CHAPTER 4 — Syria
When the survivors of Sidi Rezegh arrived back in their old lines at Baggush they were joined by that portion of the battalion which had been left behind at Sidi Haneish—a group so chosen that it might form the nucleus of a new battalion in the event of disaster. Under the circumstances this had proved to be a wise precaution. The LOB (Left Out of Battle) personnel, as they were termed, were horrified to discover how many of their comrades were missing, for till now they had not been aware of the extent of the losses. But regrets have no place in the atmosphere of war; all that is required is that the damage be remedied, the gaps filled, and a bold front reassumed at the earliest possible moment. Reinforcements of both officers and men began to arrive while casualty lists were still being compiled. Lieutenant-Colonel Greville1 took over command on 10 December and chose Lieutenant Reynolds as his adjutant in place of Captain Carnachan, who had been taken prisoner. A fortnight later it was known that Lieutenant Yeoman and Private Friday were to receive respectively the MC and DCM as immediate awards for gallantry in the Libyan campaign. Reorganisation and training proceeded apace until Christmas, when a certain seasonal relaxation was permitted. Christmas dinners were made to resemble those of tradition as closely as circumstances would permit. General Freyberg visited the messes and announced, somewhat obscurely, that quarters would be more comfortable at the next place to be visited. Various interpretations were placed upon these words, but for the time being nothing happened. Towards the end of January a move was made to Maadi Camp; then for a few days 6 Brigade was held in readiness to suppress civil commotion in Cairo, should such page 91 take place. King Farouk of Egypt was to be coerced by a show of force into a more amenable frame of mind. The 24th Battalion's part in this operation was to maintain order in the suburb of Sharia Shubra. Taking up quarters in Abbassia barracks, it staged a series of marches through the streets with bayonets fixed, the men having been previously instructed to look as grim as possible. After four days of this procedure, when Farouk had been reduced to a more pliable mood, the battalion returned once more to Maadi.
At this period of the war Egypt was threatened actually and immediately by way of the North African coastline, and potentially by a thrust through Turkey or southern Russia. In the event of one or both of these last-named operations being attempted, the enemy's southward advance must come by way of Syria, of which country the Vichy French had lately been dispossessed. To guard against such a possibility, the Ninth Army moved into positions covering the approaches that led into Palestine through the ranges of Syria. The 2nd New Zealand Division formed part of this army.
While 5 Brigade remained for the time being in the Western Desert, 4 and 6 Brigades began to move into Syria at the end of February and beginning of March, stage by stage, unit after unit. The 24th Battalion crossed the Suez Canal by ferry on 12 March and continued its journey alternately by train and motor transport via El Kehir, Haifa, Beirut, Rayak, and Aleppo, finally arriving late on the night of 14 March at Afrine camp.
The Division's main line of defence lay astride the Bekaa valley, between Beirut and Damascus, but 6 Brigade moved 150 miles to the north and formed a chain of outposts along the marches of Syria. The greater part of the Turkish frontier was masked by the Taurus mountains, but two lines of approach were open to a mechanised army—one along the coastline bordering the Gulf of Alexandretta, and another down the Kara Sou valley, which opened a way to Antioch and Aleppo. The former route lay entirely within Turkish territory and could not be directly guarded, but a measure of surveillance could be exercised over the Kara Sou valley from behind the Syrian border. With this task in view 6 Brigade established page 92 its headquarters at Aleppo, maintaining one battalion (the 26th) in the immediate vicinity, either to form a reserve in case of attack or to deal with civil commotion should such arise. The 25th was grouped west of Aleppo, between that town and Antioch, while the 24th occupied the salient of Syrian territory jutting north-west towards Anatolia, and commanding the most likely way of approach for a hostile army. Dispersed as they were over a vast expanse of territory, the units of 6 Brigade could not expect to hold an invading army in check for long. The enemy might, however, be delayed by page 93 various means. Roads, railways, and bridges were mined, and preparations made to guard the demolitions till the last possible moment. When retreat finally became a matter of necessity, all demolitions would be blown and the brigade would withdraw on the main line of defence. This strategy was aptly termed one of ‘Blow and Go’.2
The 24th Battalion had its headquarters at Afrine, a large village 35 miles north-west of Aleppo, where there was a well- appointed camp of corrugated iron huts, but only a small portion of the unit remained there. A control post, one platoon strong, was maintained at Meidane Ekbes, where the railway entered Syria at the north-westerly salient of its territory. South of this point there were three railway demolitions to be guarded—all some considerable distance apart—at the North Tunnel, the Viaduct, and the Saddle. Of these the Viaduct was considered most important, not only on account of the length of time it would take to repair if properly demolished, but also because, being impossible of approach by wheeled vehicles of any kind, it could be less easily attacked. Two rifle companies with mortar and signal detachments were required to man these outposts, and for the sake of convenience a forward headquarters was established at Radjou, another village 20 miles north-west of Afrine, under command of Major Webb. At an equal distance to the south-west another control post was stationed at El Hamman, where the main road from Afrine crossed into Turkish territory, and due east of this point, eight miles within the Syrian border, another company was maintained to supply detachments in this part of 24 Battalion's zone. It was thought probable that hostile enterprise would assume one of two forms: either an attempt to tamper with demolitions through the agency of spies or fifth columnists, or a surprise attack by light forces. An airborne operation was regarded as barely practicable. To deal with whatever emergency might arise, a mobile column was held in readiness, consisting of a rifle company, the battalion's carrier platoon, and supporting artillery.3page 94
The concentration of troops on the frontiers of an independent state is an act capable of more than one interpretation, and it is not to be wondered at that the attitude of the Turks was one of friendliness tempered with suspicion. Their frontier patrols paid official visits to our control posts, but when 24 Battalion carried out a tactical exercise near El Hamman with what strength it could muster after providing for the numerous routine duties, the Turks showed symptoms of alarm. Their sentries in this region were doubled, and they began to question civilians about the number of our troops, tanks, and guns.
Relations with the civil population, being of necessity more intimate, were also more complex. Scene of an early civilisation long since decayed, Syria had suffered centuries of mis- rule. After the fashion of mediaeval times, her people were constrained to seek safety by living in communities. There were no isolated houses in the Afrine district, and the inhabitants, mainly Kurds, were congregated in villages containing usually from 150 to 300 families. Till very lately Radjou had had an evil reputation as a happy hunting ground for bandits, and the local population had special permission from their government to go about armed. The attitude of these people was for the most part friendly, but, as might be expected of men who carried knives in their belts, their manners were by no means obsequious. They were not likely to tolerate being treated as an inferior race—a fact to which terse allusion was made in a document emanating from Battalion Headquarters: ‘The chief fact to remember is, in short, that the Syrian is not a “Wog”, but is a much tougher proposition.’4
Among such a people, inured to robbery from time immemorial, it was scarcely to be expected that the property of Christian unbelievers would be regarded as inviolable. Arms were in the greatest demand, but almost any kind of army stores was liable to be pilfered. Removable fittings of trucks were stolen from vehicles left unattended even for a few moments, and stores were lifted, by some ingenious expedient, from the backs of trucks travelling the roads. Drivers were enjoined to be vigilant, and at the same time were forbidden on any page 95 account to give rides to civilians; besides which they were further harassed by demands that more than usual care be taken on the roads, as the local Syrians, being entirely unaccustomed to fast-moving traffic, showed an amazing aptitude for getting run over.
In all probability the greater part of the population was not so much either hostile or friendly as merely opportunist, but in many cases the same officials who had served Vichy France remained in office under the present regime. Some of these men, no doubt, were politically apathetic, but others remained secretly loyal to their former masters. In time of war every neutral country whose frontiers march with those of the belligerents becomes a field of activity for spies, and Turkey was no exception to this rule. It was not difficult for Syrians specially trained as German agents to cross the border into their native country. In such a state of affairs it was no easy matter to distinguish between the friendly advances of well- wishers and the subtle approaches of those whose business it was to gather information of military significance. Anyone whose behaviour seemed even remotely suspicious had to be treated as an enemy until his goodwill should be proved beyond all doubt. The Australians, from whom 24 Battalion took over, had endeavoured to separate sheep from goats by preparing an ‘index of district personalities’.5 The index was kept up to date, and before long it included the names of the local doctor and schoolmaster at Radjou, both of whom had appeared somewhat unduly anxious to buy drinks for the troops. The telephone system offered a less direct but possibly more effective means of discovering official secrets, since all the lines connecting companies to Battalion Headquarters, and Battalion Headquarters to Brigade, were operated through civilian exchanges. The lines between Afrine and Radjou were cut in two places soon after the battalion arrived, and a week later the performance was repeated, but this may have been a mere gesture of independence on the part of some self- conscious patriot rather than a calculated act of sabotage.
Land and people might have formed the background for a work of sensational fiction. Wickedness flourished in all its page 96 more exotic forms. In addition to banditry and espionage, smuggling was also an important local industry. Indeed it was doubtful whether all three were not interdependent activities breeding fear and hatred which occasionally broke out in acts of violence. For example, one day word came to Battalion Headquarters that a villager in Radjou had been shot dead. A party sent forthwith to investigate found that three more villagers had been killed in the meantime. The crimes, it transpired, were committed by a customs official supposedly involved in the smuggling trade. The murderer, however, succeeded in escaping, and inquiries only served to call forth a mass of conflicting evidence which could neither be disproved nor substantiated. In spite of all obstacles in the way of successful detection, the failure of our authorities to arrest and punish the criminal was regarded by the local inhabitants as a sign of weakness. Radjou, which the troops were not immediately anxious to visit in any case, was placed out of bounds for 24 hours—a step scarcely liable to enhance the temporarily diminished prestige of the occupying army.
Prestige is an abstract value of untold worth that nations contend for; it may serve to emphasize the threats or sustain the assurances of statesmen; its influence may be used to avert unnecessary war; its possession can only arise out of past reputation or derive from existing strength and merit. But strength is only impressive when actually put into effect or ostentatiously displayed, and in recognition of this fact the New Zealanders were ordered to adopt a policy of ‘showing the flag’ whenever and wherever possible. The culminating stage of this policy was a ceremonial march through the streets of Aleppo by New Zealand infantry and artillery, the Royal Air Force and Free French cavalry, in which A and B Companies of 24 Battalion took part. Prestige of another variety was sought after by enjoining all ranks to do their best to maintain good relations with the local inhabitants. In the belief that smartness of appearance would enhance popularity, troops were exhorted to appear correctly dressed in public and, above all, to ensure that their jackets were fastened at the neck.
Rations were lean in Syria. In fact this was probably the only period of the war when the men were really hungry. page 97 The mountain sheep from which their meat came were chiefly notable for a wealth of inedible by-products. Bone, skin, and gristle they grew in abundance, but very little meat. The vegetable was mainly native spinach, a large amount of which would boil down to almost nothing. Attempts were made to supplement rations by using grenades to kill fish in the streams, but on the whole there was little to be drawn from a country bordering upon a state of famine. Inhabitants of outlying villages were crowding into the larger centres, where they believed grain was stored. British and American Red Cross authorities were arranging for food to be sent to famine- threatened areas, and one of the first duties the New Zealanders were required to undertake after arriving in Syria was the equitable distribution of these supplies. On 17 March 5000 pounds of flour were distributed at Radjou, and a larger amount at Afrine a few days later. From outlying villages came men with scores of small donkeys to collect their share and pack-load it home. The ceremony of distribution, though organised by the methodical West, was thoroughly oriental in tone and atmosphere. Stately elders and headmen of villages vouched for each man and the number of his dependants as he came forward to collect his share. There was some chattering and delay—for here in the East time is neither valued nor measured—and then the loaded donkeys, guided or driven by men, moved off to return to their own places. Thus might the scene have appeared in a pageant of some ancient, patriarchal period; thus it might actually have taken place in the days when Joseph's brethren went to buy corn in Egypt.
Heavy rain deluged northern Syria when 6 Brigade first arrived there; then came frosts and cold winds by day. Not until towards the end of March did the sodden ground become passable for motor vehicles. Though the climate was invigorating, the country was far from healthy. Malaria was always rife in the hot season, and this inflicted the necessity for irksome precautions. The men slept under mosquito nets, care- tully tucked in to avoid leaving gaps which might admit mosquitoes; huts and tents were sprayed at dawn and dusk; boots and anklets had to be worn after dark; hands and faces were smeared with mosquito ointment, which lost its effectiveness page 98 after two hours and had to be reapplied. A battalion malarial squad was formed to see that all preventive measures were carried out, but even so there were omissions and over- sights. Many of A Company's men went down with high fever and malarial symptoms after having been on duty guarding the demolition at the North Tunnel. Research and inquiry revealed that these men, when actually inside the tunnel, had observed the usual precautions between dawn and dusk; but as semi-darkness prevailed there throughout the day, the mosquitoes had extended their activities to include what would normally have been hours of daylight.
A few cases of typhus had appeared among refugees fleeing to Syria from Balkan countries, and in consequence all ranks were warned to be on guard against lice and to report their condition at once should they chance to become infested. This was a condition to which the most cautious and cleanly persons might find themselves suddenly reduced through no fault of their own. On one occasion two men came upon a tortoise and picked the creature up. Shortly afterwards both found themselves infested. An examination of tortoises in general revealed that 90 per cent of them were lousy.
Venereal disease was immensely prevalent among the people of Syria, but neither at this nor at any other time of the war was 24 Battalion seriously affected by it.
Early in April A and B Companies, which had been guarding the frontier demolitions, were relieved by C and D and returned to the vicinity of Afrine; but a few days later 6 Brigade, after relief by 5 Brigade, was ordered to move south and take up positions in the Djedeide Fortress. This consisted of a chain of defensive works covering the northern entrance to the Bekaa valley, between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. On the way south the motor transport columns halted before Hama, where the troops debussed, formed up behind a band, and carried out a ‘flag march’ through the main street. The same performance was repeated later at Homs, and though on both occasions the townspeople seemed unimpressed, it was noticed that they became better disposed towards the British thereafter.
Half of April was past when 6 Brigade arrived at Zabboud page 99 camp, in the Bekaa valley, where a short stay was made before the battalions dispersed to take up a series of isolated positions in the Lebanon range. Undulating foothills rose out of the valley floor, gradually piling up into mountains and forming a great natural bastion which overlooked and dominated the northern approaches. In the eastern, or Anti-Lebanon range, units of 4 Brigade were similarly distributed. From Zabboud, then, B Company of 24 Battalion moved out to camp at Hotham, twelve miles to the north-west, to dig and occupy defensive positions. C Company was employed in improving a pack track close by at Little Hotham. D remained at Zabboud to carry out training, while A moved 20 miles up the valley to perform guard duties at the Divisional Ammunition Depot at Baalbek. There were periodical reliefs so that each company in turn might have a respite from manual labour and a spell of training at Zabboud.
Before the move to Syria Brigadier Clifton6- had taken over command of 6 Brigade from Brigadier Barrowclough. While B Company of 24 Battalion dug defensive positions under camouflage nets on the summit of a 6000-foot mountain at Hotham, the new Brigade Commander made a practice of inspecting the works through powerful field glasses from the summit of a neighbouring hill. On those occasions when he could see nothing going on, he would complain of the lack of activity; to which reply was made that his inability to see any work in progress, far from being cause for complaint, merely proved that the camouflage was effective. While searching for some variety of diet, the company commander's cook had succeeded in tapping a supply of oysters. From these he made excellent fritters. One day the Brigadier arrived at lunchtime and, having partaken, made a practice thereafter of timing his visits for the same hour and requesting that oyster fritters be supplied for the meal. This hospitality, it would appear, led to some contravention of the tenth commandment, for the cook was afterwards removed to Brigade Headquarters.page 100
Meanwhile, whichever company happened to be at Zabboud carried out training of the most enterprising kind. Long treks into the mountains with pack mules were the order of the day. Made either by companies or platoons, always fully self-contained, these long marches usually lasted two or three days. Towards the end of May a brigade marching competition was held, one company from each of the three battalions being competitors. The route lay from Zabboud up a long steep climb to Hotham, thence to Wadi Fara, down into the valley again, and so back to Zabboud—a total distance of about 35 miles. Full-scale equipment was carried on mules, two to a section, supplied by the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. The competing companies set out at half-hour intervals, B Company, representing the 24th, being the last to start. The 25th Battalion put up the fastest time, but had lost many men and mules en route and was considered to have arrived back in a state unfit for action. The 26th arrived almost without loss, but its time was very much slower. Striking a happy medium between these two performances, with the loss of only two mules, 24 Battalion was adjudged the winner, with 117 points as against 115 for the runner-up.
The defence works at Djedeide being now practically complete, 24 Battalion's companies were gathered once more at Zabboud. At the end of May 6 Brigade moved out into open country at the head of the Bekaa valley to take part in divisional manoeuvres. On Friday the 29th, ‘at 0750 hrs the transport was drawn up and the troops embussed. The manoeuvre, which was to be a battle practice, was to be carried out under normal war conditions and consequently a number of personnel, in accordance with instructions laid down in Divisional Standing Orders, were detailed to remain back at Camp as “Left out of Battle”. At 0801 hrs the first truck moved off closely followed by a long stream of vehicles in column of route. All the troops were happily looking forward to the exercise, for it would indeed be a break from normal routine and the rather monotonous work of digging defences and building roads. The Bn headed in the direction of Homs, and after leaving the road the vehicles dispersed and reformed up into desert formation. In this formation a number of exercises were carried out until page 101 1330 hours when a halt was called for lunch. Lunch over, the Bn pitched camp and erected bivouac tents in the area which was an extensive level plain rising into more undulating country in the distance. Several vivid mirages were seen, some of which gave the appearance of a seashore with islands and headlands rising from the water. Despite the heat and the lateness of the season snow could still be seen in patches on the lofty peaks of the Lebanon mountains in the West. Another phenomenon that amazed many who had previously had little or no experience of the Desert, was a remarkable whirlwind which whirled a huge spiral of dust many hundreds of feet into the air. Until 2000 hrs the Bn rested, when a night compass march was commenced. To a number of recent arrivals who had never taken part in big manoeuvres at night such a march in the dark over the featureless plain was a novel experience, and some were not a little amazed when after seemingly wandering round over the Desert in circles for a fairly long time, the Intelligence Officer had done a clever piece of navigation and had led them home into the centre of their bivvy lines.’7
So passed the first day. The remainder of the time was spent in practising movements in formation, in co-operation with the RAF. Finally, on 2 June, the manoeuvres ended with an infantry advance and a live shoot by artillery, machine guns, and three-inch mortars.
Owing to various causes, to the manner of men who fill its ranks and the conduct and character of those by whom it is commanded, a military formation assumes, within a very short space of time, certain characteristics which make or mar its reputation. The 24th Battalion, being now two years of age, could claim to have passed through this formative period with credit. Neither the long, disheartening retreat through Greece nor the disastrous overrunning at Sidi Rezegh had bred discouragement; a good name having been earned by performance rather than inherited by tradition, it was with justifiable pride that the battalion's second birthday was celebrated on 15 May. No combined festivities were possible since the companies were widely separated, but cooks and quarter- page 102 masters rose magnificently to the occasion, and a great quantity of provisions was destroyed.
The Syrian interlude was fast drawing to a close. These were dark days in the Western Desert, where Rommel struck hard at the end of May. In the second week of June, while 6 Brigade moved north again to Afrine, the Eighth Army had begun a withdrawal that was only to end at the lines of El Alamein.
The 24th arrived at Afrine on 10 June, but the camp to be taken over was occupied by 22 Battalion, which moved out, somewhat reluctantly it would appear, two days later. A and B Companies had taken over the frontier posts, while C had gone to Latakia on the coast to spend four days at a rest camp, when the Division received orders to return to Egypt. C Company was at once recalled and shortly afterwards arrived back at Afrine, both disappointed and mystified. In preparing to leave, every conceivable precaution was taken to ensure that the move should be kept secret. Unit signs remained in position and tents were left standing. Shoulder titles were removed and the divisional signs on all vehicles painted over. No leave was to be granted during the journey and all large towns would be avoided wherever possible. But secrets are hard to preserve in the East and, by the time 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion arrived to take over from the 24th, the civil population was as well or better informed about the New Zealanders' destination than were the troops themselves.
The five-day journey began on 19 June. Travelling south through Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Rayak, the columns crawled over the Anti-Lebanons and ran into an intense heat wave on the frontiers of Palestine. The temperature rose until ‘without warning serious tyre trouble occurred throughout the entire convoy. Not just punctures but tremendous blow-outs were normal experiences rather than exceptional, and the loud explosion that could be heard from time to time denoted another torn mass of shapeless rubber that was once a good tyre. Shortly after the trouble commenced an order was passed down to all drivers, “Check tyre pressures at all halts.” Then the source of all the blow-outs was traced. The trucks were maintaining a good speed, the roads were hot and the temperatures page 103 abnormal, and these three factors combined caused the air in the tyres to heat up and expand, with a result that the tyres were carrying a pressure far in excess of that originally placed in them. After two hours' running it was found that air pressure had doubled itself, and usually as much as 20 pounds had to be let out of the rear tyres. From the time that a regular check on pressures was ordered, tyre trouble was negligible.’8
In abnormal heat machines behaved abnormally, and scarcely was this problem solved when another presented itself. ‘In the trucks the temperature gauges showed only too clearly the effect of this terrific heat on the engines–the needles rocketed over to boiling point and stayed there. The benzine heated up in the tanks, vaporized before it reached the petrol pumps, and, one by one, trucks which had been running so sweetly faltered, coughed, and finally stopped. No matter what the drivers tried to do, it was in vain. Only one thing could be done, and that was to wait for the engines to cool down.’9
Fortunately for the drivers many of these breakdowns occurred on the level road skirting the Sea of Galilee, and while the engines cooled the men bathed. Next day a small quantity of oil was added to the benzine, and thenceforward breakdowns were few as the columns moved on through Palestine and Sinai. They finally arrived at Amiriya on 24 June. The haste of the recent journey had given everyone to expect a rapid march into the Western Desert, and the troops were surprised to hear that, since in all probability they would not be wanted for the next fortnight, they were to go for the present to a rest camp at Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria.10 Having moved there and made preparations to stay, the men of 24 Battalion were granted leave to Alexandria on 27 June —25 per cent of them until 11 p.m. and the remainder till 5.30 p.m. Some made for the city; others went to bathe and idle on the beaches. Every man according to his own peculiar tastes prepared to enjoy a holiday free from the atmosphere page 104 of war. But war is a state in being from which escape is not easy. Scarcely had the troops left camp when orders came for their immediate recall. Military police in Alexandria were directed to send back all 24 Battalion personnel to Sidi Bishr, while those officers who had remained in camp went off in trucks to look for their men. As they came in, gradually, by small parties, grumbling at being thus suddenly deprived of an expected pleasure, they were packed into trucks with their equipment, regardless of the company to which they belonged, and taken forthwith to Amiriya. By midnight all were not present but the occasion allowed no delay. Stragglers were left to rejoin as best they might, and the battalion set out for the lines of El Alamein.
1 Lt-Col A. W. Greville, m.i.d.; born NZ 5 Aug 1897; Regular soldier; comd Advanced Party 2 NZEF1939; DAQMG 1940–41; CO 24 Bn 8 Dec 1941-22 Jul 1942; killed in action 22 Jul 1942.
2 War diary, 6 Bde.
3 ‘My strength is a Bn Gp consisting of 24 NZ Bn with under comd. one Bty Fd Arty, one Tp A-Tk Arty, one Pl MMG.’—Appreciation of the situation at Afrine, 21 Mar 1942, by Lt-Col Greville, in 24 Bn war diary.
4 24 Bn administration order, 16 Mar 1942.
5 24 Bn Intelligence summary, 21 March.
6 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and two bars, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; CRE 2 NZ Div 1940-41; CE 30 Corps 1941-42; comd 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped in Germany Mar 1945; seconded to HQ BCOF (Japan) 1946-47; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949-Jan 1952; Commandant, Northern Military District, Mar 1952-
7 War diary, 24 Bn, May 1942.
8 War diary, 24 Bn, June 1942.
10 It had been decided by the High Command that there were too many infantry in a division.-2 NZEF Weekly Narrative.