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Battle for Egypt

CHAPTER 3 — Alternative Roles

page 22

Alternative Roles

THE thrice-deferred transfer of the Division to Syria began on 26 February with the closing of advanced headquarters at Fayid and its reopening at Wavell Barracks, Baalbek, next morning. Oftrepeated rumours among the troops of a move to green fields at last were coming true.

Shortage of transport due to the needs of 5 Brigade Group at El Adem and to other demands from Eighth Army made a tactical move impossible. It was in fact unnecessary. The camps along the Canal were tented, and each unit's tents and camp stores had to be taken to Syria with its normal stores and equipment. Scarcity of trucks compelled as many men and as much of the baggage as possible to be sent by rail.

In general, each unit loaded its trucks to capacity with stores and sent them off with guards as an advance party. Heavy baggage was put on railway trucks with guards to each truck. The main body of each group, with such equipment as would be needed immediately on arrival, moved by passenger train. Thus the transfer was more akin to a gigantic house-moving than to a military operation.

Traffic on the roads and railways between Egypt and Syria was heavy. In addition to the excess traffic normal to war, the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions were being concentrated on the Canal from Syria and Palestine for their return to Australia, and the New Zealand Division, less 5 Brigade Group, was preparing to move north. The concentration of the Dominions' forces on the Canal did not escape the notice of the Germans although they made wrong deductions from the fact. On 25 February Berlin radio reported that the New Zealanders had left for home.

In the sum of its travels the Division saw part of Sinai, over which the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade had fought in 1916, the coastal regions of Palestine, Lebanon, and finally Syria to the border of Turkey. Halts at staging points, some only overnight but others up to two and three days, permitted inspection of various areas in detail and enlarged acquaintance with the people. There was general awareness among the troops that they were passing over storied ground, but, whatever else they had in their equipment, a wide knowledge of biblical and military history was not included. page 23 But men who could fit modern place names to biblical stories found ready audiences.

Such were the piecemeal methods enforced by the transport situation that nearly three weeks were required for the transfer, the last main group, Rear Divisional Headquarters, leaving Kabrit on 12 March. The leisurely move was in marked contrast to the speed with which the Division returned to the Western Desert in the following June when, within a week of receiving orders, it was in battle positions at Mersa Matruh.

On completion of the shift to Syria, Divisional Headquarters was at Baalbek, 4 Brigade was in the right sector of Djedeide fortress, and 6 Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier Clifton, was deployed in and about Aleppo, near the Turkish frontier. The Division was in 10 Corps and under Ninth Army, commanded by General Sir H. M. Wilson. It had a fourfold task: (1) Demonstrating strength in Syria to obscure the real strength of the Allies now seriously depleted in the theatre by transfers and diversions to the Far East; (2) completing the construction of Djedeide fortress and demolition schemes north to the frontier; (3) preparing to advance into Turkey to the Hellespont or to a defensive line in the Taurus Mountains and, alternatively, an advance into Persia; (4) training.

General Auchinleck had devoted considerable thought to the northern flank which, with the necessity of destroying the enemy in North Africa, he placed high above all the numerous other problems of the Middle East command.1 The danger he saw was the possible, if not probable, collapse of Turkey under a German attack. The enemy's deep advance into Russia also created a threat to the northern flank from the Caucasus. However, in November 1941 Auchinleck considered himself strong enough in forces and equipment in the theatre, and in promised reinforcements, to conduct an offensive in the Western Desert and to turn in time to stave off an attack from the north.

He intended, if the need arose, to stand on the defensive in the west and to hold the general line of the Tabriz-Mosul-Syrian-Turkish frontier with Cyprus and to despatch a force to help Turkey in northern Anatolia. For this comprehensive task he estimated he would need a minimum of 5 armoured divisions, 17 infantry divisions, and 34 heavy and 55 light anti-aircraft regiments. On 28 December he reviewed the forces available and promised, and submitted to the Chiefs of Staff an estimate of deficiencies as on 1 April, the earliest date he thought a threat from the north was likely to reveal itself.

1 Opinions, strengths, and plans attributed to General Auchinleck in this chapter are taken from his Despatch.

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Within a month of making these calculations, diversions of formations from the Middle East and of reinforcements required the Commander-in-Chief to make a further estimate of shortages which, in turn, compelled drastic revision of plans for the northern front. On 20 January, incidentally the day before Rommel unexpectedly debouched from Agheila to upset again the estimates of forces needed to hold him and Cyrenaica, Auchinleck reported that on 1 April he would be short of one and a half armoured divisions, 5 infantry divisions, and 19 heavy and 37 light anti-aircraft regiments. Besides this deficiency in formations and anti-aircraft artillery, there were indications that deliveries of armoured fighting vehicles and trucks would fall so far short of requirements that some formations in the Middle East would not be complete in transport and therefore would be unable to take part in active operations.

This situation led Auchinleck to decide that ‘our only course will be to fall back on defences in rear in Persia, Central Iraq and Southern Syria and to fight a defensive battle, thus surrendering to the enemy all air bases and landing grounds north of this line, the effect of which will be greatly to increase the scale of enemy air attack on our bases.’

A fortnight later, on 4 February, when Middle East Headquarters was examining its resources for a resumption of the offensive in the Western Desert, it was decided that all available tanks and armoured units could be withdrawn from the northern front. ‘There is a risk,’ Auchinleck observed in a note for the Middle East Defence Committee, ‘but one which can be taken, unless there is a rapid change on the Russian front, as it now seems most unlikely that Germany will be able to mount an attack against Syria and Iraq through Anatolia, or against Persia through the Caucasus, before the beginning of August.’1

An operation instruction issued on 23 February to Ninth and Tenth Armies was of more immediate interest to New Zealand Division, then moving into Syria. Once more Auchinleck had to note still further diversions and projected transfers of troops which, if completed, would reduce the infantry strength for the whole of the Middle East theatre to eight divisions and five brigade groups. After providing three infantry divisions and one brigade group to secure the western front and one division for Cyprus to deny the

1 Many opinions were held concerning the date when the enemy could attack the Middle East from the north. In February 1942 the first Russian winter offensive was coming to an end. Early in May, the Russians launched a ‘spoiling offensive’ on the South-Central front from Kharkov sector. It was not until June that the Germans resumed their large-scale operations which carried them to Stalingrad and the foothills of the Caucasus. In his despatch General Auchinleck says, ‘We were always handicapped in our calculations by lack of knowledge of Soviet capabilities and intentions.’

page 25 island to the enemy as an air base, there would remain only four divisions and, at most, four brigade groups to meet the requirements of Ninth and Tenth Armies and a general reserve.

General Auchinleck thereupon stated that ‘this force would be inadequate to stop an enemy attack in strength through Persia and Syria, directed on the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.’ But this did not mean that the British and Allied forces were to throw in their hand. In General Wilson Ninth Army had a commander to whom the norm of war was scarcity of everything usually considered essential for success. In the early years of the First World War he had experienced the vicissitudes of scarcity. He knew scarcity again when he commanded in Greece and in the advance into Syria against the Vichy French. The New Zealand Division, then coming under his command, and 9 Australian Division of Tobruk fame, had been trained to do much with little. Scarcity was the accustomed lot of the two Free French brigade groups, the Polish Brigade and the Greek brigade group, the last of which was to be under New Zealand command.

Ninth and Tenth Armies were ordered in the instruction of 23 February to impose the greatest possible delay on an enemy advance and thus gain time for the arrival of reinforcements. The Turks were to be supported if they resisted and if the necessary air forces were available. Airfields in northern Syria and Iraq were to be held as long as possible to permit attack on the enemy's communications through Turkey. When retreat became imperative, the withdrawing forces were to destroy communications and oil installations north of the line Dizful–Paitak1 (in the highlands of western Persia)–Little Zab River (Upper Mesopotamia)–Ana–Abu Kemal (Iraq) and DamascusRas BaalbekTripoli (Syria). While withdrawing to prepared positions on this general line, the forces available were to be used boldly in attacking the enemy in flank and rear. If the armies were forced off the DizfulTripoli line, they were to fight a series of delaying actions on ground of their own choosing back to positions in southern Iraq and southern Palestine covering the ports on the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.

Auchinleck emphasized that ‘it is of paramount importance that we avoid disclosing our weakness or our intentions to the enemy, to Turkey, or to the local populations, because by so doing we may encourage the enemy to attack, drive Turkey into submission, and bring about a serious internal security situation.’ Troop movements in the northern frontier area were to be maintained on the same scale as in the past to avoid giving an impression of a change in

1 Probably another spelling of Taktak.

page 26 plans. Construction of roads in the northern areas on which a start had been made was to be continued but only slowly. No new works would be started. The main effort was to be concentrated on the completion of the defences on the DizfulTripoli line, local labour being used to the greatest possible extent ‘to free formations for the training in manoeuvre which will be so essential to success.’

In the first six weeks of its sojourn in Syria the New Zealand Division did duty conforming to the policy of the Commander-in-Chief. However, by the close of April, the outlook for troops and equipment had improved a little and Auchinleck amended his operation instructions to provide for more aggressive action against an enemy attack from the north. In the new plan the Division was allotted a hazardous role.

If Turkey resisted, an air striking force with an army component from Ninth Army would move into northern Anatolia to airfields which the Turks had permitted the British to build and equip. At the same time, Ninth and Tenth Armies would advance into Turkey to the general line El Aziz (Kharpur)-Malatya-Taurus Mountains to improve communications, prepare demolitions on the main Turkish communications, and cover the withdrawal of the British forces from Anatolia should this become necessary.

If Turkey acquiesced in German aggression or collapsed quickly, Ninth and Tenth Armies were to enter Turkey and seize and hold the general line Diyarbekir-Siverek-Gaziantep (Aintab)-Bulanik (Baghche)-Payas to demolish communications and delay the enemy as far forward as possible. Should the Turks openly side with the Germans or strengthen their forces on the Syrian frontier with the evident intention of co-operating with the Germans, the British armies were to carry out demolitions as far forward as possible and delay the enemy's advance.

Although General Auchinleck still considered that the forces likely to be at his disposal could not prevent an enemy penetration of northern Iraq and Syria, he believed the enemy could be kept away from the ports of southern Palestine, the Canal and the Persian Gulf. Accordingly he gave an explicit direction to the Army commanders that ‘the enemy will not in any event be allowed to establish himself south of the general line Little Zab River-Ana-Amman-Jericho-Nablus-Haifa.’

In these plans New Zealand Division was marked for the advance into Anatolia with the air striking force and the alternatives of delaying actions in and south of Turkey. The positions on the left of the line of last resort, Little Zab River-Haifa, were about 120 miles south of the Djedeide fortress which the New Zealanders were completing.

page 27

Similar instructions aimed at holding the enemy in north Persia were given later to Tenth Army. These concerned New Zealand Division to the extent that it was assumed the attack would come only through the Caucasus and that the Division could be spared from Ninth Army for an offensive role in Persia.