Last letter from the Middle East…and the start of Operation Stepsister

to mrs laird feb 42_0001

mrs laird feb 42 p2_0001

This is a letter to Mr and Mrs Laird whose family were very welcoming to Dad and his mate Graeme Watts on New Year’s Eve and subsequent days in January 1941.  I assume Dad asked them to send it to him, after the war, when he was planning to write an account of the Battalion’s experiences.

It doesn’t appear to have been checked by a censor. (There is no signature or stamp – and surely the naming of Port Said would have been forbidden)



Max Hickman

2/33rd Battalion

AIF Abroad

8th February 1942

Dear Mrs Laird & Tom

Just another short hurried epistle hoping to find you happy and well and full of the same good spirits that were so manifest when we were with you.  I suppose the days are drawing out now and you’re getting a bit of sunshine – except for the fogs.  The Syrian winter had a lot in common with Scotland.  When I get back to the unit I will to be able to send you some good snow snaps.  the wonderful effects of the snow on the terraced foothills, the olive groves and rugged mountains is beyond description so the snaps will tell the story better than I can.

Our platoon have been away from the battalion for about a fortnight and we’ve seen quite a lot of new sights.  We parked a while near Port Said – copped a fair spot of leave and while the fallouse lasted had a really good time.  There were some good picture shows which were quite a treat after the very old pictures that came to Syria.  Among the programmes we saw were ‘That Hamilton Woman’ – a Vivien Leigh masterpiece, Gary Cooper’s ‘Sergeant York’ and ‘Down Argentina Way’.

We spent one night at a canteen that for makes of beer was the most cosmopolitan I’ve ever seen and in the course of the evening our labels took us from Youngers Brewery to Canada and the States, thence through a multitude of Pacific beers including Shanghai, Hong Kong, numerous Australian and New Zealand beers then on to India, Pakistan and Egypt.  At the end of the evening we decided that all beer is good.  You probably think me a terrible soak but really I’m not.  It was just the unique experience of having all the beers at one time.

About the only civilised food in these parts is eggs and in various ways we are them three meals a day – scrambled, fried and boiled.  The eggs are very small and at Mess Parade yesterday a fellow observed that considering it was an all day job for a hen they were mighty small eggs.

We expect to make a move towards rejoining the unit soon and I’m hoping there’ll be a big pile of mail both from home and from Glasgow.

I must say cheerio now.  Best regards to the girls and Margaret, Tom & Molly.

Yours sincerely


Syrian snow

2015-10-15 17.10.14Clearing snow in Syria – Mediterranean in the background .  From ‘Soldiering On’ the AWM Christmas Book for 1942.




The platoon is away from the battalion…

In terms of the official Battalion record, it’s as if the Carrier Platoon simply didn’t exist.  There is no mention in the Battalion Diary for January/ February 1942 (AWM52 8/3/33/6) about the fact that the Carriers moved out of Khasa camp at the end of January, or where they went, or about the fact that they were boarded onto a different ship from the rest of the Battalion.  The scant details I have been able to find come from the Brigade diary (AWM52 8/2/25/10) and the diaries of the other Battalions of the 25th Brigade – i.e. the 31st and the 25th Battalion.

The Brigade Admin Instn no.11 issued on 30 January included orders for the Brigade’s carriers (ie those of the 25th, 31st and 33rd Battalions) to proceed to MAJDAL station on 31 Jan with complete equipment incl. LMG and A Tk Rifle (Drs will carry rifles)….Train M originally allotted for this move will now convey 39 carriers from TEK for allotment 10 to each Bn and 9 to 2/6 Aust Fd Regt, to destination under separate instn. (I have been unable to find this ‘separate instruction’, and the records of the 2/6 Regt appear to be awaiting digitisation)  This order was Issued in conjunction with GHQ Movement Control Order no Mov 1/634.  I have been unable to find a copy of this order.  The Rail Movement Table appended to the above Admin Instn shows the Brigade’s Carriers to move on January 31, but only 39 men are listed as accompanying them – i.e. one per vehicle.

Indications from other units

2/31 Bn Diary : Jan 31 – Promptly at 0700hrs, the Bn Carriers moved from the camp area towards their destination.   (I note that the destination is not specified, in contrast to the entry on Feb 5 regarding the rest of the Bn which specified the destination and the route they would take to Port Tewfik)

2/25 Bn Diary : Jan 31 – Carrier Pl moved out en route to Port Said.

Assuming that the procedure for large scale movements of troops of other sections would have been similar to those of the 25th Brigade, the Carrier Platoon’s experience might have paralleled that of 2/2 Bn Carriers which left the Middle East a month after the 2/33rd. The unit diary of the 2/2nd Battalion (In stark contrast to that of the 2/33rd) gives considerable detail about the preparations for that unit’s departure – including the following specifically relating to the Carrier Platoon (AWM52 8/3/2/28):

Late in the evening of 18 Feb orders were received for Capt Swinton and 42 of the Carrier Pl would proceed to TEL-EL-KABIR to collect the Bn establishment of Carriers.  Before leaving, all ranks of the party had to be completely equipped with all personal issues, this was done with a few exceptions of outsize personnel.  The party moved to TEL-El-KABIR by road arriving there ar 1900hrs. 19 Feb.  Capt Swinton was issued with 21 Carriers for which the tools were very short, but during the next few days this shortage was considerably reduced.  The original orders received…were to move from T-E-K to SUEZ with carriers on 24 Feb but on the 22 Feb this was cancelled and the date of the move left open.  The period of waiting was spent in maintenance and short runs for the Carriers to loosen up tracks etc, painting of unit signs and serial numbers and bringing every man up to full WE in personal equipment.  When the Pl. finally left T-E-K it had never been better equipped even down to an issue of driving goggles to every man in the Pl.  On the 26th Feb 14 men were granted one day’s leave to ISMALIA and on the 27 Feb CAIRO leave was also granted.  The only restriction on leave to the Pl. was that they soon ran out of money.  The Pl. played quite a bit of hockey at T-E-K and beat all comers except the British Ord Team.  Ten Carriers left for SUEZ on MT floats on the 10 Mar, the remaining 11Carriers moving to PORT TEWFIK on the 13 Mar.  These two groups of Carriers were shipped …….

We expect to make a move towards rejoining the unit soon 

Dad’s army record shows that he departed Suez (Port Tewfik) on February 8 – so I wonder if this letter to the Lairds was deliberately mis-dated?  The Battalion Diary (ie 2/33 Bn) for February includes the following information about the rest of the Battalion : 7 – Arrived El Kantara approx 0800.  Entrained for Tewfik 0930   8 – Sunday – Arrived Tewfik   9 – 0830 Bn march out of camp Tewfik to point of embarkation thence by lighter to USS Mount Vernon.  Sailed approx 1630hrs.

2015-10-15 14.21.18

Photo from The Footsoldiers – “1000 men” embarking for the Pacific at Port Tewfik, Suez, February 1942.





AWM 023648 : 7th Australian Division Engineers packed into a lighter en route to their troopship.



Mt Vernon 303655

AWM 303655 :  The Mount Vernon.




023644 19th BrigThe War Diary of the 2/25 Bn indicates that on Feb 5, Bn Tpt and Carriers on MV Ettrickbank departed Port Said.   I assume all the Brigade’s Carriers travelled in the same way.  In this photo, the Carriers of the 19th Brigade arrive at Port Tewfik by rail (AWM 023644)


2015-10-17 17.58.39




Loading a truck at Suez – from Soldiering On (AWM Christmas Book for 1942) : drawing possibly by Mr Frank Norton, pictured in the photo below (AWM 023666)









Operation Stepsister

The movement of the 25th Brigade was part of a movement of the entire 6th and 7th Divisions, known as Operation Stepsister.  (ref AWM  RCDIG 1070450)   More than 60,000 troops and their equipment were shipped from the Middle East – some eventually landing in Sumatra and Java (then part of the Netherlands East Indies – NEI), others remaining for several months in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) but most destined to return to Australia before moving on to New Guinea.

This entry was posted in Carrier platoon, Food and Drink, gambling and drinking, leave, Letters to/ from others, Middle East and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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