1942 Baggush - Syria
New Years Eve 1941 would be the greatest I have ever had the pleasure of being able to enjoy. Maybe it was because we were able to let our hair down and relax after the six or seven weeks we had had, chasing and being chased. So it was a pleasure to be able to get washed up and get into some clean clothes.
Most chaps had a few Italian hand grenades, which we called Red Devils. Pretty harmless we thought, and people were in the habit of throwing them at each other. Later on we were to learn this was a rather dangerous practice.
New Years Eve somehow turned out a beaut. 25 Pounders went bang and Very lights could be seen all over the area. One would have thought we had had enough of guns going off.
We were invited to a Royal Signals Mess for drinks. This we took full advantage of, and next morning when we were on the move again, there were a few sick boys around.
This move took us to Kabrit. There we did combined operations. Mountbatten had just taken over Chief of Combined Operations and it appeared we were to go in behind Rommel at Tripoli.
There were a lot of tired muscles around at this time, for although we were a hardened bunch of lads, this pushing and shoving 25 Pdr. Limbers and what have you onto Landing Barges was certainly a change.
One morning we were told there was to be a Regimental Parade. By this time Lt. Col. Glasgow had taken over as C.O. of the Regiment. Remembering we had lost both Ken Fraser C.O. and Major Grigg 2 I/C. So everyone thought we were going to get a pep talk from the new C.O. At this stage we had been rejoined by the L.O.B. boys (Left Out of Battle). So with Gussie Glasgow and Major Blake as 2 I/C the Regt. was just about up to full strength again, not forgetting Don Stott, 28 Bty., and Bob Moreton, 27 Bty, had rejoined us after escaping from Crete. So there we were all formed up on Parade when Gussie came out waving a Rammer. This Rammer had been picked up at Sidi Rezegh by Brig. H.B. Latham B.R.A. after the Battle, and he was so impressed with the way the Gunners had served their guns that he picked up a Rammer and presented it to Lt. Col. Glasgow with an inscription on it which he did on the battle field.
So Gussie was parading up and down the Regt. saying how brave the boys had been and what was he to do with this Rammer. So someone told him.
This Rammer finished up with Mrs Miles, who was very loathe to part with it. But with a bit of negotiating, the said Rammer can be seen at the War Museum, Waiouru. A reminder of the very gallant action fought by 47 Bty of the 5th Field Regt., under command of 6th Field Regt.
Bas Mitchell and I managed to get our leave from Kabrit and found Cairo a most enjoyable place for a few days. When we arrived back at the Regt. we found them all ready for a manoeuvre and we were left behind. Not for long though, as after the exercise we packed up and the 5th Brigade were on their way to El Adem where we were to spend a few weeks in a holding position outside Tobruk.
The officers had changed, as had our T.S.M., Doug Body unfortunately being killed in an accident whilst on leave in Alexandria. So 27 Bty. had Major Harrop as B.C. and in 'A' Troop we had Ken Gibson as Troop Commander, Bob Edgar as G.P.O. and Tice-Martin and Johansen as Section Commanders, and George Blandford as T.S.M. We had lost Niall Paterson at Kabrit, and if my memory serves me right he finished up as a Town Marshall. I know he did come home on Furlough with us and did go back. But I am certain he did not serve with the Artillery again.
We arrived at El Adem, and although we had plenty of air activity it was high up, or at least the Bombs were bursting around Tobruk or at the Airfield.
So then it was a matter of digging in. I can well remember two new Gunners joining our Troop. One John Allen who went onto Johnny Franklin's Gun. and Alec Johnson who went onto Ray Pearson's Gun. At an appropriate time I strolled across to give these two the once over. Most impressed with John Allen. He was shovelling away like a bulldozer. Turned out he had done a Commando Course in Australia. A fine strapping lad.
The digging in was not shovelling sand, as there was only a bare covering of that unfortunately, and it was mostly rock which had to be got rid of. After the Pits were finished, it was a matter of taking Ranges to different points, as it looked as if we were mainly in an Ante Tank role.
The stay was quite uneventful. A lot of rain which filled the Gun Pits. Micky Hackett had received some tinned Toheroas, so he offered me some and I have been a fan of the shellfish ever since. One day Mick and I wandered over to the 21st lines to see one of Micky's many friends, and it must have been spirit ration day as we finished up with a bottle of whisky. That night we laced up the Bivvy and were having a great old time, just the two of us with the bottle of whisky, when Judy Garland poked his head in. So the three of us finished the bottle off.
Another thing that was a little unusual was that the boys fixed up a small Italian Tank, and this could be seen most days running around inside the Bty area. Just as well they did not go out, or someone might have given it an A.P.
The only other thing was that from somewhere an 18 Pdr. had been dug up, and Blennerhassett and Alec Johnson with four chaps from the 21st Battalion manned it out on the ridge in an Anti Tank role.
Friday 20 March we were relieved by the South Africans and started the move back to Maadi. Had a big sand storm around Capuzzo where we spent the night, and then down the road through Sollum and Bug Bug. So were able to have a good look around the area where we had spent a few uncomfortable times a few weeks before. Had a ration of beer which all enjoyed outside Mersa Matrah, and it was onto Maadi where we settled down in the U area. This being alongside the Field Punishment area.
After settling down, most of the boys set off for the Naafi where there was one great night. Next day was a Sunday and we found out at the Church Parade that once again we had a new 2 I/C. This time - Gordon Stewart.
After a few days where it was a matter of doing a little maintenance in the morning, and into Cairo in the afternoon, we were informed we were off to Almaza as Duty Regt. The rest of the Division was in Syria, and the 5th Brigade minus 5th Field were to join up.
We had had one spell at Almaza, so thought we knew the ropes. But this time was a little more hectic. There were a few run-ins with the Wogs and I believe one or two were killed. But all in all it was a nice interlude, but one that had to come to an end. Mick and I went all the way out to Helwan, to see a friend of mine from Christchurch. One Bill Grigor who was the Fireman at Helwan Hospital. Then on the Sunday morning it was up, pack and on our way to Syria.
Must say it was a most interesting trip, passing through places like Beersheba and Gaza. These towns most of us had read about, as it was where our forebears had fought as Mounted Riflemen. The cemeteries we passed bore the names of plenty of young New Zealand men. Then there was the Dead Sea. and there was not many who did not try the water to make sure one could not sink. More than anything were the oranges and water melon we were given in one instance, or by means of getting the Jewish occupants attention, someone else would take the goods. Very nice too.
Eventually we passed through a town called Baalbek, and travelled another 25 miles or so to a place called Djedeide. This was to be our Base for a couple of months while we dug Fortifications in the mountains.
Apparently the powers that would be were frightened of the Germans heading through Turkey. So there was some real sweat lost, as the Gunners toiled away digging Gun Pits and sleeping quarters. Don't know how it would have been achieved without Gunpowder. At least Blasting Powder.
While all this was going on, we did get a little leisure time. Most of us at one time or another went into Baalbek. This was the place where all the famous Temples had been, and most of us stood in awe at the Pillars of the Temple of Bachus. I am sure most of us at that stage had worshipped there in spirit, and had our photos taken there to prove it.
The other thing about Baalbek was that the N.Z. Army ran its own brothels. It took a very brave man to enter there. A little description of same. It was a long building. with stable doors all along both sides. The Provost took your money at the gate. and when you walked through, what must have seemed like the whole two N.Z.E.F. yelled and screamed. What a performance. You can see I went and had a look!!!
Then it came to a Sports Day, and 'A' Troop was very proud to have one John Allen representing them. His Commando training came in very handy, as he won the obstacle course easily and this was against the likes of Sammy Todd whom 28 Bty. thought would bolt in.
All good things must come to an end, and we found ourselves out on manoeuvres with 6th Brigade. This was out on the Palmyra Desert, and very hot. Besides, the air was charged with electricity. Anyone silly enough to swing a groundsheet from ground spikes found this out, as you could see the sparks flying from the spikes.
Then it was off to join the 5th Brigade who were on manoeuvres near Aleppo. We camped on the Aerodrome and it was quite a sight. There seemed to be miles of silk out drying, all colours. Then there were some monster Planes on the tarmac (American). Certainly the biggest any of us had seem up till then.
After a bit of maintenance we had leave into Aleppo. This was quite interesting and quite an eye opener. Quite different to Cairo or Alexandra. Must say there were some villainous looking fellows there and one had to keep his eyes skinned. Quite enjoyable though.
Our manoeuvres took us up to the Euphrates River. and was it hot. So there we were on the Turkish border when the orders came to return to Djedeide in a hurry. This we did, to learn things were not going so well up in the Desert and our presence was required.
Leaving Djedeide on 18th June 1942 we by-passed Damascus, Herrs and Homs, and arrived outside Tiberius for our first stop. About 200 miles. Reached Kantara on 20th June, and most had a swim, then it was away again.
Had removed all Badges and smeared over all Unit signs, but that did not fool the Wogs. Most likely because they had been having an easy time of things. But once the boys got into their stride of driving the Quads alongside the Barrows or Carts and someone leaning out and taking the water melons. It would not be hard to tell the Kiwis were back.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.