War diary : first week of the Syria campaign – June 1941
Left Er Rama at 11pm, travelled about 20 miles – very interesting road – one of the seven wonders of the world – marvellous engineering – at times poised like tomb Mahomet – made camp within a few miles of border – received package – wedding cake (Jack & Lill)
1am reveille – entered Syrian territory at 5am at Banias – Bluey Webb killed – 1st cas under heavy shell fire
attached C company at Banias – Hold down position
Khiam – heavy battle in rocks – mortars and seventy fives rain hell on us – Barclay received bullet wound
Ned Turner section out on patrol – sniper opened fire – gunner(?) and NCO’s take up positions. NT gets shits, clears away with two carriers leaving Ted Fleming, Len Woodlock & B Cole. Later picked up by F Dredge – Doc’s section go through mine field – Ray Ross carrier blown up – Ray shattered eardrum goes back to hospital. My carrier attached Engineers….
The Syria campaign – from Active Service – the background, and the start of the campaign
(Note that this was written during the war )
Mid-summer of 1941 found a portion of the AIF engaged with British, Indian and Free French forces, in wresting Syria from Vichy control. There were abundant signs that German influence had seeped into Iran and Iraq to an extent that menaced our cause in the Middle East. Those mandated territories and portions of the French colonial empire still held by the administration and troops loyal to Petain’s government at Vichy were everywhere dangerous to us. German success in the Balkans had created enemy bases in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was only a step from here to Syria. Control of the oil pipelines and the oil fields of Iran, the isolation of Turkey and the preparation of a drive through Palestine: these were some of the strategic possibilities that could have been developed by the Nazis. The ground-work of intrigue and bribery had been prepared. Syrian aerodromes had already been used by Axis military planes. The next and familiar phase of infiltration by ‘technicians’ had begun. Intervention by the Allies could no longer be delayed…..
By far the most powerful element on the Vichy side was the terrain. Apart from a narrow coastal fringe of plain, which in some parts was no more than three hundred yards wide, the way of our advance into Syria and the Lebanon could only be through mountainous country….All routes from the south were commanded by steep hillsides and knolls of which the defence could – and did – make full use. Precipitous ravines made the cross-country use of vehicles and Bren carriers impossible in many areas….the defence was cleverly disposed. Enemy artillery followed the movement of our troops with such precision that the presence behind our lines of spies with signalling facilities was suspected. Measures were taken to suppress this. Our infantry continued to pouch into the hills, seeking always for a line of approach to close quarters. Whenever possible, the enemy evaded these moves, skilfully withdrawing his guns to another position and preparing for another phase of the delaying action. His troops fulfilled the expectation that they had no heart for the campaign. Their professional honour and the tradition of their service summoned up an instinctive effort.
Photo gives some idea of the terrain….
map – June 8/9 – locations mentioned in diary and The Footsoldiers extracts are shown here…
Banias (from Wikipedia)
Banias is the Arabic and modern Hebrew name of an ancient town that developed around a spring once associated with the Greek god Pan. The spring is located at the foot of Mount Hermon in the north of the Golan Heights and constitutes one of the main sources of the Jordan River. The archaeologists have uncovered here a shrine dedicated to Pan and related deities, and the remains of an ancient city founded sometime after the conquest by Alexander the Great, and mentioned under the name of Caesarea Philippi by the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
…Attached C Company at Banias (8/9)…and later Khiam (10/11)
According to The Footsoldiers –
After C company had successfully captured Banias by noon on 8 June, two of the company’s platoons….with a section of our carriers, had remained in the area, scouting the flanks and road beyond Banias, until relieved by a section of 6th Division Cavalry….At 0600 hours on 10 June the two platoons embussed in unit vehicles and were moved up to Fort Khiam. Here they took up positions on the high ground south of the village. …On 11 June both platoons advanced along the line of the right of the village protecting the open flank whilst A Company cleared the houses. After A Company had advanced out and onto the walls area facing out to Little Pimple, C company occupied the haystack area and patrolled out into the olive groves and beyond into the ravines and gullies above the plateau to the east.
Photo from The Footsoldiers – carriers in action June 10.
The battalion in general
As mentioned in a previous post, the troops had been led to believe that the Vichy troops would offer little resistance. This proved absolutely unfounded. As reported in The Footsoldiers regarding the first day of the campaign:
By midnight of 8 June, the situation was not as all had expected it would be. The battalion although it had not suffered any heavy casualties, was not more than one mile beyond the frontier. Its companies were loosely scattered over an area of six square miles, with no main objectives achieved. True, C company had achieved their task and the small outposts along that part of the border and been cleared. But the high ground in and about Khiam was still controlled by the French. Of B Company nothing had been heard. A Company, at that time about to be rejoined by its missing 8 Platoon, was preparing for an attack on the fort which they now knew contained 100 determined men. D Company was returning to an area that was only one-third of the distance on the way to their real objective, Ibeles Saki. Two platoons of C Company were put in the rear at Banias with one platoon (15) detached to A company. It was obvious that the French were not going to surrender easily. This was much the position on the other lines of advance….On our own brigade front, the left battalion, the 2/31st, had a really rough task. Three of its companies were pinned down on flat ground when attempting a set-piece attack on Khirbe, three miles to our left. The battalion had suffered some 40 casualties.
Photo : 2/31st Battalion digging in, in Syria – from Wikipedia
There were many problems with communications, which led to more men being evacuated due to exhaustion than due to enemy action. D Company was particularly badly impacted:
Confusion in sending and receiving signals over the inadequate wireless communications had resulted in D Company’s vain and exhausting return marches. This confusion certainly cost D Company over 30 men. Marching and scrambling up ravines and ridges since 0200 hours on 8 June, under fire for almost all of the afternoon of the 8th, marching all through the night and up until 0800 hours on the 9th, with nearly eighteen hours of climbing and scrambling, the men were exhausted. Sufficient to say that by 0800 hours, 9 June, D Company arrived in their position in the olive grove, east of Khiam, with fewer than twenty five men out of the 120 who had left the forming-up point the day before….By nightfall of 9 June, nine men had been wounded and some twenty lay vomiting from heatstroke, exhaustion and lack of water…..Throughout June 10 D Company lay in the rocks, unable to move. As any men attempted to move artillery and mortar and MMG [Medium Machine Gun] fire descended upon them. Without any water other than a few sips since noon of 8 June and now out of the two days’ hard rations they had carried, D Company felt little like the boisterous company of three days before.
Doc’s section go through a minefield
According to The Footsoldiers, this incident occurred on 9 June – as Dad was clearly with C company at Banias at the time, perhaps his diary entry reflects the date he found out about it, rather than when it actually happened:
To support A Company’s attack on the fort on 9 June, number one section under Sergeant ‘Doc’ Trenow was ordered to get in behind Khiam village and draw French attention away from the attack. At dawn on the 9th ‘Doc’ and his three carriers – the lead carrier under Corporal Ned Turner, the middle one under Corporal Ray Ross and ‘Doc’ bringing up the rear, headed out past their own road block north. There, mostly on foot, they surveyed the area and the rocky crags that lead up to the right and on to west side of Khiam village. By 1000 hours they had approached a track junction, which appeared well used, and ‘Doc’ decided this looked the best approach. Just as they set out, an American-speaking Syrian approached, and calmly informed them that the road, hills and surrounds about the fort were mined. the artillery on the fort could now be heard, and upon turning a bend in the track the carriers were confronted by a rock road block.
Here Sergeant Trenow set out on foot down a track into a long wadi that lay behind the village and fort. After proceeding safely for some 500 yards Sergeant Trenow signalled up the section, which slowly proceeded in line ahead into the centre of a long, open cultivation…Instantly the second carrier, with Corporal Ray Ross driving and two gunners, Private John Nugent and Private Ruben Way aboard, exploded two or three mines, which blew off a track from the carrier and hurled dust and bodies about the field. The men were visibly hurt. Dazed and shaken the section stopped whilst they took stock. The second carrier crew, covered in dust, and with ear drums giving them great pain, lay where they had landed. The damaged carrier was now out of action….By continual reconnoitring Sergeant Trenow was able to pinpoint nearly all the other mines in the area.