CHAPTER 10 — Syrian Interlude
When Petrol Company crawled from their bivvies in Tobruk on Monday, 1 December, they found the rear of their area occupied by a large concentration of vehicles. These had come in during the night from 4 and 6 NZ Brigades, still fighting desperately on the ridges outside the fortress. The enemy was mounting heavy counter-attacks, with massed armour, in an effort to drive a wedge into the forces protecting the Tobruk Corridor. But the much-talked-of Corridor, which the Division had been ordered to hold at all cost, and which at that stage was of little actual use to our cause, was doomed.
So, too, it seemed, was the remnant of our two New Zealand brigade groups, which had been badly mauled in the fighting and were virtually surrounded. Their only hope was to break out. On the night of 30 November-1 December General Freyberg had sent all transport and personnel not essential to this operation through the Corridor into the fortress. Late in the afternoon of 1 December, he sent the following signal to 13 Corps:
Remnants New Zealand Division concentrated at Zaafran 4340 and after dark will attempt to break out in direction of B. Bu Deheua 4836. If unsuccessful will attempt break out West. Have made contact with Norrie, who is helping.
This move is best described in the GOC's own words:1
All guns, transport, and equipment which could be moved were brought away. The columns assembled East of Zaafran, with 4th Brigade in the lead, followed by the skeleton Divisional Headquarters and then 6th Brigade, covered by a rearguard of our remaining ‘I’ Tanks. Despite the decided pressure of the evening attacks the units disengaged and in the dusk our withdrawal began, first to the East and then South on to the escarpment. The intervening area had been patrolled by elements of the Armoured Brigade. General Norrie awaited us on the escarpment, giving us final directions before moving off to cover our further withdrawal. page 174 In the early hours of the morning we reached Bir Gibni, the whole move having been accomplished with an uncanny ease no less remarkable than the withdrawals in Greece….
So ended the New Zealand part of the battle to keep the Tobruk Corridor open. This battle in the Western Desert was not primarily however a battle to hold positions, but a battle to destroy the German forces. I believe we went some distance towards achieving this in our attacks at Sidi Rezegh, Belhamed, and Ed Duda. I think the German Afrika Korps will bear me out in this!
Meanwhile, inside Tobruk Petrol Company settled down to life in yet another role: that of a beleaguered garrison. The afternoon of 1 December was spent by the sections in effecting maximum dispersal, northwards to the sea. POL was loaded, vehicle maintenance attended to; rations and water were drawn—a sour and brackish water which curdled the milk in tea. Bread came on the menu again; and also, as our drivers began to find their way around, sundry other items not listed in the official ration scale. These ‘extras’ increased noticeably when working parties from the Company were detailed to unload ships in Tobruk harbour. And it must be admitted that many a case of jam, fruit, milk, cigarettes, or fancy biscuits intended for some NAAFI or officers' mess mysteriously failed to reach its destination. Also side-tracked were sundry jars of potent overproof rum—a wonderful ‘warmer-upper’, our drivers found, when bleak winds blew in from the desert, and on those wintry Tobruk nights which seemed as cold as any they had experienced in Greece or in England.
By 3 December Tobruk's eastern perimeter and the Bardia road were still invested by the enemy; and on that day Colonel Crump advised NZASC commanders that their personnel and equipment would possibly be evacuated by sea. For the Tobruk garrison was seriously short of transport, and our vehicles were to be handed over. The prospect of a sea evacuation was scarcely a happy one at that time, when enemy submarines haunted the coastline and Stukas frequently dive- bombed shipping in Tobruk harbour. On 5 December a particularly heavy air-raid commenced about 11 a.m. and continued for some hours, exciting the formidable Tobruk barrage (including the guns in the Company's area) to noisy and continuous activity. On that day, also, Petrol Company page 175 lost another good fellow, Driver Henderson,2 who had sustained a foot wound and was being sent back to Egypt by sea. His ship was sunk by enemy action and many men lost their lives.
At this time the Tobruk barrage was intense, and rumour had it that Luftwaffe pilots who, for some reason, came ‘under a cloud’ were detailed for service over Tobruk. Whatever the truth of that, the Germans made no bones about attacking the fortress which they bombed wholeheartedly at dawn and sunset, with odd raids, for good measure, in between. Fighter planes, too, were active in the area, and Petrol Company drivers watched many a thrilling dogfight. Those working on the ships were far from thrilled (in any pleasant sense) by these persistent visits; so perhaps they felt entitled to the odd bit of ‘klefty’, as a kind of dirt money! Between times our drivers dug and occupied slit trenches, well away from the petrol-carriers, which were kept loaded, each with its 640 highly inflammable gallons. No trucks were lost, however, and no casualties suffered by the Company as a result of the raids. With our drivers, dispersal, cover and camouflage had by now become second nature.
On 5 December Captain Torbet and his Workshops Section inspected all Petrol Company vehicles and found them to be in sound mechanical order. Two days later, all vehicles except 1 30-cwt, 1 Stores, 1 Workshops and 2 motor-cycles were taken over by 16 Brigade Group Company, RASC, and notice was received by Major Forbes to prepare his Company to move out. Evacuation from Tobruk was now feasible by land routes, since the enemy, beaten to a standstill, was making all haste westward.
At 8 a.m. on 8 December, transport from Divisional Ammunition Company arrived in the Petrol Company lines to uplift HQ and D Sections. The remainder, numbering 149 other ranks, with Second-Lieutenant Swarbrick in charge, and Second-Lieutenants Browne and Washbourn, were to remain in Tobruk for work under direction of the AA & QMG, 70 Division. At 12.10 p.m. the departing convoy left the camp area, together with Rear Divisional Headquarters, taking the Bardia road. They then proceeded via Bir el Chleta and Bir Gibni to page 176 El Rabta, where they staged for the night. Rabta was reached at 6 p.m., with 87 miles covered. Next day the convoy made 119 miles, reaching Qaret el Kanayis at 5 p.m. On 10 December it struck north to the Siwa Track, and then travelled via Charing Cross to Fuka, where the Company halted at 5 p.m. on their old camp area. They were joined there by Corporal Stewart with personnel and three trucks, also by Corporal Whitehouse3 and sixteen other ranks who had managed to escape from German captivity.
Next day, exactly a month after leaving their once neat and orderly camp at Fuka, HQ and D Sections set about cleaning up the mess which had ensued in their absence. This took several days; and in that time our men received and read large quantities of mail; opened mountains of parcels; gorged, from their contents, on cake and café au lait; washed their socks; and again enjoyed the luxury of an adequate water-supply. Above all they enjoyed the sudden blissful quiet of life there at Fuka, far from the alarms and excursions of war.
Meanwhile the Tobruk detachment, comprising Petrol Company's A, B, and C Sections, was built up on 8 December by groups from Divisional Supply Column and Divisional Ammunition Company to a total strength of 184. Their role was to take over from the Polish ASC in the Tobruk fortress area, and they expected to receive Polish transport; but this proved unfit to hand over.
Next day Second-Lieutenant Swarbrick set up his headquarters in the transit camp at Wadi Ada together with Maurie Browne, Sergeant Les Cording, Corporal Claude Hardaker4 (as quartermaster), and Driver ‘Johnnie’ Bull5 as orderly-room clerk. The following details were then allocated:
|Petrol DID||16 ORs||Palestrine Rd AP||6 ORs|
|Petrol Depot||12 ORs||Derna Rd AP||6 ORs|
|Transit Sheds||1 Officer||Bardia Rd AP||8 ORs|
|23 ORs||501 AOD||13 ORs|
|62 Gen Hosp||21 ORs (Driving)|
|500 AOD||3 ORs (Driving)|
The transit sheds party, under Second-Lieutenant Washbourn, and the transit camp party were both self-contained. The whole detachment came under orders of the DAAG, 70 Division (Major James) who, on 10 December, required two further allocations: 1 sergeant (Ken Bailey) and 44 other ranks to 9 BSD; 1 NCO (Corporal Day6) and 14 other ranks to establish a salvage depot on the El Adem road. These groups, also, were to be self-contained; but as the detachment could muster only three cooks and three sets of cooking gear, an administrative hitch resulted. It was overcome by appointing Jim Ottaway as cook for Corporal Day's group, and drawing cooking and other gear from 500 AOD.
On 11 December Swarbrick was advised that his transit camp would receive all New Zealanders discharged from 62 General Hospital; so next day he drew extra clothing and equipment from 500 AOD, as the majority of hospital evacuees were without equipment and had no spare clothing. With these men coming and going the ration strength showed considerable fluctuation, being approximately 220 on 14 December. The detachment's war diary bears the laconic entry: ‘15 to 18 Dec 41. Personnel marched in and out’, with a similar entry for 22 December.
At Fuka, parades and squad drill recommenced on 15 December. That night heavy rain overflowed the wadis and filled the men's dugouts with cold muddy water—no good at all for sleeping in. Drenched and shivering, the washed-out drivers crammed into the orderly room, which, though leaking badly, still had some dry spots. Daylight revealed a scene of chaos, and more days had to be spent cleaning up again. In the midst of all this, the GOC's car arrived at Workshops for overhaul, showing the scars of several near misses.
On 17 December the Company acquired Second-Lieutenant Sam Burkitt,7 who marched in with smiling face and bright personality from NZASC Base Training Depot. He replaced as HQ subaltern Second-Lieutenant D. Chapman, posted on 18 December to NZ Base Supply Depot, from which strategic position the enterprising officer sortied, some three months page 178 later, to marry a New Zealand nursing sister (Miss Dorothy Waters) of 2 General Hospital. Petrol Company's Maurie Browne was best man.
In Tobruk the various NZASC details were gradually replaced by pioneer labour and returned to Swarbrick's transit camp headquarters. On 25 December eighty-eight Petrol Company and attached personnel marched out to the El Adem transit camp. Swarbrick remained at his headquarters and Washbourn's party, also, stayed on the job at the transit sheds. By 29 December all had moved down to Misheifa, where they entrained next day for Fuka.
The routine there was mostly drill and digging—Major Forbes seems to have tapped an endless supply of sandbags, all inconveniently empty—and rebuilding after rain and floods. Workshops, as usual, were working flat out on the overhaul of vehicles, which now poured in from various units, and on repairs to transport salvaged from the battle areas. D Section also compiled a list of all vehicles of affiliated units lost or damaged by enemy action. The three New Zealand Field Ambulances appeared the hardest hit.
Christmas Day brought a festive touch, despite cold winds, and heavy rain the day before, when tents were erected to make a combined mess for D Section, HQ, and attached personnel. This needed four EPIPs placed end to end; but all the men were housed at one sitting, with the officers and sergeants serving the meals. Christmas dinner (for many the second one eaten away from home) was, of course, the major item. The menu proved substantial, and satisfying even to the stoutest appetites. Before the meal concluded, Colonel Crump paid a visit to extend his personal Christmas greetings, and to praise the work the Company had done during the campaign in Libya. No beer was procurable thereabouts at that time, but there was much good spirit (plus a small amount of Tobruk rum) in evidence among the men.
And so the year ended, with the Company reunited and virtually intact, but minus most of its vehicles. By that time the enemy had been chased across Cyrenaica, and had dug in at Agedabia. Benghazi was in British hands, and almost all units of the New Zealand Division had been withdrawn to page 179 Egypt. The Old Year was speeded on its way by a spontaneous bombardment of nothing in particular, which the New Zealanders made so willing that a neighbouring Tommy unit, convinced we were being attacked, offered to send help. Last entry in Petrol Company's war diary for 1941 records: ‘One OR marched in from Field Punishment Centre, Daba’.
Within a week the Company was packing up again, this time for a move to Fayid, on the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, on 2 January 1942, Bill Swarbrick was promoted captain and posted to 6 NZ Reserve MT Company. He was replaced, later on, by Captain Latimer.8 On 7 January, Sergeants D. R. Plumtree and L. N. Cording marched out to NZASC Base Training Depot, on their way to OCTU. The same day Major Forbes, with QM and Store, proceeded to Fayid. On 8 January, a fine clear day, the remainder of Petrol Company moved off in two groups, HQ and D Section (towing salvaged vehicles) travelling by road, and A, B, and C Sections leaving Fuka station by rail at 11 p.m. These groups arrived at Fayid on 9 and 10 January respectively, and next day all ranks were fully occupied settling in.
By 12 January the Company had shaken down again to life in yet another base camp, and a start was made on ‘refresher training’. The daily routine ran as follows:
|0830-1130||Company Parade, followed by training as per syllabus|
|1745||Changing of the Guard|
It will be seen that the Company, now planted rather self-consciously in a Tommy base area, had suddenly gone ‘all page 180 regimental’, a change not relished after months of field and operational work. One man wrote in a letter home: ‘It always amazes me why there should be so many rules and regulations in these areas when one knows their true value. I suppose some blokes have to justify their existence in swell base jobs and pour out screeds of stuff so that they appear very efficient. Slit trenches will be dug and of such-and-such a length etc, fire buckets will be outside each tent and a fire picquet will be posted etc. etc. Gee, it makes me mad! Have started off on “one stop two” again and all that goes with it. Fortunately there is plenty of spare ground near us and we have started making Rugby, Soccer and cricket grounds, so we should get a bit of sport.’
And so, for two months, the dull record continues: company parades, followed by squad drill, and ‘other forms of training’. Route marches. Weapon training, including ‘refresher courses’ in holding, aiming and firing the rifle—the ‘trainees’ including men who had been on active service for over two years, and had taken part in several campaigns! Others, however, lacked such experience, and training must, of course, continue. Sport and lectures helped to relieve the tedium of a distinctly dismal period and to keep the men's minds from dwelling too much on affairs in the Pacific. For by now the Japanese, after their ‘king hit’ at Pearl Harbour, were strongly on the march and were menacing—though still from a distance—our own home shores. There was naturally some heart-searching by our men, especially when it became known that Australian forces in the Middle East were being withdrawn.
The camp area at Kabrit was bare and uninviting, and much exposed to frequent high winds. ‘We had another stinking sandstorm a couple of nights ago’, writes Second-Lieutenant Browne in a letter home, ‘and once again my tent was flattened. This time it was a hot wind, and as I spent a good couple of hours outside trying to save the tent by lashing in the pegs, you can imagine what I looked like. I was perspiring like hell and as the air was full of dust I was covered all over in a sort of light cement mixture. You can imagine my language!’
Diversions were provided by leave to Ismailia, by occasional visits from the YMCA mobile cinema and the Kiwi Concert page 181 Party. The usual crop of rumours sprouted when New Zealand infantry units from neighbouring camp areas began to practise landing operations, including rowing, the use of scaling ladders, and embarking and disembarking from assault landing craft. All kinds of moves and destinations were predicted, though few tipsters actually picked the right horse.
Another topic of interest was provided about then by the turbulent state of Egyptian politics. These became so troublesome that, at the beginning of February, the British authorities in Egypt decided that in the interests of law and order they would have to take a hand. Accordingly, on 2 February 6 Brigade was moved into Cairo and the battalions posted at strategic points. Two days later the British Ambassador entered Abdin Palace and presented King Farouk with an ultimatum stating that he must either co-operate with the British forces or abdicate. Helped by the sight of tanks around his palace, Farouk quickly had a change of heart and agreed to call on the leader of the Wafdist Party (Nahas Pasha) to form a new government. Thereafter civil disturbances died down, and the British could get on with their war in peace.
On 25 January WO II Wallace (Petrol Company's GSM) marched out to Base Reception Depot for reboarding. He was replaced a month later by WO I A. B. Cooper, Staff-Sergeant Quilter9 acting in the meantime. During the morning of 2 February Major-General Freyberg and party paid a visit to Workshops to commend the men who had fitted out his new office lorry, which soon became the envy of high-ranking British officers. Captain Torbet was absent on duty at the time, but the GOC left a message congratulating him on the good work done, and expressing his thanks to all concerned. On 9 February, thirty reinforcements marched in, followed by nine the next day. These were needed to bring the Company up to strength for a proposed new establishment. On 10 February Sergeant K. A. Bailey was posted to NZASC Base, preparatory to entering OCTU.
For Workshops Section (or Platoon as it became under the new establishment) the Kabrit period proved less frustrating. page 182 Tradesmen and technicians toiled like beavers; and their lines, strewn with the innards of mangled and dismembered vehicles, looked like something between a wrecker's yard and the proverbial ‘dog's breakfast’. But gradually the mass of miscellaneous haulage was sorted up and assembled, checked and overhauled, then issued as war-worthy to various units. The Division at that time was acutely short of transport, our own Company having on charge, by 15 February, only 2 motor-cycles, 5 3-ton lorries, 1 Technical Stores vehicle, and 1 Technical Workshops. Besides these we had temporarily on charge three Lancia 10-ton (diesel) lorries, one of which was issued, on 24 February, to GHQ Middle East.
Soon, however, new transport came to hand, including 100 motor-cycles drawn from 15 VRD. Petrol Company's quota was twenty of these, issued early in March. A few days later the Company also drew forty brand-new Bedford 30-cwt tipper trucks from 9 VRD. (These were issued temporarily until three-tonners were available to replace those left behind in Tobruk.) So, at last, Divisional Petrol was again mobile; and no one was sorry, when, at 7.30 a.m. on 14 March, the Company moved out from its windy, dusty home near the Big Lake.
Staff-Sergeant Asher, with two other ranks as issuers, had already gone, nine days earlier, to take over a petrol point at Nebi Othmane, in Syria. And soon it became known that that historic land was to be the Division's future home ‘Our start’, writes Major Forbes in his personal diary, ‘was early in the crisp atmosphere which Egypt can produce in the failing winter months, and after sundry delays the snaking column was collected on the eastern bank and really started on our long trip.’
Slow progress was made in the approach to the pontoon bridge over the Suez Canal. At 10.15 a.m. a hold-up on the bridge itself again brought the convoy to a halt. Forbes then sent the cook trucks ahead to El Aweigla to get a meal ready for the arriving troops. By 11.45 the convoy was moving again, and thereafter made better speed. Its way lay across the storied Sinai Desert, where New Zealanders had fought the Turks in World War I. ‘It is quite different from the Egyptian Western Desert’, one lad wrote, ‘as there are big drifts of sand stretching page 183 for miles, undulating, and just like the pictures one sees at home with camels walking along and leaving their footprints. There are miles and miles of this sort of country, and the black bitumen road stretching right through it makes a great contrast.’
At some places that bitumen was in bad repair; at others it was covered deep with soft sand, a great nuisance to motor-cyclists. And, as the day advanced, the road held and reflected a merciless heat from which the tired eyes of our drivers found no relief. A shimmering haze lay over the surrounding desert. At the foot of one steep decline where a sand-drift covered half the road, the convoy caught up with Workshops' cook-truck. This had been forced over a bank by an oncoming vehicle and was now stuck fast, axle-deep in soft sand, and leaning over at an impossible angle. Workshops quickly sprang into action. Hitching two breakdown wagons to the rear, and one on the side, they soon got their cookhouse back on the road, and the convoy pushed on again. It passed El Arish (on the boundary) at 6.45 p.m. and crossed into Palestine. Darkness had fallen by the time the Company reached El Aweigla—their first staging-place—after travelling 165 miles. A hot meal revived the weary men, who sat around under scintillating stars in a cool crisp evening, recounting their impressions of the day.
After breakfast, at 7 a.m., an advance party comprising Second-Lieutenant Washbourn and one Don R left for Gaza. The main convoy lined up an hour later, with the cook trucks up front for easy access on arrival. ‘When we set off again in the morning the scene gradually changed and the desert slowly commenced to show patches of grass and other forms of cultivation. Arabs started to appear on the scene—a different type from the Wogs and Bedouins we were used to in Egypt— mainly because they were better clothed and seemed much cleaner. We went on, and, after travelling all day, ended up at Gaza10 where the Aussies have their base. By this time the country was all green and even the hills in the background were green and reminded one of home.’
On this leg of the journey a Lancia, towing a trailer, blew a gasket and caused some bother. More trouble was experienced page 184 when Divisional Cavalry vehicles, travelling behind the Petrol Company convoy, began overtaking the slower and heavier trucks of our Workshops. This came about through Divisional Cavalry putting on their watches one hour at the Egypt-Palestine border. Petrol Company did not advance their time until they reached Quastina at the end of the second day's journey. By then they had covered another 130 miles and passed through the ancient town of Beersheba.page 185
From that point the desert ceased altogether. Our trucks bowled along over an excellent road at a steady 25 m.p.h. Convoy discipline, says the Company's war diary, was excellent. ‘We passed through numbers of Jewish towns and settlements’, wrote Maurie Browne, ‘and it was great to see European people living in decent homes. We got cheery waves from the womenfolk, and the little kids looked great. All the way through there were flowers growing, wild poppies, daisies, dandelions, forget-me-nots, and it was just like driving through the New Zealand country in springtime. We had oranges thrown at us by the dozen. The oranges and grapefruit were lying in heaps rotting under the trees.’
Next day's stage was equally enchanting, with Lydda, Tel Aviv, and the bustling Arab port of Jaffa as the highlights. Then came Haifa, a fine Mediterranean city and seaport, nestling at the foot of Mount Carmel, from whose heights (the Bible says) the prophet Elijah called down fire from Heaven. The same heights at this time were wont to send up fire to Heaven, from batteries of ack-ack guns and searchlights guarding the vital pipeline which carries Iraq oil to the port. Barrage balloons also guarded the port and its installations against low-level attack from the air.
One Petrol Company diarist noted that in Haifa ‘The shops are new in the main and of modernistic concrete. The town on the flat is old, but the residential quarter on Mount Carmel has that peculiar mixture of Mexican-cum-Continental design with flat roofs and severe straight walls, cool in summer, centrally heated in winter, and finished in any colour that attracts the mind of the owner.’ A few miles farther on, the Company halted at Acre, famous for the stand which Sir Sidney Smith made there against Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and no less famous as a Crusader stronghold centuries earlier. Petrol Company's camp was on the rifle range of the Sidney Smith Barracks, a windswept grassy flat, with the sound of the surf beating on a boulder-strewn beach. Mileage for that day was 103.
On 17 March, a glorious spring morning and the fourth day of their trek out of Egypt, Petrol Company followed the ancient Phcenician road along the sea coast through Tyre and page 186 Sidon—the route of a hundred conquering armies. Roman milestones marked the distances; Roman aqueducts spanned the hilltops. Saracens, Crusaders, the cohorts of Alexander— all in their turn had passed that way. So, too, had the Vichy French; and, as the New Zealanders pushed on through green pastures and olive groves to Beirut, they saw in scarred walls and burnt-out vehicles many signs of the recent conflict.
In Beirut, the Lebanese capital, Petrol Company staged at a British leave and transit camp on the outskirts. And although Beirut was officially out of bounds, many men took a surreptitious ‘shufti’ at the city, with its narrow streets, fussy little trams, and its colourful French-Arab populace. Next day we were on the road again, climbing steeply over the Lebanon Mountains, with their 10,000-foot peaks and their famous cedar forests. Snow lay at the top of the passes, and a biting wind called forth balaclavas, greatcoats, gloves and leather jerkins. The road was a good one, but with many U and Z turns. Alongside it for the most part ran a meccano-like railway, helped by a ratchet between the lines to give extra holding and pulling power. On the way down this railway dived in and out of tunnels, emerging again in the Bekaa Valley to run level with our Company, now rapidly approaching its Syrian home.
This was a large undulating tract of stony land at Sir el Danie, 12 miles past Baalbek—excellent for dispersal, but the very devil for digging-in, driving tent-pegs, sinking sumps, latrines, cesspits and so on, all of which were needed to make a permanent camp. Beneath a few meagre inches of soil lay a hard pan of rock, stoutly resistant to pick and crowbar. Tents were erected, with difficulty, but they could be only lightly anchored; so, when the wind increased on the following day (19 March) bringing with it hail and heavy rain, some blew down. Snow soon followed, creating a tiresome slush; so the Company's introduction to Syria was not happy. It was also marred, on 19 March, by an unfortunate accident with one of the tip-trucks, when Driver Bell11 lost his life. He was buried next day with full military honours, and a large attendance of the local people, at the christian cemetery at Ras Baalbek.page 187
Gradually life's difficulties sorted themselves out. Engineers, with compressor drills, attacked the rock-pan; telephones were laid on and visits made to the nearby camps of Divisional Ammunition and Divisional Supply; a canteen was opened and a beer ration arranged; Workshops rigged up hot showers; braziers made from old petrol tins were issued for the tents. The climate, too, soon changed for the better, and by the middle of April the men were once more working in summer kit. By the first week of May, temperatures were up over the hundred mark. This meant the introduction of that sartorial monstrosity, the ‘Bombay bloomer’—long shorts or short longs, to be rolled down after sunset as a precaution against mosquito bites.
Mosquito nets, too, were issued, along with dire warnings against failure to use them for their official purpose. (And, for all the ingenuity of the seasoned soldier, no other use could be found for them.) Yet, despite these precautions and the vigilance of anti-malaria squads, in April six cases of malaria were admitted to hospital from the New Zealand Division in the course of one day. Typhoid was another danger, lurking in the local vegetables and untreated water. Medical tests showed that all ice-cream on sale in the Divisional area was unhygienic. So, too, were the local folk, who, though friendly, were also lousy; and contact with them was discouraged owing to the risk of typhus.
On 20 March came the first pay-day for Petrol Company in the new country, the men receiving thick wads of Syrian pounds, each worth 2s. 3d. Local prices, however, gave no advantage to this abnormal currency. Much of it was spent on the purchase of curios to send home—vicious-looking curved daggers, filigree silver ornaments, leatherware, garments and so on, mostly hand-made, and of good workmanship. Leave was permitted to the town of Baalbek, and to its nearby ruins—of Roman and pagan temples, built from colossal blocks of stone quarried hundreds of miles away, far up the Nile Valley.
Duties consisted mainly of general carrying, the loads including petrol, mail, supplies, ammunition, personnel, engineers' stores, and salvage. With shortages of material then very marked in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, page 188 this last assumed considerable importance. Scrap metal, paper, empty tins—all were religiously hoarded by the troops, and inter-unit contests were organised to stimulate the drive. A Divisional Salvage Unit was established at Rayak. For March the Company's platoons notched the following mileages: No. 1, 37,651; No. 2, 19,629; Company Headquarters, 6535; Workshops, 27,510, this figure including sixteen vehicles standing in the area with engines running, charging batteries, etc., for a cumulative total of 347½ hours, estimated at 25 m.p.h. The Petrol Detail at Nebi Othmane continued to operate, issuing several thousand gallons of POL daily.
Together with Divisional Ammunition and Divisional Supply, our Company met the general transport requirements of troops in the Baalbek area. These demands included the transportation of labourers and materials for the 9 NZ Railway Survey Company at Rayak, of stores for the DCRE at Baalbek, of rations and supplies for 15 and 19 DID and 17 BSD, as well as labour, materials and stores for the engineers working in scattered parts of the Djedeide fortress. Fourth NZ Reserve MT Company carried out similar duties and also supplied the infantry units with vehicles for exercises and manoeuvres.
So far no mention has been made of the infantry brigades and their attached formations, nor of the role assigned to the Division in Syria. That, briefly, was to defend the area against invasion from the north—or at any rate to harass and delay any enemy attempting to come through from that direction. And at this time the situation in the Balkans and the advance of the German armies in southern Russia made such an attempt a distinct possibility. If planned to coincide with an eastward thrust by Rommel's forces in the Western Desert, a drive down through Turkey or the Caucasus to the Suez Canal would have caught our Middle East Forces in the jaws of a gigantic pincer.
The British plan, therefore, was to prepare for an early offensive against Rommel in the west, while at the same time building up delaying forces in the region from Syria to the east. Though the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains would not serve as a barrier—they ran the wrong way—their high ground could be prepared as fortified bases from which troops could assail the flanks of an enemy attempting to by-pass the area.page 189
Thus it was decided to prepare a series of fortresses to cover the coastal route, the Bekaa Valley between the two ranges, and the desert approaches farther east. Five such fortresses were planned, and one—the Djedeide—was allotted to our Division. It covered the northern entrance to the Bekaa Valley and was centred on the village of Djedeide, about five miles north of Laboue and 20 miles north of Baalbek. Fourth Brigade, with 28 (Maori) Battalion, 2 Company of 27 (MG) Battalion, and a section of 6 Field Company under command, occupied the eastern section of this fortress upon its arrival in Syria early in March, and set to work preparing its defences. About the same time 6 Brigade arrived at Aleppo and took over from the Australians in that area. Fifth Brigade, which had been sent back to the Western Desert from Kabrit, arrived at Aleppo in the middle of April. It then replaced 6 Brigade, which moved into positions in the Djedeide fortress. Headquarters New Zealand Division set up at Baalbek, with quarters in the Wavell Barracks, the Gouraud Barracks (formerly garrisoned by the French Foreign Legion) and in the Grand New Hotel.
On 26 March 14 Section of Petrol Company's Workshops Platoon was detached to join 6 NZ Field Ambulance at Aleppo, to maintain the vehicles of that unit. No. 13 Section had also been ‘farmed out’, to HQ Command NZASC at the Gouraud Barracks, so they were dubbed ‘base wallopers’. On the afternoon of Saturday, 4 April, this detachment returned in force to visit their ‘country cousins’ in the Company area, the occasion being one for much jollification. After a meal at the Workshops mess, Sergeant O'Keeffe,12 on behalf of the visitors, presented the ‘yokels’ with a plough of quaint design, made by 13 Section men in their spare time from various bits and pieces. Its mechanical rating was one man-power.
Another diversion was provided in the following week (on Sunday, 12 April) by an ‘international’ Soccer match, with Divisional Petrol Company playing Bechuanaland. The game took place at Ras Baalbek on a ground that had been cleared of all but the largest stones, and which sloped at an angle of 30 degrees. Our team comprised Corporals Stewart, Drummond page 190 and Sutherland, Drivers Guy, Stewart, Duke, Taylor, Rudkin, Littleford, Curtis and Stenhouse. Opponents were eight woolly-headed African soldiers and three Tommies. After a hard friendly game, in which the Company's reporter was ‘agreeably surprised to find the natives intelligent and very clean players’, the score stood at 5-1 in favour of the Africans. Their captain, a CSM who had played as a professional in Africa, called for three cheers, and the New Zealanders were given a tremendous ovation from players and spectators alike. Our team was afterwards entertained in the Tommy sergeants' mess, where ‘with true farsightedness’ a bottle of beer was supplied to each man.
Equally agreeable for those taking part—one officer and ten other ranks—was a three-day leave period spent in Beirut. The party stayed at the Hotel D'Orient, near the waterfront, and enjoyed the luxury of clean sheets (which the Army neglects to provide) and frequent baths. Meals were taken where fancy dictated, often at the Australian Club which provided excellent four-course dinners for only one Syrian pound. The Free French Forces Club also welcomed our men, and turned on very good food, all in the French language. Casual sightseeing took the men, as usual, into cafés and shops (which were surprisingly well-stocked) and into the native markets.
In the camp area, Second-Lieutenant Burkitt was in charge of a standing detail, of twenty 30-cwt trucks, engaged in making a detour road, some six miles long, to by-pass Baalbek village. For the existing road, being narrow and winding, was prone to traffic jams and hold-ups. This detail left the Company lines at 7.15 a.m. and returned about 6 p.m. every day except Sunday. The work entailed several large fillings, and our drivers co-operated with the Engineers in securing the maximum effort from the civilian labour. Besides driving and tipping, Petrol Company men often undertook excavation work (since they realised that the job was one of some urgency), thus setting the pace for the Syrian labour gangs, which included women and children. One New Zealand officer wrote of these labourers: ‘The natives are splendid workmen—and women. In all their work and play they conduct themselves page 191 with a dignity, reserve and courtesy which are in marked contrast to the servility of the Arabs in Egypt.’
Nevertheless, on the night of 5-6 April an EPIP tent was stolen from Petrol Company lines—a reminder that we were still in Arab territory and thus among thieves. The hill tribes- men of Syria were, in fact, notorious bandits, and strict measures were taken to preserve army property in the Divisional area. Orders were issued to unit pickets to fire on intruders if they failed to halt when challenged. Fourth Brigade formed a mobile security column, consisting of one infantry company, to operate in the Bekaa Valley from Baalbek to Homs. But despite these and other precautions, the pilfering of army stores and the theft of arms and ammunition continued. Armed bandits held up a train at Ras Baalbek and stole 25-pounder ammunition. From one village, surrounded and searched by New Zealand provosts and the local gendarmerie, three truckloads of army material was recovered.
Some of this thieving was thought to be inspired by saboteurs and enemy agents, either for its nuisance value or to provide themselves with arms and equipment. Such agents had been introduced during the Vichy regime, and the area still contained a number of fifth column suspects. There were reports, too, of parachute landings in Syria, presumably by more fifth columnists; while Aleppo, with its population of French, Armenian and Syrian Arabs, was undoubtedly a centre for subversion and intrigue. For these reasons a high degree of caution became necessary when dealing with any of the local population; and New Zealanders soon learned the unwisdom of discussing military matters in public.
Nevertheless, their stay in Syria was enjoyable. Petrol Company, always at their happiest in an operating role, had reason to feel they were doing a good job. And this was confirmed when, on 3 May, the GOC held a special parade of the NZASC at Baalbek. After reviewing the companies, General Freyberg remarked on their smart turnout, fine bearing, and ‘rugged’ appearance. He praised the work they had done for the Division, and urged them never to flag in their efforts to maintain personal and vehicle fitness. He also presented awards won by NZASC personnel in previous campaigns.page 192
That same evening Workshops Platoon held a gala opening of their new canteen, an ambitious affair built from material which, the war diary states, had been gradually ‘accumulated’ —a variant, no doubt, of the well-known military term ‘acquired’. The canteen combined a lock-up shop and messroom, furnished with sandbag settees. It was declared open by the OC, Major Forbes, after which the chairman of the Men's Committee was called upon to christen the canteen counter. He ‘proceeded to belabour the counter with a bottle of the doings, and only desisted when the ability of the structure to withstand further punishment became doubtful. The christening was then successfully accomplished in a less vigorous manner’.13 Introduced by Second-Lieutenant Kennerley,14 some members of the Kiwi Concert Party, officially off-duty, gave excellent items. These, plus contributions from the cream of Petrol Company talent, and a good meal laced with the right sort of liquid, added up to a most enjoyable evening.
For May 1942, Petrol Company mileages were: HQ Platoon, 10,002; No. 1 Platoon, 75,978; No. 2 Platoon, 61,495; Workshops, 20,033, this last figure including mileage assessed for stationary vehicles with engines running for power and other purposes. Total: 167,508 miles. On 19 May the Company's vehicle strength was increased by forty new 30-cwt Bedford tip-trucks, ferried from Tel-el-Kebir by drivers from 2 Platoon. Funniest Routine Order of the month was one forbidding troops to throw stones at low-flying aircraft (our own) engaged in practice attacks.
The beginning of June saw Petrol Company well and truly scrambled. No. 1 Platoon had been detached, on 20 May, for duty at Rayak, and had established a separate camp there. From it they operated three daily details: (a) fourteen 30-cwts to 801 Construction Company, RE. The task of this detachment was very hard on trucks. It involved the lifting of native labour and Bechuana troops from Zahle and its vicinity, and the transport of heavy boulders and metal from a quarry in the hills east of Rayak to a new road two or three miles away. The road into the quarry was very rough, with soft wet patches page 193 caused by the overflowing from native irrigation systems. Each vehicle averaged seven or eight trips daily, mostly in third gear.
Detail (b) comprised twelve 30-cwts to 9 NZ Railway Survey Company. This group carted metal from a pit about a mile east of Zahle, for ten or twelve miles along a potholed road to a new railway siding three miles from Rayak. The trucks averaged six trips per day, each trip taking an hour and a half. Detail (c) comprised eight 30-cwts to the DCRE at Rayak, its main task being the haulage of iron and cement to a dump at the new railway siding.
In addition to the petrol point at Nebi Othmane, another had been established on 22 May at Forqloss to service 4 and 6 Brigades on desert manoeuvres. This detail met with much difficulty in procuring petrol, owing to a fire at the Tripoli refineries which disrupted the supply system. Nevertheless, during May, Petrol Company issued nearly 200,000 gallons of petrol, plus a proportionate amount of oils and other lubricants.
Workshops Platoon still had its No. 13 Section at Baalbek, with HQ NZASC, and its No. 14 Section at Aleppo, now with 5 Field Ambulance. A further detachment had gone to 1 Platoon at Rayak, and ‘sundry fitters’ to other maintenance assignments here and there. Captain Latimer and Second-Lieutenant Burkitt were with 1 Platoon, Lieutenant Browne was at the brigade-exercise petrol point in the desert, Second-Lieutenant Kennerley with No. 14 Section at Aleppo. The balance of the Company operated on various missions from their main headquarters at Sir el Danie.
After a couple of weeks all this was suddenly ‘washed out’. The Germans had begun an offensive in the Western Desert, and seemed to be having things much their own way. Our GOC was informed that he might have to move the Division back to the Libyan border. This warning was confirmed, on 14 June, by orders to move.
Along with the rest of the Division, Petrol Company swung swiftly into action. On 15 June, a hot, windless Monday, 2 Platoon packed up, replaced canopies on their trucks in readiness for troop-carrying, refuelled, and made a complete oil change. They uplifted and delivered POL for the Company, snatched an evening meal at 4.30 p.m., then set out to move page 194 4 and 6 NZ Field Regiments and the 14 Light AA Regiment. Their detail totalled fifty trucks, including twelve from 1 Platoon, with Second-Lieutenant MacShane15 in command and Sergeant Jenkin, Corporals J. Plumtree, Selby,16 Swain,17 Stewart, Hogg,18 and Day. By six o'clock next morning all trucks were loaded and on their way—down through Tiberias into Palestine. At Nebi Othmane a perspiring petrol detail issued 42,826 gallons in three days, before handing over, on 17 June, to 101 NZ DID. That day Major Forbes left for a Commanders' conference at Maadi, covering the 593 sweltering miles by 5.45 next evening.
At Sir el Danie Captain Torbet supervised preparations for the departure of the rest. No. 1 Platoon came in from Rayak on 17 June, leaving their tents standing, as instructed. This was part of an elaborate plan to keep the Division's move a secret. Badges and shoulder tabs were removed, vehicle signs painted over. Farewell parties were forbidden. Yet every Arab in the country, it seemed, had wind of what was doing—despite earlier reports in the Turkish press that New Zealand had been captured by the Japs, and we were going back to the Pacific.
At Petrol Company's first halt an Arab left his field to come and say: ‘Good luck, Kiwis. You go to fight the Germans’. Even before the Divisional Cavalry had left their area, local natives wished the regiment farewell and good shooting in Libya. At Tiberias a Jewish lad, among the crowds lining the streets to watch us go through—subdued and anxious crowds, obviously well apprised of Rommel's offensive, and apprchen- sive of what it might portend for them—threw a note into the truck on which the writer was travelling. It read, simply, ‘Beat the Germans’.
On 18 June a Bechuana guard arrived at Petrol Company lines to take over the safeguarding of the camp. Judging by the number of shots heard during the night they took their job very seriously. At 12.45 p.m. three 30-cwts were detailed to uplift page 195 Divisional Provost Company, and fourteen 30-cwts, under Second-Lieutenant Burkitt, went off to help move 7 Anti-Tank Regiment. Other minor allocations were made, and by six o'clock next morning the remainder of the Company were lined up ready to move. The Division's transfer from Syria to the Western Desert was expected to take about ten days. Actually, Divisional Headquarters reached Mersa Matruh in four and a half days. Divisional Petrol Company covered the distance— 908 miles—in similar time, pitching camp near Smugglers' Cove at 7.30 p.m. on 23 June.
1 Op. cit., p. 21.
10 Quastina, actually, 24 miles past Gaza.
13 Petrol Company war diary.