and cable test-points in collaboration with the Divisional Engineers.
While this back-breaking business of digging huge, ugly, gaping holes with picks and shovels was going on, A (wireless) Section had ventured farther afield on more pleasant tasks. To Djerablous, on the Turkish frontier north-east of Aleppo, where the Euphrates flows as a wide, shallow, sluggish stream into Syria, and to Raqqa, 90 miles down the river, No. 9 wireless detachments had been sent in March on internal security duties, which consisted of the transmission of flood warnings from Djerablous to a Royal Engineer company employed on the construction of a large bridge across the river at Raqqa. Both detachments were out-stations on a group which included also Headquarters 4 Brigade at Laboue and Headquarters 6 Brigade at Aleppo; the control station was at Divisional Headquarters at Baalbek.
The range from Baalbek to Djerablous—over 200 miles—set a stiff test for the No. 9 sets, and at first the good R8 signals logged during the hours of daylight fell off sharply as darkness closed down each evening, and did not build up again into readable transmissions until some time after dawn the following morning. Within two or three days, however, after exhaustive trials, during which the Colonel watched with undisguised interest this unforeseen but opportune test of his wireless section's capabilities, suitable frequencies for stable operation page 221 during the twenty-four hours of daylight and darkness were brought permanently into use. From then on the group continued in communication between control and all out-stations in good, crisp, resonant Morse.
Divisional exercises, or more correctly, a series of brigade group exercises, commenced in the Forqloss area on 21 May. Divisional Headquarters was represented on the ground in all these exercises, of which the first was carried out by 4 Brigade Group, followed on 29 May by 6 Brigade Group. The last of the series began on 13 June, when 5 Brigade Group left Aleppo for the Forqloss area. Suddenly, however, on the 15th, 5 Brigade was summoned to proceed immediately to Djedeide, where by this time the air was heavy with crisis. The day before a Ninth Army order was received at Divisional Headquarters stating that 2 NZ Division was to move immediately to Egypt, where the situation in the Western Desert was causing some uneasiness. The Division was to move to Matruh in the shortest possible time, preserving in the meantime the strictest secrecy, and to this end was to foster the impression among the troops that the preparations for the move were part of a full-scale divisional exercise originally planned to commence on the 20th.
Signals moved off with Divisional Headquarters at 6 a.m. on 16 June. E Section (with 4 Field Regiment), G Section (with 6 Field Regiment) and 14 Anti-Aircraft Signal Section left the same day, followed by J Section (with Headquarters 4 Brigade) next day, F Section (with 5 Field Regiment) and K Section (with Headquarters 5 Brigade) on the 18th, and H Section (with 7 Anti-Tank Regiment) and L Section (with Headquarters 6 Brigade) on the 19th.
Through southern Syria they went, joining the coastal road in northern Palestine, where Main Divisional Headquarters bivouacked the first night at Tulkarm. They pushed on next day through Lydda and Gaza, south-eastwards to Beersheba, and then through the Sinai Desert.
The men watched from the fast-moving transport as the green fields and orange groves slid by—watched in faint nostalgia as they had done three months before, when they had come up through this pleasant land. But perhaps the nostalgia was stronger now, enlivened by rumour, whose lying tongue had page 222 been at it again. They were going home! Some of the ships that were to take them there were already lying at Suez to take them aboard! The stories grew from hour to hour and lost nothing in the telling. An A Section operator had heard it from a Divisional Headquarters' orderly who, it appeared, had got the ‘gen’ from a brigadier's jeep driver with whom he had passed the time of day outside Divisional Headquarters the day they left Syria. Between them all they put two and two together and made five, but their companions listened eagerly.
Some stories were shot with odd flakes of confirmation which seemed to the more credulous to turn mere rumour into possibility, possibility into probability, and then, by a few deft turns of imagination, into certainty. What of the divisional exercises at Forqloss on the 20th, for example? Here they were on the 19th crossing the pontoon bridge over the Suez Canal, and Forqloss lay many leagues behind them. And, again, what of the secrecy in which the move continued to be shrouded? All fernleaf signs on their vehicles had been painted over at the start of the move and all cap badges, shoulder titles and other New Zealand insignia—except, curiously, the Maori place-names emblazoned boldly on the windscreens of a few vehicles —taken off and put out of sight. Was this not the same procedure as had been followed by the Australians earlier in the year when they suddenly left Syria and Palestine for home?
The birth of this hopeful conjecture occurred on the 19th somewhere on the road between Ismailia and Cairo, and the eager heads in the backs of the three-tonners came closer together. A soldier suddenly remembered another Australian story that he had heard somewhere. The details were a little hazy now, but it was coming back to him. Yes! He remembered now. He had heard it from a cook in the officers' mess at Headquarters 4 Brigade at Kabrit last January. Among the guests at a mess ‘do’ one night were several Australians, one of whom had sidled up alongside a New Zealander and said, confidentially: ‘I suppose you know we're going home? Well, we've got 700 bottles of beer that we want to be shot of. Give us the akkers, pal, and they're yours.’
But all the convictions so carefully built up over the last four days faded rapidly as the tires whirred harshly on the black page 223 tarmac and bore the column swiftly up to the outskirts of Heliopolis, now looming close ahead. Next they were on the Mena road and turning right at the Mena House corner, and very soon they were coasting down the approaches of the long desert road to Alexandria. The phantom ships at Suez, away beyond the haze which hung over the Delta, lifted their anchors from the mud and slipped silently away into oblivion.
They reached Amiriya that evening, refuelled their tanks for 400 miles, and were away again early next morning before the sun struck or the sand-devils were up to revive their recollections of the dreariest and most uncomfortable transit camp in North Africa.
Main Divisional Headquarters and Signals reached Matruh at 4 p.m. on 20 June and moved to a bivouac area at Umm el Rakham, 11 miles west of the town. The Division was now in General Headquarters Reserve and under the command of 30 Corps, whose headquarters was then at Garawla.
Immediately Divisional Signals arrived in the Matruh area a signal office was opened and line communication established with Headquarters 84 Base Sub-Area. Late in the afternoon of the next day, however, the Division was suddenly ordered by 30 Corps to occupy the Matruh fortress, and by evening Main Headquarters was bivouacked just west of the town and within the fortress perimeter. A signal office was opened immediately in the new location to maintain line communication with 84 Base Sub-Area and the closing group of Divisional Headquarters still at Umm el Rakham. No communications had yet been opened to 4 and 6 Field Regiments near Ras Abu Laho, or to Headquarters 4 Brigade at Smugglers' Cove, east of the town. Early next morning, the 22nd, 4 Brigade was moved to the perimeter defences between the Sidi Barrani road and the coast, and Brigade Headquarters occupied the Egyptian barracks west of the town. Late that afternoon Signals moved again, this time to the area just vacated by 84 Base Sub-Area Signals, and was able to establish direct line communications by the fortress underground cable system to Headquarters 4 Brigade, 18 and 19 Battalions, Headquarters Divisional Artillery, and 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments. Communication to 20 Battalion was through Headquarters 84 Base Sub-Area and thence by poled-line route to Charing Cross.page 224
By this time 5 Brigade Group had arrived and was bivouacked at Smugglers' Cove.
It is now time to examine the course of events which set these preparations astir in the Matruh fortress and which had brought 2 New Zealand Division hot-foot over nearly 1000 miles in five days from the Lebanon. Soon after the withdrawal of the Division from the fierce fighting of the opening days of December 1941 for possession of the corridor to Tobruk, the enemy had been gradually pushed back towards the approaches of Gebel Akhdar. He had attempted a last stand on a line running south-west from Gazala and there, on the 13th, his tanks had fought a gruelling battle with the artillery of 4 Indian Division. Rommel had disengaged on the 17th and withdrawn his armoured divisions and other formations westwards to Agedabia, leaving the broken 21 Italian Corps to make its own way back to Benghazi. The New Year had found the Indians in possession of Benghazi and light British mobile columns patrolling around Agedabia, while Rommel had lurked in his bolt-hole at Agheila, south of the Gulf of Sirte. He had lost vast quantities of stores and sustained considerable losses in men and tanks, but for all that his withdrawal had been orderly and he had entered his Agheila line in fair condition; he could not have been turned out easily from what was one of the strongest positions along the whole coast of Egypt and Libya.
This had been the situation in January 1942. With the whole of Cyrenaica in British hands, Rommel had suddenly leapt out from his lair at Agheila on the 21st and driven back the British patrols. His movement north-eastwards had continued, and by 4 February the British forces stood on a line stretching from Gazala to Bir Hacheim, 40 miles to the south. This had marked the limit of the enemy advance for the time being, and both armies had remained on the defensive until the last week in May, when (on the 27th) Rommel had struck again. His show of force against the northern portion of the defences and then the turning movement of his armour around the south of Bir Hacheim had culminated in the crushing blow, after three weeks of confused fighting, struck at the very heart of Eighth Army at Knightsbridge, 17 miles west of El Adem. On 19 June, page 225 when the advance parties of the New Zealand Division were beginning to arrive in Matruh, the British line had withdrawn to the Libyan frontier, with strongly fortified positions in the Tobruk area.
On that same day the Germans had cut the road east of Tobruk and closed up on the perimeter defences. Early next day, the 20th, they had mounted a furious onslaught with artillery, bombing aircraft, armour and infantry. By the evening most of the defences had been overrun, and the garrison surrendered next morning. With the fall of Tobruk most of the chances of holding the enemy on the frontier line collapsed. With the exception of a delaying force left in the Sollum area, therefore, the British troops had withdrawn to Matruh, 125 miles to the east.
The New Zealand Division had not been involved in these operations, although 5 Brigade Group had taken part in the December pursuit of the retreating forces and had fought on the right of 4 Indian Division at Gazala. A small group of New Zealand Signals, however, had operated almost continuously with Eighth Army in the Western Desert since October 1941. This group was T Air Support Control Signals, most of whose wireless detachments had been attached to British and Indian units, some as far forward as Benghazi and Agedabia. None of these detachments had been allotted permanently to any unit, but only for as long as they were required to provide air-support communications. Thus, T Section had been nearly always in the forward areas.
On 1 December 1941, when the Division was withdrawn from Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, T Section was in Tobruk with Headquarters 13 Corps. The tentacle detachments with 4 and 6 Brigades, then withdrawing towards the Egyptian frontier, were unfortunately out of wireless range before they could be instructed to rejoin the section headquarters in Tobruk. The tentacle with Headquarters 5 Brigade, from which nothing had been heard since 25 November, had been captured at Sidi Azeiz on the 27th, as OC T Section (Lieutenant Foubister) was to learn later, and its crew, Lance-Corporal Martin,2 Signalman page 226 Dick3 and Signalman Gates,4 had been taken prisoner. (Martin and Dick were released at Bardia five weeks later.)
T Section was now reduced to seven tentacle detachments, three with 4 Indian Division and four in Tobruk. No one could hazard a guess as to when the two tentacles with 4 and 6 Brigades would rejoin the section. On 10 December a tentacle was sent to the reorganised 5 Brigade, then at Bir el Amud, near Gambut, and moving towards Acroma. Another had gone on the 2nd to 32 Army Tank Brigade, then in the corridor to Tobruk, six miles south of the town.
The section left Tobruk with Headquarters 13 Corps on the 12th. The chase was on—to Acroma, Tmimi (on the way the tentacle with Headquarters 5 Brigade, which was to go no farther west than Gazala, was recovered), Mechili, and Msus, where the section spent Christmas eking out its normal army rations with the remnants of the last parcel mail and a few extras which the cook had been hoarding for such an occasion. On the 27th the section was off again, 30 miles southwards to Antelat.
By this time the tentacles were well dispersed—one with Central India Horse in Benghazi, one with Headquarters 4 Indian Division at Barce, another with 7 Indian Brigade at Derna, and two with the 7 Support Group and 22 Guards Brigade near Agedabia. On the 28th the two tentacles which had been withdrawn from the Tobruk corridor with 4 and 6 Brigades rejoined the section at Antelat, bringing with them ten operator reinforcements from New Zealand Signal School Base.
Pressed by Rommel's advance in force from Agheila on 21 January, 13 Corps moved back to Msus, and a few days later to Mechili. In the face of the growing enemy threat the withdrawal was continued to Tmimi, and on 4 February to Acroma. Here a redistribution of tentacle detachments was made, one each going to 1 Armoured Division, 150 Infantry Brigade (of 50 British Division), 200 Guards Brigade, Central India Horse, 4 Indian Division, and 1 South African Division. page 227 On 17 February one was sent to 5 New Zealand Brigade, which had just arrived in the El Adem area from Fayid.
Early in March the section was informed that it was soon to be relieved and would rejoin the Division with Ninth Army in Syria. This was welcome news indeed, and the men were keyed up to a high pitch of expectancy. The relief took place on 8 March, No. 2 Army Air Support Control Signals taking over all air-support communications, and T Section commenced to move to Cairo. However, the section was not to see Syria after all, for on 13 April, after a spell of four weeks at Signal School Base, during which Christmas had been belatedly celebrated at a section dinner in Cairo, it was ordered back to the Western Desert to rejoin Eighth Army. Early in May the section reached Headquarters 30 Corps, a few miles south of El Adem, and took over immediately from No. 2 Army Air Support Control Signals. Tentacle detachments were despatched to Headquarters 7 Armoured Division, 7 Motor Brigade, the Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim, and to Main Headquarters Eighth Army.
The lull on the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line, which had lasted since 15 February, was broken early on 27 May. Early that morning Lieutenant Foubister and his driver, Signalman Silvester, had visited the tentacle at Headquarters 7 Motor Brigade near Bir el Gubi. From there they went to the last-known position of Headquarters 7 Armoured Division, 17 miles north-west by north from El Gubi. At this time, however, 7 Armoured Division was farther east and nearer El Gubi, but Foubister did not know this. When he was about five miles short of the armour's supposed position he saw about a thousand vehicles moving up from the south in three groups. At first he thought these were South Africans and he passed through the gap between the first and second groups and continued north-westwards, but after going several hundred yards he felt the impulse to stop and put his glasses on the columns. He discovered to his consternation that they were German, whereupon he turned about and, passing back through the gap between the second and third groups, made off towards El Gubi to warn 208 Squadron RAF, which was at the advanced landing ground there. Curiously, the enemy took no notice of page 228 the lone 8-cwt truck scurrying back and forth through his column, and Foubister was able to hurry off unmolested.
During this involuntary reconnaissance of 90 Light Division, Signalman Silvester was unusually silent and forbore to make any comment or ask any questions. It was not until several weeks later, and then in his cups, that he told his OC plainly and frankly what he thought of the incident and of his fool- hardiness in venturing so close to the enemy columns.
In due course Foubister reached El Gubi, where he reported what he had seen, but 208 Squadron discounted his story, saying that a tactical reconnaissance aircraft had been over the area that morning and had reported no enemy movement. Foubister then scouted around to find someone who would listen to his story, and eventually found a New Zealand squadron-leader who arranged for another aircraft to have a look around. This aircraft reported the location of the enemy columns a short time later, and the information was passed on immediately to 30 Corps at El Adem. An hour later shells from the enemy columns were falling in the Corps' area.
In the early armoured clashes which occurred that day a German battle group captured the headquarters of 7 Armoured Division, and the division's forward control set was lost. The T Section tentacle, however, evaded capture and took over the division's wireless communications to forward formations, which included the Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim.
A second T Section tentacle detachment was taken to the French at Bir Hacheim on 1 June to relieve the one already there, which was expected to move out with a French attack north-westwards in the Rotonda Segnali area, 40 miles away. The second tentacle was intended to serve the relieving force, an English formation known as Greyforce, but as only one battalion of the French eventually was able to go to Segnali, the garrison at Bir Hacheim now had two tentacles. This was a happy turn of events for the first tentacle as the French had lost their forward control set some days before, with the result that all the normal tactical wireless traffic had to be handled by the T Section set in addition to its usual air-support communications. An increasingly heavy burden had fallen on the detachment as the French called for more and more RAF page 229 assistance to help ward off the enemy's incessant attacks. On 8 June four T Section men were wounded by airburst shrapnel, but could not be evacuated as the French garrison was now completely surrounded. Fortunately, only one of the men, Signalman Sutherland,5 had sustained serious injury, and the others continued their normal duties on the sets.
On the 10th, because of lack of supplies and the almost complete exhaustion of the garrison, the French prepared to evacuate Bir Hacheim. Both T Section detachments were with the first transport column to break out. As the vehicles moved slowly forward in the pitch darkness, trying to avoid the minefields and wire on the perimeter defences, they came under heavy anti-tank and machine-gun fire. Several trucks were blown up on mines and others were set ablaze, but the two tentacles managed to scrape through without hurt, several times narrowly escaping destruction by a hair's breadth. After getting clear of the general mělée, they made off quickly in a south-westerly direction for about eight miles and then turned south for 30 to 40 miles. At dawn they found themselves in a heavy ground mist which covered the desert for miles around, and the two vehicles became separated.
Lance-Corporal McAnsh's6 detachment (T13) searched for Corporal Pye-Smith and his companions in T4 for some time, and then headed north-east towards 30 Corps' position near El Adem. After travelling some distance they saw ahead of them a vehicle which, to their hopeful imaginations, appeared to resemble the missing T4. They approached it cautiously, to be greeted suddenly by a burst of small-arms fire, whereupon they made off smartly towards the east. A little later McAnsh halted, started up his set and called T4, who answered immediately and reported that they were with friends.
McAnsh's detachment pushed on again and, after breakfasting with Rear Headquarters 7 Motor Brigade, whom they encountered soon after speaking to T4, they reached the marshalling position of the French Brigade, 16 miles south-east of Bir el Gubi. Here they received instructions by wireless page 230 to return to Headquarters 30 Corps at El Adem, and they set off again after lunch. About eight miles south of El Adem they came on a New Zealand airman, Squadron-Leader Ward, of 73 Squadron RAF, sitting beside his grounded aircraft. At first Ward couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the fernleaf sign on the vehicle and the New Zealand shoulder titles of its crew, but he accepted McAnsh's invitation of a ride to El Adem with alacrity. T13 reached Tactical Headquarters 30 Corps late that afternoon and then moved on again to rejoin Main Headquarters of the Corps at Sidi Rezegh.
Meanwhile Pye-Smith, with his detachment, had reached Main Headquarters Eighth Army, where Signalman Sutherland was admitted to a casualty clearing station for urgent attention to his wounded foot, which was in a dangerous state through lack of medical care.
The enemy, now unhindered by the fallen Bir Hacheim position, began a rapid concentration of his forces in the Acroma-El Adem area. In bitter fighting in the vicinity of Knightsbridge the British armour sustained heavy losses against Rommel's tanks, reinforced by a newly arrived Italian armoured division. On the night of 14-15 June the British forces were withdrawn from the Gazala positions, and Main 30 Corps retired to the frontier wire, to a position just south of Sidi Omar.
Before T Section shook the seven months' accumulation of Cyrenaican dust from its hobnailed boots it was to add another incident to its already imposing chapter of Western Desert adventures. On 12 June, some time before an enemy attack on the El Adem box developed, the section's office truck—used for the occasion in lieu of a 15-cwt water truck—left Main Headquarters 30 Corps' position near Sidi Rezegh to collect water from Tobruk. The route was by way of El Adem to Ed Duda and thence to Tobruk, but half a mile east of Ed Duda the truck, with its driver, Signalman Meier,7 and the section cook, Signalman Boyle,8 was captured by enemy infantry. They were added to the Germans' already considerable bag of prisoners; soon afterwards, however, the enemy party and its captives were heavily shelled by British guns, page 231 and in the confusion Meier managed to sneak off unseen. He later joined up with two Royal Armoured Corps drivers, with whom he made his way to the east, reaching a British unit's lines at Sidi Rezegh that night. Three days later Boyle, having also escaped by some means, was reported to be safe with 22 Armoured Brigade.
On 18 June 30 Corps moved back from the frontier area to Buqbuq. The general withdrawal eastwards to Matruh was now in full swing and T Section, which had left 30 Corps and come under the command of Main Headquarters Eighth Army on the 21st, had found itself on the 23rd at Baggush, where it was relieved by No. 5 Army Air Support Control Signals next day. At this time 30 Corps was ordered back to Amiriya to reform and refit. T Section rejoined the Corps at El Imayid on 28 June, and continued under its command until it was disbanded on 14 September 1942, exactly one year after its formation. In that year it had had a record of achievement in wireless communications probably not excelled by any section of New Zealand Divisional Signals—with comparable equipment—throughout the war.
Postscript: The following is an extract from a letter, dated August 1942, from General Headquarters Middle East Forces: GHQ would like to record their appreciation of the excellent work done by the T (NZ) Air SC Signals during the last two campaigns in Cyrenaica and Egypt.
(Signed) G. F. McLean, Brigadier
for Lieut-General, Chief of the General Staff.