Peaceful prelude to dramatic evacuation

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TX 1004

Pte M L Hickman

2/33 Battn AIF

Sunday 15th June 41

Dear Mother

Just a few lines from the shade of a fig tree hoping to find you, dad and the boys as happy and well as I am at present.  It is a typical Sunday morning and a cloak of peace masks the valley where for the moment we have come to camp.  In the distance the church bells of the Catholic churches can be heard and but for the unceasing attacks of flies it would be a delightful spot.  Like Queensland this is the land of pests – for fleas and flies one never rests.

Your letter of the 28th April came up on Tuesday night along with a parcel from Youngster.  The circumstances of their arrival were really melodramatic and that made them all the more appreciated.  We were near the top of a rugged mountain almost dwarfed by giant boulders when the ration truck with its cargo of bully beef and concrete biscuits arrived and with it the postman.  Everyone was amazed when with our box of rations came a bag of mail – mostly papers but very welcome just the same.  The cake the youngster had sent for my birthday would have found favour at any time but after living for days on Bully – well it was wonderful, and to the tune of a 1941 dinner music programme we went to work on it.  The letter must have been held up somewhere but it made good reading for all that and explained how young Trevor came by his accident.

Three or four days earlier I had a small parcel – a neat little packet containing a piece of Jack and Lil’s wedding cake.  Though the cake had become hard through long travel – nearly five months – I enjoyed every crumb of it and appreciated the sentiment with it – arriving when it did I took it as a particularly good omen.  There’s no doubt about old skin, he’s the best fellow I’ve ever known and I’ve wished a thousand times that he and Weddy had been here or at least with me when in England.  I’m rather surprised at Rex joining a non-combatant unit – just what do they do – I’m sure there’s none of them over here – I’ve heard of them but that’s about as far as we know them.

There’s been quite a chapter of accidents this week – one of our carriers got smashed up and the officer got hurt – nothing serious but there it is.  There’s been quite a series of accidents throughout the battalion too.

Since I last wrote you we’ve travelled still further afield and added a variety of new pages to the history of the battalion.  To the cavalcade of unforgettable scenes is a road considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world.  The thrills of Mount Wellington and the Gormanston- Queenstown road fade to insignificance beside this masterpiece of civil engineering.  Climbing an incline almost as sheer as the organ pipes it banks at the corners like a speedway.  As it was dark when we did the trip we were unable to appreciate fully the wonders of this unique enterprise but the light and shade effects of the moon and clouds in the clefts and ridges added mystery to the charm and sensation of the crossing – at times the carrier appeared to be hanging in space as we negotiated bends banked at angles of sixty degrees – at such times looking down over the sheerness the road resembled cotton on a reel and both above and below us the other units of the convoy were like knots in the thread.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so magnificent and I should like to see it sometime in the daylight though I doubt very much if we shall pass that way again  The countryside in which we are now living is the most rugged I’ve ever seen – more so even than the lake country – there is scarcely any growth on the mountains at all although the small valleys are well cultivated and there are quite a number of vineyards – a few olive groves and some fig trees.

It’s about a fortnight since I last saw Dick.  He was on his way to a village to get by any means some souvenirs to send home.  That set and gloves you mentioned in your letter were gifts (Christmas) from his boss -the MO and a friend in Colchester – so that tells you how he stands there, when the boss buys him a Christmas present- and at that time he was only a private.  The corporals and sergeant weren’t even mentioned.

Well Mother as you’ll gather from this letter news is very scarce so I’ll say cheerio for the present – regards to all my friends and love to you, dad, May and Anne.

Your loving son

Max

…..No censor signature (likewise, June 5)

Diary entry – June 15 – Contrast with the letter!

Take up positions in support Greys.”Ibeles-saki”.  Intense bombardment 75’s & mortars. Had evacuate in evening under machine gun fire and anti tank fire.  Ned left.  two gunners V Abel & Ted Fleming got out in Artillery truck.  Dredge showed up bad at time but has been alright at others.

Map – same as in last post….

June 8-9 1941

 

From The Footsoldiers – movements shown for June 8/9, but map repeated here so place names can be identified.

 

 

 

 

Jack and Lil’s wedding cake – a good omen

This arrived on the day the Battalion began its move towards the border…so the feeling of its arrival being auspicious is understandable.

Letters and parcel arrive in ‘melodramatic’ circumstances

Dad says he was ‘near the top of a rugged mountain’: his diary and The Footsoldiers combine to suggest this was somewhere near Khiam/ Fort Khiam. It’s interesting that the supply truck could reach them, but D company (which was not far away waiting for enemy fire from Ibeles Saki to be neutralised by that of the 2/25th Battalion) had to wait until midday on Wednesday June 11th for a donkey train to bring them rations, water and ammunition.

I don’t understand the reference to ‘a 1941 dinner music programme’. Readers’ thoughts most welcome!

mule train

Photo – donkey train (from The Footsoldiers)

 

 

 

 

Quite a series of accidents throughout the battalion

The previous post refers to some of these – the battalion was involved in fierce fighting and men were being killed and wounded on a daily basis, culminating in a day of intense fighting on June 15 – suggesting Dad’s diary entry was more accurate than his letter.  The OC of the carrier platoon, Lieut Barclay had even been accidentally shot in the arm by one of his own men.

Dad mentions in his diary on June 12, being attached to the engineers – which quite possibly means he was on that day involved in supporting those who were re-building a bridge across the Litani River, south-west of Merjayoun – a vital link to Jezzine.

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Photo – replacing the bridge across the Litani River – from Active Service

 

 

 

 

 

It is clear from Bill Crooks’ account in The Footsoldiers that the Carriers were deployed in many reconnaissance and other support roles, so Dad could have been involved peripherally in any of the actions described there.  However, assuming he was with the bridge builders and that he was then by June 15 supporting ‘the (Scots) Greys’, he would have spent that Sunday moving towards and then retreating ahead of the Vichy forces’ counter-attack.  This was a many-pronged action, and resulted in the Battalion becoming quite dispersed.  Communication difficulties continued, so in some cases small sections rather than whole companies faced the enemy. There were a number of situations that would have matched his diary entry – of intense bombardment and an evacuation under machine gun and anti tank fire.

It is hard to imagine how the scene described in his letter could have been experienced on the same day – I can only imagine that he was writing his letter very early in the morning!  (This was indeed the case – refer to letter of July 31)

The next day –  June 16 – the dramatic encounter depicted on the cover of The Footsoldiers (below) took place.  Vichy forces – a squadron of French cavalry who had dismounted – were attacking the 2/33rd’s C company, dug in on high ground below the town of Rachaya el Fokhar.  B Company, fortunately passing en route to Bmeriq, approached unseen from behind the French forces. In summary, as reported in The Footsoldiers – ‘it was a rout’.

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newspaper

As this replica newspaper front page demonstrates, the Australian public knew the AIF was involved in the Syria campaign, but just as with the troops themselves, the public were being told that there was ‘hope that the British advance will not develop into a military operation’.  As indicated in the previous post (start of the Syria campaign) this hope was ill-founded.

 

 

The road to Rosh Pinna

From The Footsoldiers:  The main approach to the frontier from Er Rama was by road, a distance of thirty five miles.  The road rose 1400 feet in sharp curves first, then after three miles, dropped 1300 feet in two miles to Rosh Pinna.  From Rosh Pinna the road followed the western edge of the malarial-infested Hula marshes.  During daylight and at night if vehicles used lights the whole approaches through this salient would be observed from the frontier foothills of Syria.  That was why the movement to the frontier had to be done by night without lights….

Photos online don’t suggest a road that’s any more hair-pinned than the notorious ’99 bends’ of the road between Gormanston and Queenstown on Tasmania’s west coast, or even the road up Mount Wellington on the outskirts of Hobart – but of course Dad would never have travelled those roads in a carrier, at night, without any lights!

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