Priv M Hickman
21st June 1941
Dear Mother & Dad
Just a line or two hoping to find you happy and well as I am at the moment though rather tired. We’ve been very busy lately but are having a bludge today. I’ve had quite a number of letters lately – on Sunday after I had written you and Youngster I received two long cheery letters from Youngster and Mrs Toomey and another card from Mrs Laird. Then on Thursday came your letter with the cheering news that you were leaving the next day for Melbourne. I certainly hope you had a good time mother – it’s a pity dad couldn’t have gone over at the same time, especially with both Ivy and Bill on holiday. I’ll bet the youngster was pleased to see you- she’s been looking forward to your going over for months. She told me in her last letter that she’s still being treated by doctors. It’s a pity she won’t leave the office especially now she has a house and seems very wrapped up in her garden. I’m rather afraid Youngster was endowed with too much brain and not enough horse sense. She’s a lot too conscientious about her work and conscientious people never get anywhere.
Sorry to hear that the boys have been crook and hope they have completely recovered now. I’m afraid you feed them too well – they want more work and less meat.
That house in Park Street is an increasing source of worry dad. If there’s a market for that type of place I’d get shot of it. There seems to be a hoodoo on it. What’s the cause of the shortage of houses? One would rather expect the opposite with so many away. By the way how are Rennies coming up to it? If they weaken at all show the B’s no mercy – get the boot in and get it in hard.
Your mention of David Menzie’s birthday certainly shows how time is flying. It only seems the other day that I was at the wedding and here’s David four years old. According to a certain pessimistic prophet in our outfit the war won’t end till 1952 so I suppose by then David will be driving one of Ben’s trucks.
Though you may know more of our doings than we do, I’m not permitted to write you of our whereabouts or doings at present and may be able to tell you the story later on. One thing I think I can mention was a visit a couple of us paid to an old Saracen fort that must be anything up to two thousand years old. We were in the vicinity and another chap and I got permission to go and look the place over. It was a long walk or should I say a long climb but we were well rewarded for our trouble. The side from which we approached was the only one where there was an entrance. The other three walls were built sheer up from the sides of a precipice and how the dickens they ever got the huge cut stone – some of them must weigh ten tons – into position, beats me. The fortress covers an area of about three acres – a high fortress and lookout at each end with a big battlements in the centre around which are numerous positions that in a modern scheme would be gun emplacements but were I suppose catapult positions. Though most of it is in a state of decay there’s still some fine stone arches and circular stone work. The lookout positions command a marvellous view of the rugged country in these parts studded here and there with native villages, along the sides of the valleys are multitudes of caves and way down in the olive groves the natives can be seen moving like convoys on donkeys, horses & mules from village to village.
Dick Schultz has been very busy lately. Ack Hallam has gone to hospital with a crook knee – got to have a cartilage taken out or something and Ray Ross and Barclay were both hurt. McDonnell is alright.
My wallet is getting too full to carry around so I’m going to send some of the photos home. The chap in the photo is Charlie Mene a Thursday Island chap and a fine fellow too. Since the little turn we put on in Durban he always refers to me as ‘my best fren’. When we were at Gaza camp he got me to go with him and have that taken.
The ration card was the one issued when we went on six day leave but there wasn’t a shortage of food in Scotland so it wasn’t necessary.
Youngster told me in her letter that both she and May are knitting socks. I hope they haven’t sent them because I’ve got too many now considering our lack of accommodation for personal gear. As a matter of fact Mother there’s really nothing I’m wanting.
(final para written on page 1) – As you’ll gather from this ramble there isn’t much news I can write you so for present will say cheerio. Regards to the Boys.
Your loving son
Censor – K Lawson
Diary June 16 – 21
Leo’s section again attached C Coy. at Banias expecting attack. Fusiliers surrounded & captured. I was sent on reconnaissance to Saracen fortress – two miles inside enemy territory – very interesting. Attached to Engineers at night. Ack Hallam & Graham Watts do tricky job with Cavalry
Leo’s section attached to Hqrs for four days – nothing very interesting though bombs dropped very close. New CO takes over from Killer Monaghan – Corby – Victorian – seems business man type – came and made himself known – asked our names in business man style.
Making sense of the diary entries (italics from The Footsoldiers)
Leo Earea’s section was indeed attached to C Company: they were not at Banias. But it’s possible that Dad’s diary entry referred to his being one of the carriers sent back to Banias with Captain Cotton’s A company ‘to watch the rear and the road to Kuneitra’…. Both A and D companies occupied the hills just forward of Banias for the period June 18-23 and carried out patrols into the hills to the north. The account below (‘more on the Saracen fort’) certainly indicates that he was with Captain Cotton at this time.
The incident with the Fusiliers took place on June 15:
The French attack on the Merdjayoun sector had been part of a co-ordinated attack on two of the main Allied axes of advance, with a subsidiary attack at Jezzine. On our right sector the French had defeated the British and Free French, capturing nearly all the Royal Fusiliers, and had approached the Palestinian border thirty miles to our rear….
Tricky job with the Cavalry
Following the ‘rout’ of French cavalry on June 16 (described in the previous post), about sixty of the French Foreign Legion’s Arab horses were rounded up and handed over to the 6th Cavalry who later used them ‘for patrols on the right flank, ranging far and wide up into the low foothills of Mt Hermon and the eastern approaches. They were code-named The Kelly Gang.’ I wonder if Ack Hallam and Graham Watts might have been involved in one of these patrols.
Members of the French Foreign Legion’s Spahi cavalry (photo from The Footsoldiers)
Friday 20th : A New CO
Lt-Col Monaghan had been with the battalion for a very short time, but his methods were causing concern: On 19 June Lt-Col Monaghan was transferred …to his old regiment the 2/2nd Anti Tank. The new CO (was) Lt-Col J A Corby, a Victorian…Although Colonel Monaghan’s methods of commanding the battalion from the sharp end were admired by those that saw him, most agreed that perhaps there would be less worry at BHQ. Lt-Col MOnaghan’s bold methods of distributing the battalion far and wide, beyond its communication and supplies, no doubt kept the French guessing but also had caused much war and tear on the unit. His disconcerting habit of breathing down the necks of platoon officers and Bren gunners when in action certainly kept all on their toes but many the worry the adjutant had when he could not find the CO. (from The Footsoldiers)
More on the Saracen fort : as per diary – sent on reconnaissance, rather than being ‘given permission to look the place over’!
The Nimrod Fortress is located on a cliff, high above Banias. The frontier fortress guarded the main road from Damascus to Tyre and Tiberias during the Crusades. In fact it was built around 1228 by the nephew of Salah ad Din [Saladdin]– Al Aziz Uthman – in order to guard the route to Damascus and prevent the advancement of the Crusader army led by Friedrich II.
In a piece written during the early 1970’s, Dad wrote of this incident –
…the group to which I belonged was attached to A Company at that time commanded by Captain T W Cotton who was later to become the commanding officer of the battalion and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross. Captain Cotton instructed our platoon commander to send two men to reconnoitre the high ground immediately in front of our position. This involved climbing a hill – I suppose a small mountain would be more correct – that overlooked a wide area of countryside. The prospect looked exciting. I volunteered and suggested that a chap named Wally Sonntag, a West Australian who in civilian life was a school teacher, might care to join us. We were given a very pistol and cartridges or different colours which were to be fired under varying circumstances. We did not carry rifles or any means of offence or defence.
After somewhat more than an hour’s climb, we reached the summit of the hill and to our wonder and amazement found it surmounted by a fortress built in ancient times. The manner in which it had been constructed was fascinating, reflecting remarkable engineering skills. Huge blocks of stone, some of which must have weighed at least a tonne, were bonded together. On three sides of the fortress the blocks of stone were bonded in such a way as to be practically perpendicular to a height of fifteen metres. The fourth side was constructed in such a way as to give limited access whilst still retaining a defensive role. At the top of these constructions there was a reasonably level area surrounded by a parapet wall. We could well imagine the area being used to hurl stones or other deterrents at attacking forces.
It was a really fascinating experience. We probably spent more time exploring the fortress than we should have done, but we did note for the purpose of the exercise the possible positions of enemy forces in the immediate and more distant olive groves and also the continuous stream of local people moving away from the area when we got back to the campsite and relayed the information we’d been sent to obtain. I don’t know whether it affected the course of the campaign.
This photo gives an idea of the commanding view of the surroundings that Dad and Wally must have had.