4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 9 — To Teheran and Syria
AJOB had to be done in a hurry: perishable serum had to be sent from Egypt to Persia. There, at Teheran, the capital, Polish refugees from Russia waited for aid. They were ragged, starved, diseased, and without sanitation. Dozens died every day. The serum—5600 lb. of it—would save many lives.
Armed with tommy guns and rifles Berny Roberts,1 Sandy Kelman,2 and George Newton3 got going in No. 120, a 3-ton Ford truck from 13 Section of C Platoon 4 RMT. They took two-hour shifts at driving because, without refrigeration, their two and a half ton cargo would become useless after a time, and because Teheran was 1673 miles away. None of the three RMT men had been that way before, and the strange roads across five countries rambled through desert, plains, and barren mountain passes.
The first night, 5 April 1942, saw them into Palestine, with 320 miles clipped from the journey. Up at daybreak and driving until dark, they crossed Palestine and entered the Transjordan. It was spring, and the young barley and wheat reminded them of home. No. 120 took on oranges until George thought it looked like a greengrocer's van. The day's mileage: 315.
By eight o'clock on 7 April they had left the Haifa-Baghdad road, to press along a hard desert track across a dead waste covered in small shingle. Close by ran the twelve-inch pipeline, carrying its 2,000,000 tons of oil each year over the 600 miles from Kirkuk, in Iraq, to Haifa, on the Palestinian coast. The sun was hotter here. They felt its warmth and thought of the serum behind them.
At 10 a.m. a sudden halt: a rear tire had blown out. The wheel was changed in double-quick time. The second halt was voluntary, to give water and a tin of bully beef to an Arab page 169 who was thoroughly lost and nearly crazy with thirst. After lunch at Rutba, well into Iraq, they had to drive the next 100 miles through the gritty fog of a sandstorm. When night brought a wayside halt, 262 more miles had gone. They slept on the ground and awoke half-buried, to find a second sandstorm raging. Having reached Baghdad at noon on 8 April, they put the serum away safely in cool storage. The first stage of the journey, 1040 miles, was over, but the worst—rough lands with a sketchy service—lay ahead.
Waiting to descend the Sollum escarpment after the 1940 Libyan campaign
Entering Piraeus, Greece
Arriving in Athens
On the main road to Albania
Bombing in Nikaia
During a three-day rest, while No. 120 was overhauled and given a new engine, the three New Zealanders found Baghdad disappointing: ‘just another Wog town: a few modern buildings and the rest a collection of hovels. The Tigris is as big and as dirty as the Nile, and there's no visible evidence of caliphs, harems, or Eastern glamour.’ George, told the veil had been abolished and seeing the now uncovered faces, fully understood why they had it in the first place.
The three RMT men were off again, serum aboard, in the afternoon of 12 April, crossing 118 miles of desert to Khanaquin, where a British rest camp turned on eggs and tinned beer, ‘the best ever’. Over the border next day, they were the first 2 NZEF party to enter Persia, though New Zealand soldiers had been there in 1918 with Dunsterforce. The country seemed to change in a flash. Instead of flat wastelands there were green hillsides where flocks of sheep and goats grazed. The three delighted New Zealanders sang, shouted, and yelled greetings to Persian labourers working on the good metal roads. They climbed over Patack Pass, about 5000 feet above sea level, where the wind blew cold from the snow. A vexing delay (‘trust the 13th,’ they said), lay ahead at Kermanshah at 4 p.m., with 125 miles covered. The British Army post insisted on a chit before issuing petrol and oil. The chit was collected eight miles away, and the lorry was set to go when a rear main leaf in a back spring was found broken. The local workshops, without spares, would not weld the leaf until next morning. By noon next day, after one and a half hour's run, the leaf had broken at the weld. The country was still mountainous, but the serum could not wait. Risking a total breakdown, they crept to Hamadan, where the spring was patched and riveted. Mileage still down: 140.page 170
Leaving at 8 a.m. on 15 April they soon knew two of the rivets had broken. Nursing the three-tonner, they managed the rest of the 150 miles to the Polish transit camp at Kazvin. That night in a café the New Zealanders decided they had no ear for Iranian music. The orchestra consisted of three unshaven ruffians playing a flute, a whistle, and a tambourine.
16 Apr 42:
|0700 hrs:||Departed kazvin.|
|1100 hrs:||Arrived at teheran.|
|1300 hrs:||Delivered serum to polish hq and received receipt for same.|
What a relief to take it easy, to forget times, schedules, tire pressures, crossroads, and the eternal drumming of the big tires.
Pitiful refugees filled Teheran. Every day brought more and more deaths among ragged men, women, children and babes-in-arms, and the RMT men were thankful further help was on the way.
The city itself was modern enough in some ways with wide streets, big shops, and traffic lights which didn't work. But sanitation was scanty indeed. Persians washed themselves, their dishes and clothes, in streams at the edge of streets. To get a hot bath seemed hopeless. Finally, at the best hotel the drivers found a chip heater, stoked it up, and soaked luxuriously.
The two successes, the trip and the bath, called for celebration, and a friendly Polish soldier obliged. To their surprise, the drivers held their vodka far better than the Pole. Orchestras in Teheran's cabarets were a distinct improvement on the one in Kazvin, and at a floor show George recorded seeing ‘more white girl than one would think possible’. Scottish residents took the drivers to their homes and entertained them until 19 April, when the long trip back to 4 RMT Company began.
While the serum-loaded truck was crossing the Transjordan most of 4 RMT Company, after only four days' break at Maadi, left Africa for the second time. They too were Baghdad bound, loaded with drugs, dressings, and clothing and blankets to be distributed among the unfortunate Poles. This was by far the page 171 company's longest single convoy journey, and it went without a hitch. Over the glittering white sands of the Sinai Desert rolled the 110 vehicles, averaging 100 miles between dawn and dusk across trails where camels with their patient 30 miles a day plodded since time beyond memory. The rich orchards of Palestine and the Transjordan gave way to desert and the oil pipeline, a lonely thread to the skyline. Soon the convoy entered the desert country served by the Nairn brothers, Diggers of the First World War, who had pioneered the Baghdad-Damascus bus service. Sure enough, out of a distant dust cloud appeared a bus, about the size of a New Zealand railcar, passing by to cheers from the drivers. Across the Euphrates on 13 April, with Baghdad in sight, the company dumped the supplies at a Polish camp.
Leave sent drivers to the Nairn brothers' office to fire professional questions, to swop experiences in desert travel, and to hear that the air-conditioned buses, made in the United States, cost from £12,000 to £17,000 each. After this pay, in dinars, seemed to vanish even more smartly in exchange for Baghdad's remarkable silverware—and in beer at 4s a bottle.
Two nights later Driver Heginbotham,4 of D Platoon, awoke to find an Iraqi robbing his kit. The thief shot at him and escaped. At dawn Heginbotham saw three natives escaping and, firing a warning shot, seriously wounded one in the head. From now on gear and trucks had to be watched closely. Routine orders quoted these thefts from a Ford utility car left by the roadside for only a few hours:
|1 radiator||1 distributor|
|2 radiator top hoses||1 coil and condenser|
|1 generator||1 HT lead assembly|
|1 carburettor||1 battery|
|1 air cleaner||2 battery cables|
|1 fuel pump||2 domelights|
|1 oil filter pump||3 window blinds|
|4 body window glasses||1 front bumper|
|2 windscreens||2 headlamp glasses|
|4 inside door handles||2 headlamp bulbs|
|2 outside door handles||1 wheel, tire and tube|
|1 rear seat||2 electric horns|
|2 pedal rubbers|
The Baghdad convoy carried Indians of 9 Battalion Jat Regiment—963 men—to Haifa, on the way taking them on at hockey and soccer and losing. Stopping by a camp, Bryan Ward crammed some sixty men in his lorry and headed for the camp cinema. An officious red-cap sergeant barked: ‘You can't leave that truck there.’ Jim Churton,5 dry as a chip, said: page 173 ‘Let's fold the b—— up and take it inside.’ The sergeant, tottering, was led away. During a few days at Attira Camp, which was untidy, dirty and full of flies, parties under Padre Jamieson escaped thankfully to tour Nazareth and Mount Carmel. After one last visit to Damascus, delivering 7560 cases of petrol and oil, the convoy settled down at Rayak, where the rear party of 61 vehicles, after a five-day trip from Maadi, was already at home. Quarters were in huts and in a large concrete building on Rayak aerodrome. Two ranges of mountains sheltered a broad plain and vineyards.
The 6th RMT had reached Rayak well before its brother company. From Libya it had returned to Maadi on 29 March, camping opposite the Lowry Hut. Second-Lieutenant Aickin6 and 82 other ranks (but no trucks) marched in from Base Training Depot NZASC to form the new D Platoon. After a brief 42 hours in Maadi Camp the company was off again, heading for Haifa with stores, and then settling down in Rayak's barracks on 5 April. Quickly making themselves comfortable at Rayak, where a rousing show by the Kiwi Concert Party helped everyone feel at home, the platoons went to work on local duties with railway, engineer, and base supply units. A Platoon left for local duties in Aleppo. Major Good arranged accommodation for three-day leave parties in Beirut (at the Palmyra, 25 beds; the Amerique, 25 beds; the National, 30 beds), and the first leave party went off promptly. On 25 April (ten days after 4 RMT's advance party arrived at Rayak) 6 RMT moved to Aleppo. D Platoon had gone on ahead by train, and was taken to Vanniere Barracks7 by Ammunition Company transport. The new platoon then took over from the Australians 26 three-tonners, 15 of them in fair condition, the rest faulty and peevish. The vehicles had no spares or tools, but they managed to carry the platoon off to Raqqa, where Tommies (isolated, forgotten by entertainers) were building a new military bridge over the Euphrates. The RMT platoon, carting materials for these engineers, pitied the lonely Britons. page 174 Doug Hessey,8 Reg Donald,9 Johnny Gash,10 Charlie Moore,11 George Sheddan and others staged several concerts. They didn't have one musical instrument in the platoon, so drivers gave duets, solos, comedy items, hakas, and so on. The Tommies said the second concert was one of the best they had ever seen. ‘Surprisingly enough,’ said one driver, ‘our songs, parodies of popular hits, were mostly as clean as snow.’
During a beer drought at Raqqa Aickin collected the payroll from Company Headquarters in Aleppo and on the way home ‘found a source of beer supply’. The only cash was the platoon payroll, so to his lasting credit the lieutenant promptly invested 75 per cent of it in beer. Next day at pay parade drivers had the option of taking their pay in beer or in cash. Says Lieutenant Aickin, ‘We had to ration the beer, not the cash.’
At Aleppo 6 RMT continued local duties all through May, carting mail, stores, explosives, labourers, supplies, and runing up to Deir ez Zor with ammunition and petrol. Now, apart from preparing defences, some New Zealanders were concerned in distributing food (mainly flour) to destitute civilians. One day two 6 RMT men, Lance-Corporal Williams12 and Driver Don Fraser,13 left Aleppo, taking a truckload of flour away up into the northern hills to the monks in a little village. Williams recalls:
When we arrived in the village there was great excitement. Swarms of children and grown ups closed in around us, and I told Don that he had better stay and keep them away from the truck while I located the monks, all of which seemed quite a job. However before I got going one of the monks arrived through the crowd, and asked us both to follow him. Don and I looked at each other a bit nonplussed. In the end I thought: ‘Well, we've delivered the page 175 flour any way, even if they do help themselves.’ And thinking as usual of the light-fingered Wog, I said aloud: ‘Well, we can't leave our rifles, anyway.’
The old monk said very calmly: ‘But you do not understand—this is a Christian village.’ He then spoke quietly and gently to some of the people, and led us away. I could almost see Courts Martial looming ahead for deserting all that Army gear. But there was such a terrific sensation of good and peace about the whole thing that it seemed to engulf us too.
We were led up into the monastery, given a wash, and fed on eggs and everything they had. It was all spotlessly clean and very bare. We each had a glass of glorious wine. Then we were told that the Father Superior would like to welcome us. We now began to wonder if they had mistaken Lance-Corporal Williams and Driver Fraser for Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. Then it began to dawn on us that perhaps after all we were the representatives of the British Government to that little village.
We were taken up a big flight of stairs and ushered into another big room and presented to an old, old man with a kindly face whose skin was like parchment. All the monks spoke English beautifully, and were so unworldly, and courteous, and homely. While the Father Superior was looking us over (I don't think he spoke English) the highlight was brought in. This was tiny thimblefulls of a liqueur, which we drank with the old man. They must have been keeping that for such an occasion from the beginning of the century. We felt ourselves true representatives of the Crown.
We were escorted back to our truck, which we found had been unloaded during our absence—three tons of flour. Nothing else had been touched, and there were still crowds of smiling children playing round it, but not one in or within feet of it. Those monks must have had something in the way of discipline that the Army never had.
Sounds a bit like a missionary yarn, doesn't it? But it wasn't even as if we had been R.C.'s—our religion or our politics didn't count. And war seemed very far away. It was just a Christian village—but I've never seen another like it—anywhere in the world.
It was good to look around at living hills and the far-away snowline and to soak up the clean air. There wasn't much doing in the little villages poked away in the long valleys or gummed to the hills. Set grandly on commanding heights were signs of old invasions. The Crusaders had left behind them picture-book forts, often with underground stables where their page 176 transport — big-boned horses and liverish mules — had kept medieval workshops sections sweating. Those ruins of the Temple of Venus at Baalbek ‘were grouse—the best of all the ruins’. [Build, build the ramparts of your giant town, yet they shall crumble to the dust before the battering thistledown.] With a guidebook handy, a chap in his letters home could toss about dates and queer names to his heart's content. But fond memories of the home-town pub got a severe jolt alongside the beer gardens of Zahle. Wealth in Syrian pounds (worth 2s 6d each) did not last long on leave in Beirut and Aleppo; still there was always the Kiwi Concert Party, EFI shows, or the New Zealand Mobile Film Unit.
But there was malaria—a man felt a fool in anti-mosquito Bombay Bloomers, which the Army never knew whether to call short longs or long shorts. Nobody was happy about the Japs drawing steadily nearer to New Zealand, and news of American assistance wasn't always entirely reassuring. Summer coming on brought heatwaves, beer wasn't too plentiful, and the local drink, arrack, was wicked.
The country had been done over thoroughly the year before in getting rid of the Vichy French, and the Syrians, many of them Arabs with dignity and intelligence, were rather aloof and poor. Thieves stole anything, from the rubber flaps on mudguards to goods from a moving truck.
The Division's job in Syria was to build a fortress, just in case of German invasion, covering the northern entrance to the Bekaa Valley, about 30 miles from Rayak. Within elaborate defences would run a network of roads, and tracks for mules would cover the roughest parts. Dumps of ammunition, food, petrol and oil would fill caves and pits. Here the Division could shelter, self-contained and secure, for at least 60 days, and sweep out to harass the invaders. Fourth Brigade worked hard on these defences while 6 Brigade patrolled near the Turkish border. Later 5 Brigade arrived from Libya and took over from 6 Brigade, which came back to work on the defences.
Tying in with 4 Brigade's task was 4 RMT. Operating platoons, which on 1 May had changed designation from letters to numbers (A Platoon becoming No. 1 Platoon), carted material for road builders, explosives, rations, working parties, page 177 stores, gravel for 9 New Zealand Railway Survey Company, prefabricated huts, ice, and even potatoes and fertiliser by the ton. And, for good measure, a few Bren carriers (3 tons 13 cwt.) as well. One break from this work came with a ceremonial parade at Wavell Barracks, Baalbek, when General Freyberg presented awards won by the NZASC in the Second Libyan Campaign.14 A less formal parade later ‘of dogs in charge of company personnel’ eliminated all mascots and pets except ‘Acker’ and ‘Ben’, in charge respectively of Driver Barnes,15 3 Platoon, and Driver Huggins,16 4 Platoon. An unfortunate accident happened at this time when Driver Foster,17 of 3 Platoon, fell to his death from a top-story window in the Rayak barracks.
After comfortable Rayak, El Aine camp, further up the valley, seemed doubly dismal. The company settled there, among rocks and wind, on 20 May. The place was handy to the Bekaa Valley fortress, now in fair shape, near which large-scale divisional manoeuvres were about to begin.
Using about 8000 gallons of petrol, 4 RMT Company manoeuvred with men of 4 Infantry Brigade over rough desert. The exercises gave units practice in co-operation and in day and night movements by road and desert. Further flag signals for halting and changing formation were tried out, along with experiments in formations and methods of movement. Out of these exercises came the desert formations used so successfully later by the Division.
Back to Baalbek went 4 RMT Company on 4 June. Four days later three operating platoons went to Aleppo, to lift 5 Infantry Brigade for a desert exercise. A week later everyone knew the Division would be on the move again—heading south, certainly, but how far this time? Even to Enzed, maybe? The move was top secret, yet Syrian dealers instantly began page 178 debt-collecting. Shoulder titles, hat badges, and the divisional signs on vehicles were all removed. Farewell parties were forbidden. The 6th RMT fortunately had just celebrated its 1941 Christmas dinner, postponed until June 1942 ‘owing to circumstances beyond our control’.
Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division was off from Baalbek at 6 a.m. on 16 June, opening for business again five days later 900 miles away, near Mersa Matruh. By 18 June 4 RMT was on the way carrying 5 Brigade and 5 Field Park Company, while 6 RMT took its place in 6 Brigade. The sun beat down from summer skies over the convoys winding mile after mile through old biblical lands, across the Delta, and up into the Desert, where the German, triumphant, was sweeping all before him.