CHAPTER 10 — The Syrian Holiday
The Syrian Holiday
It was a good feeling to be returning to the Division though the journey began into a miserable south wind which was whipping up a dust-storm. Coming through this, up to Sidi Omar, were convoys of big supply lorries, the lifeline of the Eighth Army, lumbering along ten or twelve abreast in the murk like herds of elephants.
The journey started on 6 January, each squadron picking its own route along the frontier to Sheferzen, then east about 40 miles to Sofafi, down the escarpment there and north across the flat to Buqbuq. Thence the route lay along the main road to Baggush.
Passing Sidi Azeiz, C Squadron paused at Headquarters 30 Corps to hand over its four General Stuarts, now on their last legs. The whole regiment regretted losing them; though they had shown their value they would have been a hindrance as they were now in a bad state, having already come through two sets of hands which had no proper means of servicing them.
Once down the escarpment at Sofafi the squadrons crossed desert undisturbed by the recent fighting. The rains had set the surface and everything seemed fresh and peaceful, with the wild thyme putting out shy little buds and here and there patches of little lilies which had sprung out of the earth for brief joy in the sunlight.
One felt then, that the war was all over and that the desert was again becoming a place of quiet, with those patches of beauty as fitting places of rest for the many New Zealanders who would remain.
In comparison with the other units, the Divisional Cavalry casualty list was small; but so was Div Cav, and every loss was a personal loss. One officer and eight other ranks had been killed in action, three officers and 27 men wounded; six were prisoners of war, one of them wounded.
The trip to Baggush took over three days for by nightfall on the 8th A Squadron was still at Matruh and odd vehicles were strung out along the road. The drivers of these had no cause to be ashamed of their breakdowns as not one of the vehicles which had left Baggush had done fewer than 1000 miles, the page 170 accepted safe maximum without a major overhaul. This was preferred at 500 miles, but five vehicles had done over 2000 miles while the average mileage was 1762. Of the original 44 carriers and 28 tanks, 8 carriers and 20 tanks had been lost in the field, only three of this total abandoned through mechanical breakdowns. These figures say a lot for the standard of maintenance under difficult conditions and for the ingenuity of both the crews and the squadron fitters in repairing defects when and how they could.
The next three weeks at Baggush were marked by the inevitable reaction after a campaign. A quarter of the strength at a time was allowed a week's leave, and those that remained sensed a feeling of celebration and good humour. For one thing a list of honours and awards had been published: the General had been knighted; there were five decorations to the regiment for the Greece and Crete campaigns, and two earned in the LRDG; and for another thing, there were the official Christmas celebrations with their general relaxation of convention. Even a severe dust-storm on ‘Christmas Eve’ (16 January) failed to subdue anybody's ardour.
No serious training was done beyond some firing practices, during which all weapons, including captured ones, were used; and some day and night navigation exercises were staged for the benefit of some officers on exchange from the Composite Depot.
January the 23rd being a week after the official Christmas Eve, the men decided that unofficially they would hold a ‘New Year's Eve’ and with this they brought the sojourn at Baggush to a climax in a positively riotous evening in the squadron canteens.
A movement order to return to Maadi on the 26th came soon after, and the regiment packed up; but the inevitable dust-storm that seemed to mark all comings and goings again materialised that day so that the order suffered a last-minute cancellation. Three days later, however, both road and rail parties set out in clear weather.
The wheeled vehicles did the trip in two easy stages and the leader of the convoy was somewhat startled to find, of all things, a guide to lead the way from Mena to Maadi. The only unusual thing about the regiment's arrival in Maadi was, this time, the variety of transport. Apart from the normal MT, now well battle-marked, there was an assortment of German Fords and Opels still with the Africa Corps sign on them, and a beauti- page 171 fully appointed Mercedes ambulance. Joe Smyth's cooks' truck was a sight to see: with cookers installed, the truck bowled along the road, chimney smoking and boiler full of stew which could be produced piping hot only a few minutes after halting. The CO had gone ahead from Baggush for conferences and he had been astute enough to get authority from his G.1 to bring the enemy vehicles to Maadi. It would have been impossible to search the whole convoy at the Mena control post so, as a matter of course, a great variety of useful enemy equipment came too. There were enough Italian tank tarpaulins to cover almost every tent floor in the regiment; there were enemy pistols, too, and automatic weapons; Italian groundsheets—far more suitable than our own for making up bedrolls; a German ten-line telephone exchange with enough telephones to go all round the regiment; some very useful medical equipment and some typewriters; all sorts of things so handy in a base camp, particularly the telephones, since Div Cav was not issued with L/T1 equipment.
For the first time the regiment settled in an area with tents already pitched and in a pleasingly central position, which made some of the First Echelon men smile as they remembered having considered this same spot, their old vehicle park, as the very edge of beyond. Right opposite RHQ, the beautiful new Lowry Hut was now standing on the very spot where the regiment's furthermost AA pit had been—then, seemingly, a day's march from the mess—now almost the hub of the camp.
Originally it had been calculated that the expenditure of manpower in the Divisional Cavalry would be heavy and by now there were plenty of reinforcements in the Composite Depot, giving scope for an exchange which would transfuse plenty of good fresh blood into the regiment. This exchange was completed by the first week in February and the regiment settled down to a smartening-up process upon which, resulting as it did in the improved turnout and the crisp drill of the men, Lieutenant-Colonel Nicoll took care to extend his congratulations.
The balance of February was devoted to routine training, with the week's leave continuing for those returned from Libya, and ample day leave to Cairo, though this latter was a little upset by some political unrest there which required that the regiment, in its turn, should be under short notice to move. There were day and night exercises, both on foot and mounted, for all page 172 squadrons, all weapons were fired on the ranges—together with some unofficial practices with captured pistols—and the Signals Officer conducted a course in wireless for the troop leaders. On 12 February leave was granted to allow the men to watch a ceremonial parade at which General Auchinleck presented awards to men of the Division. The decorations of particular interest to the regiment were a DSO to Major J. T. Russell, who had left Div Cav to take command of 22 Battalion; Major E. R. Harford, DSO; Major H. A. Robinson, MC; Sergeant W. T. Weir, DCM; and Corporal A. Sperry, MM.
Notification came on 23 February of an impending move into Syria and a few days later the CO announced this news on regimental parade. On 4 March General Freyberg inspected the regiment and then addressed the officers and senior NCOs, giving a brief and valuable review of the lessons learned in Libya and an outline of what the Division would probably do in Syria.
The officers decided to wind up their Mess with a sherry party for the commanders of all the New Zealand units and the various services in the area. This developed into a dinner and was followed by a dance to which were invited a number of nursing sisters, VADs and friends of the regiment.
The move to Syria was rather complicated and covered a week from 13 March, the regiment moving by road and in two rail parties. Twelve of the best carriers had been overhauled in anticipation of the move but had to be handed in to Ordnance. This was just as disappointing as the order to take the Mark VI tanks, which were not worth keeping battle-worthy and which became an embarrassment when next the regiment smelt battle.
The general course of the war in southern Russia pointed towards an Axis thrust through Turkey into the Middle East, so the New Zealand Division, now greatly in need of a period for reinforcement and reorganisation, was ordered to build, a defensive line across the Lebanon valley and to be prepared to defend Syria. The immediate plan was therefore to build the defences while making a thorough reconnaissance of the country and then, treating the Lebanon position as a second defence, to practise mobile defence in front of it.
Building these positions, together with hard route-marching, was going to bring the Division up to a high pitch of physical fitness, and indeed the weather that greeted the New Zealanders, rain and sleet with snow in the hills, convinced them that fitness was essential.page 173
Part of the line ran down a spur across the valley between the villages of Ras Baalbek and Djedeide and then high up into the Lebanon hills along the Wadi Fara. The Divisional Cavalry was allotted road-building tasks, one at Laboue and the other up the wadi where strong gun positions would have to be supplied. A camp site was allotted the regiment on the spur below Djedeide. It was a difficult place to pitch tents as there was barely enough soil covering the rocks to hold tent pegs, and no sooner had the first parties got settled than the cold wet wind from the south caused several nocturnal disasters.page 174
This weather continued for several days and nights and ended with a hard frost as the wind dropped, leaving the whole of the Lebanon fresh and sweet and thinking of spring.
Besides preparing the country for defence there was another task that the New Zealanders, eminently suited, set themselves: gaining the goodwill and respect of the Arabs, hitherto very frigid towards the British.
Running through the Div Cav lines was a track used by the Arabs who, it was soon discovered, were expert thieves. Under the noses of the pickets they stole four tents in as many nights: and that was not exceptional since they could steal anything that was loose at one end. To them stealing was both livelihood and sport; from a daring theft they acquired honour; they earned shame not in being jailed for theft but in being caught.
But the Army was not there to entertain or clothe the natives, so on the night of 26 March the OC of HQ Squadron, Ralph McQueen, set a trap. Round a bait of tyres, among which he laid booby traps, he planted an ambush crew, armed mainly with Very pistols. These were loaded with an assortment of captured cartridges, most notable of which was one whose flare took a crazy course through the air, emitting a dreadful whistle which struck terror into your heart the first time you heard it.
The thieves arrived and were tempted; and over their heads there broke a pyrotechnic pandemonium. They fled in terror, sped by a few shots round their ears, abandoning as they went their ‘B Echelon’ of three mules and a donkey. With these animals was also a cloak, now twice damning to its owner in that it identified him, and in that he who lost his cloak in a fight disgraced himself.
The animals were held as ransom while the identification papers in the pocket of the cloak were taken next morning to the Field Security Section. In the afternoon, with an escort from the regiment, the local gendarmerie went to the village of Fara, where the interlopers lived, and interviewed the Muktar. That worthy, in open contempt for the men who could be beaten so thoroughly by the ‘foolish Ingleesi’, undertook to send the men to the local ‘caracol’ for a flogging, a receipt for which they would return to Div Cav in exchange for their animals. This complicated transaction was duly completed some days later.
The Divisional Cavalry, having earned some respect for craftiness, then continued to add to this with kindliness and friendliness. The inhabitants of Djedeide were amazed one evening to see a little old woman, still protesting volubly, arrive home page 175 accompanied by a soldier who was carrying for her an enormous load of firewood. That and similar stories simply flew round the hills.
The regiment's Medical Officer, Captain Moore2 —he of the broken nose and the nickname ‘Slap-happy’—built up, in the words of the war diary, ‘quite a little practice’ with the Arabs. A poisoned leg here, a bad gash there, a victim of a stabbing affray to be patched up and convinced he was still alive, an angry tooth extracted, an anæmic woman's life saved with a blood transfusion from one of the regiment's officers (from that moment she, and her whole tribe, considered him as her brother of the same blood), even a confinement and delivery: all these were marrow to his bones. The Signals Officer, ‘Rusty’ Ball,3 too was always delighted to talk with the Arabs. He had set about learning Arabic with such success that he could sometimes be heard arguing a point of grammar with an Arab. He used to amuse them with sleight of hand, in which he was expert, or try to expound to them the mysteries of a wireless set. Later, when the friendship was returned, Lieutenant Ball led parties from the regiment to visit the Dandaches, one of the local tribes, who regaled them with feasting and whom they entertained with feats of strength and taught to play football. Such gestures as these did much to build up among the Lebanese at least a respect and goodwill towards the British, whom the Arabs had long regarded with coolness and distrust, and indeed had often treated with open hostility.
All through March and April the road work continued, two squadrons to each task and everybody marching to and from work. There was day leave into Baalbek to see the ruins, and to the pretty little village of Zahle; there was leave in the evenings to Djedeide, where the men could buy the Syrian beer or sip the local cherry brandy. One night the Div Cav did more than just sip at the liqueur and, resulting from the disturbance that followed, a regular picket had to be detailed, a fatigue that was quite sought after since its duties never seemed to be more onerous than to sample the hospitality of every house in the village. On Sundays parties went ski-ing in the Lebanon hills. There were skis for hire in Baalbek and a party only had page 176 to drive up one of the roads until blocked by a drift, and the men could walk up the hillside in the snow and tumble and slide to their hearts' content.
While all this was going on the Intelligence personnel were busy all over the country covering every road and track to build up a complete picture of the wheel-route conditions.
The seasons seem to change very suddenly in Syria. One week it is full winter and the next week it is joyful spring. Hardly had one begun to enjoy the warm days when they became too hot; irksome battledress gave way to shirts and shorts. At nights, too, came the mosquitoes, for Syria is a bad malarial country; by the middle of April anti-malaria precautions had been published and by the end of the month everybody was sleeping under nets. The rules took very little obeying when the mosquitoes began to sting. Then, as the days became hotter and hotter, it was found advisable to change the working hours. In the first week in May, reveille was put forward to 5.30 a.m. when, after a snack, working parties marched off in the cool to do some digging until breakfast arrived in the squadron transport. Work went on until the midday meal, after which the men marched home before the afternoon heat became too oppressive. There was no official siesta period though the afternoons were more or less free. Some men indulged in fierce games of basketball or those that were so inclined spent their afternoons devising special weapon mountings for their carriers.
There was great emphasis on anti-aircraft defence—or offence, as the general outlook would be better expressed—for everybody had discovered that their best ground defence weapons were their wits and speed. By the time the regiment left Syria, practically every Bren gun could be brought instantly from ground to AA action, and besides these, there were similarly mounted a collection of .303 and .5-inch Vickers guns, Boys rifles, Spandaus and a Besa. Greece and Crete still rankled, and some day the men would have vengeance against the Luftwaffe.
With the hotter weather the quartermasters had trouble keeping perishable food; this problem was solved by sending a truck up Wadi Fara for a load of snow which, when packed down hard, was found to keep for several days. One of these trips also revealed the interesting fact that the road up the wadi led into an airstrip that must have been built as part of the German strategy when the Vichy French had control of Syria.
During the night of 8 May the pride and joy of the CO, his caravan, was gutted by fire. Salvaged at Bardia, it was presented page 177 to him; it had originally, so the fable has it, been an Italian mobile brothel; but the CO had no silly qualms about living in the comfort of this beautifully appointed ‘Pash-wagon’, as it was familiarly known, notwithstanding its original reputed character.
In the middle of May the digging tasks came to an end and routine settled down to serious training in preparation for manoeuvres, which were going to be carried out in turn with 4 and 6 Brigades in the Palmyra desert near Forqloss.
The regiment was reshuffled for this work, A Squadron in carriers forming a proper cavalry squadron, C Squadron all in tanks taking the part of a heavy infantry support squadron, while B Squadron acted as enemy. B Squadron took its job very seriously, even to the length of dressing as far as possible in enemy clothing. It found the manoeuvres very valuable nevertheless, since they provided occasion for much rapid movement over desert country.
On 20 May, the day before moving out to Forqloss, a composite squadron of 4 officers and 80 other ranks paraded with 6 Brigade for a review by HRH the Duke of Gloucester, after which he, with Generals Wilson, Holmes and Freyberg, and their staffs, were entertained to tea by the Div Cav officers.
For the regiment the manoeuvres began on a tragic note with a shooting accident. In the early hours of 21 May, Trooper Andrews4 was accidentally shot with a pistol and later died. He was given a military funeral at Ras Baalbek.
The manoeuvres were essentially the same with either brigade. They consisted of marches in close column both by day and by night, followed by an approach march against an enemy. After contact had been made, the tank squadron advanced up through the column and on to an objective under a live-round shoot by artillery, mortars and MMGs. From a cavalry point of view the exercises were a complete success, though the A Squadron commander was a little disconcerted at times to find that, at the wave of an umpire's flag, a successful action against armoured cars might turn into one against medium tanks.
Between the two manoeuvres there was a gap of several days which the regiment employed in maintenance, games of cricket and football, and in a gymkhana—sports meeting with a trip to Palmyra for the winners. There was a morning devoted to practising with aircraft in the various means of ground-to-air page 178 communications, and A Squadron tried out an exercise with the Maori Battalion, operating as a ‘Jock’ column in reconnaissance and attack.
The exercises with 6 Brigade were finished on 1 June and, after a day's maintenance, the squadrons travelled back to Djedeide independently, the last of the regiment arriving by the afternoon of the 4th.
From then until the middle of the month the regiment devoted itself to training. One squadron spent a day with 6 Brigade, working with each battalion in turn as cavalry supporting an infantry advance by laying smoke from a flank. A group of officers and NCOs took wireless sets mounted in PUs5 to demonstrate to the same brigade the internal workings of cavalry in reconnaissance. This was done on the Turkish border, working from Aleppo, and after a day or two the group transferred to 5 Brigade for the same purpose, moving out to the Euphrates River.
Amidst all this peace and pleasure though, there gradually became infused again that strange atmosphere: restlessness, excitement, anticipation; hard to recognise but easy to feel. In some way it was associated with events in Libya where things were not going right with the Eighth Army. But Libya was a long way away; perhaps it was something else. Then what was it? Why did the little girl from Djedeide refuse to take washing home in case she could not have it back ‘in time’? Why did she assume a solemn face and say: ‘You goin’ to sahara' when the manoeuvres had just been completed? Why?
Then, on 16 June, the regiment received notice that it would be leaving four days later, by a highly secret move, for an unknown destination; and that atmosphere of mystery started the pulse of excitement. Once again it was rumour time. Boats to take the Division home were waiting at Port Tewfik: boats to take the Division to England were waiting at Port Said: no, perhaps back to Greece; a landing in Unoccupied France. Boats, boats; and while the Eighth Army's news became darker and darker the rumours centred round shipping. No rumour took the Division to Libya, the obvious place. Was it wishfulness? The news from there was bad but there was no talk of going back to the Western Desert.
1 Line Telegraphy.
5 ‘Pick-up’: an 8-cwt truck.