Chapter 22: More Attacks Round Merdjayoun
IN the Merdjayoun sector the invading column had advanced only a few miles beyond the frontier. After the failure on the 17th Brigadier Berryman walked through the country over which the 2/25th had made its abortive attack and arranged an artillery fire plan and fixed objectives for a second similar effort which he decided should be made on the 19th. He divided his position south of Merdjayoun into three sections: the right, on the foothills of Hermon, was manned by the 2/33rd (now commanded by Lieut-Colonel Corby1); the centre by the 6th Cavalry (under Major Onslow); the left, facing Merdjayoun itself, by the 2/2nd Pioneers, the Greys, and a company of the 2/5th Battalion (all under Lieut-Colonel Wellington). Each sector commander had a share of anti-tank guns.
Again the 2/25th Battalion, on the far left flank of these units, was to attack from the southern edge of the Litani gorge, its final objectives being, on the left, the cemetery, and on the right, a group of houses north of the fort. The Pioneers were to “demonstrate” from the south in order to distract the enemy’s attention, and were to get in touch with the 2/25th and be ready to help it exploit its gains.
The Australian guns opened fire on the Merdjayoun fort (to delude the enemy) at 4.20, and after ten minutes were switched to the first objectives of the attacking infantry who were awaiting the order to move. Shells from the French guns, which quickly retaliated, burst among the Australians and wounded five men in Captain Marson’s2 company, which led the advance on the right; at 5 o’clock, when the infantry were due to advance, shells were still falling close to Marson’s men and the companies did not move until 5.20.
The company on the left cleared a copse in which the French were strongly established and advanced into the town, breaking up into small groups to clear houses from which Frenchmen were firing. It was led by Lieutenant Stringer3 until he was seriously wounded. In a sharp fight in the cemetery Lieutenant Barnett4 and two of the five men with him were wounded. Lieutenant Hurford5 was killed leading his men on.
On the right Marson’s company fought its way forward. Lieutenant White’s6 platoon captured a blockhouse and about thirty prisoners; another
platoon commander, Lieutenant Jefferson,7 and a number of his men were killed. There was scattered fighting among the houses. Then French tanks and armoured cars appeared in the streets. Against these there was no defence, and small parties of Australians were rounded up and captured. Four tanks moved on to the cemetery where Barnett’s men were holding out. Captain Blundell,8 Marson’s second-in-command, hastened back to ask that another company be sent forward to assist, spoke eventually to his commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Withy9, by telephone and was allowed to lead into the fight two platoons that were in reserve. These reinforcements, under Lieutenants Crombie10 and Miles,11 drove off the tanks, and not only released most of Marson’s men but captured several of the enemy and formed a strong position from which patrols were sent forward to help the scattered parties.
Meanwhile the artillery observers’ line had been cut by shell-fire and the artillery team – Captain Clark,12 Lieutenant Cutler13 and Gunners Grayson14 and Buckingham15 (of the 2/5th Field Regiment) – and a few infantrymen who were with it were attacked by two of the tanks, which were followed by about fifteen French infantrymen. Cutler and Lance-Corporal Pratt16 each opened fire on the tracks of the tanks with anti-tank rifles and saw their bullets hitting, but with no effect except to cause the tanks to lurch and seek shelter. Thereupon Cutler and Pratt exchanged their anti-tank rifles for a rifle and Bren gun and fired on the enemy infantry, who took cover behind a stone wall and replied. The tanks advanced again and opened fire with their turret guns. The second shot killed Pratt, fatally wounded Clark, and wounded Grayson. Cutler took up an anti-tank rifle and hit the tanks’ turrets, but without effect. Then he fired and hit their tracks, whereupon tanks and infantry withdrew to shelter. Covered by the fire of their own infantry, the surviving Australians withdrew, carrying Clark, who was still alive.
Cutler was convinced that the enemy were unsure of themselves and that it would be wise to press on into the town where the attackers could find shelter from the tanks; Marson agreed. Cutler set up an observation post among rocks at the north-west corner of the town and was about to
order his guns to open fire when he saw Australians ahead at a house on “Castle Hill” and a patrol advancing towards enemy machine-gun positions some distance away. In reply to shouts the men at this house called that they were White’s platoon, which had moved into this tank-proof country with their prisoners earlier in the morning, and that the patrol was from the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion. This was encouraging news.
The Pioneers were, in fact, only a small party led by two veterans – Major Lang,17 the second-in-command of the battalion (who had been a notable infantry subaltern in the previous war), and Captain Camm18 (an air force observer in that war). When he received his order to make a feint from the south, Lang, mindful of the failure of the attack on the 17th, decided to concentrate on a patrol round the flank in the direction of the 2/25th’s advance. The two officers, with about twenty men, later reinforced by a platoon, had made their way forward under cover of rocks and grass until they were only 300 yards from the fort, and could shout to the Queenslanders on Castle Hill. Thence they crept forward, came up to a French machine-gun post from the rear and captured it, and moving north of the fort captured a mortar and its crew. The mortar was fired by Private Robertson19 who had been a mortarman in the militia During a “sniping match” between Lang’s party, using their own weapons and the captured mortar, and French troops in other houses, Lang was wounded. He was reputed to weigh 20 stone, and was carried out on a ladder by some of the prisoners whom White’s men had captured. Later in the afternoon when French tanks appeared the Pioneers withdrew.
Some of the survivors of the attacking companies had moved back into Lang’s area, some to a company which, from the outset, had been in a defensive position on the extreme left flank. By early afternoon the situation was stable and, if there had been any reinforcements, they might have attacked with success, but nearly all the fighting troops had been committed; and not long afterwards French reinforcements were seen advancing from Debbine.
About 4.30 p.m. Marson and Cutler led a patrol into the north edge of the town. They encountered only desultory machine-gun fire, and Marson returned and led another patrol in from a new direction, but it was stopped by sharp fire. About 7.30 two French tanks and a squad of infantrymen moved out of the town and set up posts between Cutler (who had scouted forward with Lance-Corporal Williams20 of the 2/25th) and the remainder of his party. Cutler and Williams lay low until dark. Cutler then collected
the others of his party and led them through the enemy’s lines to the 2/25th Battalion.
Also at 4.30 Berryman issued an order that during the night two platoons of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion were to “hunt down and put out of action enemy tanks and occupy Merdjayoun fort”; the 2/25th were to “locate and put out of action tanks found in their immediate vicinity”, and, after the Pioneers had taken the fort, were to secure the town. To achieve this, forty sticky bombs were to be available to the Pioneers and twenty to the 2/25th. Berryman had decided that there were only five tanks at Merdjayoun and once they were destroyed the fight would be won. This order could not be carried out; sticky bombs could not be delivered to the 2/25th in the time available.
The companies of the 2/25th were now so scattered that, at nightfall, it was decided to withdraw to the western edge of the plateau. At dusk, when a platoon was digging in at the copse near Merdjayoun, the enemy attacked with a tank and machine-guns, the Australians were thrust back, and the telephone line which went through the copse to the leading companies was broken. They were out of touch until Lieutenants Robertson21 and Dodd22 with a corporal found a new way of approach. The survivors of the leading companies hung on to a perimeter position; within it the men not on guard collapsed in a sleep of exhaustion. Later the battalion was ordered to withdraw to the Litani. It had lost about 25 killed and 60 wounded. After the action 73 men were missing (including some later found to have been killed or wounded).
The attack had come close to success. The main causes of its failure appear to have been the numbing weariness of the attacking infantry, who had had little rest since their ordeal on the 17th and 18th; and the aggressive spirit of the defenders – particularly the Foreign Legion – who grasped every opportunity of regaining the initiative, and of the French tanks which had split up the leading company at a critical moment and against which the infantry had no effective weapon. Berryman, however, decided to make a third attack from a new direction.
The French in the Merdjayoun area were dependent on traffic along either Route “A” or Route “B”, and because Route “B” was now under fire from the guns south of Jezzine, and the enemy had evidently ceased using it, Berryman now turned his mind to this right flank position. He decided to occupy the high ground round Ibeles Saki whence his guns could command also Route “A”. Round Ibeles Saki the rock-strewn hillsides might protect his infantry from the tanks which had defeated them at Merdjayoun. On the 22nd June Generals Lavarack and Allen examined the ground and approved Berryman’s plan.
On this flank the 2/33rd had been patrolling and had discovered not only that the impetus of the enemy’s drive had been exhausted but that he was abandoning some of his gains. On the night of the 20th a patrol found that Fort Khiam was unoccupied, and on the night of the 21st that the French had abandoned Khiam village and Bmeriq.
‘ On the eve of the planned attack on Ibeles Saki, Berryman ordered that a troop of horsed cavalry be formed by the 6th Cavalry to patrol the rugged hills of the Anti-Lebanon and protect his right. It will be recalled that, on the 16th, Captain Bennett’s roving company of the 2/33rd had captured thirty-two good cavalry horses at Rachaya. In the ranks of the 6th Cavalry were many countrymen and some who had served at home in light horse regiments of the militia. From such men was formed a cavalry troop, at first of eighteen men but in a few days increased to forty, when saddles and packs arrived from Palestine; its unofficial title was the “Kelly Gang”. On the night of the 22nd, a few hours after the horses had been taken over, Lieutenant Burt (a dairy farmer in civil life) led the force to Bmeriq and patrolled the area beyond; and, in the following days, the cavalrymen, then under Lieutenant Millard, rode through the country bounded by Bmeriq, Kafr Hammam, Kafr Chebaa and Mazraat Islamiye in the tangled mountains overlooking the Merdjayoun valley from the east.
The 2/King’s Own had now been transferred from the 21st Brigade to Berryman’s command; on the 22nd the 2/25th was transferred to divisional reserve and moved into a bivouac area at Kafr Roummane on the Merdjayoun-Sidon road. Berryman’s plan for the new attack, on the 23rd, was that a company of the 2/33rd should capture the ridge just north of Khiam, then a company of the King’s Own should capture “the Pimple” – the ridge between Khiam and Merdjayoun – after which two companies of that battalion were to capture Ibeles Saki itself. The artillery and the Pioneer battalion were to give the impression that the attack was aimed not at Ibeles Saki but Merdjayoun.
At 4.30 a.m. Buttrose’s company of the 2/33rd Battalion, now only about 75 strong, attacked, the artillery and a platoon of machine-gunners giving effective support. The infantrymen stormed the hill, where evidently two companies of Algerians were firmly dug in and had an abundance of heavy weapons. There was hand-to-hand fighting; grenades were thrown and thrown back again, and bayonets were crossed. Sergeant Henderson23 took a 37-mm gun, turned it against the enemy and fired it until he was shot through the head. In addition five heavy and nine or ten light machine-guns and three mortars were overrun.
About an hour later, when Buttrose’s company had taken this feature, the Algerians counter-attacked but were driven off. In the afternoon and evening they attacked thrice more, once pushing right among the Australian positions so that grenades and bayonets were used again. The Australians lost eight men in the afternoon, and the company had little more than the strength of a platoon left. They held forty prisoners on the
hill. It was impossible to take them back because the track was swept by machine-gun fire from Ibeles Saki; the prisoners were held on the rear slope where all were killed by French mortar fire. Throughout the action the enemy’s artillery fire was fierce and accurate.
The attack on “the Pimple” was less successful. After coming under fire from the top of that hill, the King’s Own established themselves about half way up the slope Finally the commanding officer was instructed by Berryman to hold his positions with two of his companies and withdraw the other two with the object of renewing the attack next morning, Berryman being convinced that if the whole battalion was committed without a new fire plan there would be many more casualties but little hope of success. In the evening, on Berryman’s instructions, Major Rickard and Lieutenant Cutler took a field gun forward and at dawn on the 24th Cutler placed it in position in front of the infantry on the left of the Pimple to fire on the French posts at point-blank range.
That morning at 4.30 a.m. the King’s Own attacked again. Just before zero French mortar bombs fell among the rear companies. The riflemen, though regulars, were inexperienced in battle, and when the mortar bombs fell, believed their own artillery fire was falling short, and in the resultant delay failed to follow the barrage closely.24 However, probably as a result of the artillery fire, the enemy offered little opposition. He appeared to have withdrawn most of his troops during the night in some haste, abandoning guns and mortars. By 9.40 a.m. patrols from the King’s Own and the 2/33rd had entered Ibeles Saki.
Meanwhile, on the early morning of this attack, a patrol of the 2/2nd Pioneers, under Corporal Dunn,25 which had been on the edge of Merdjayoun, had reported much noise near the fort. Informed of this his platoon commander, Lieutenant Tilney,26 took his men forward and opened fire; there was no reply. Consequently Colonel Wellington ordered his two leading companies to advance under cover of a smoke screen laid down by the artillery. The Pioneers moved through the town without meeting any resistance. Many dead French troops were lying on the ground, and the Pioneers who had been killed in the attack on the 17th were found and buried. The only living enemy troops in the town were two wounded men of the Foreign Legion, one French and one Irish. The town was in chaos. Artillery fire had done much damage, but the French troops had done more. Verandah posts had been knocked down (by tanks, the Syrian inhabitants declared), goods in the shops had been smashed with axes and hammers.
Also on 24th June, Bennett, whose company was still being allotted the lonely tasks on the right flank, was ordered to take Kheibe. A platoon
entered the village without firing a shot, but was mortared and machine-gunned from a spur to the north-west. Thus, at the end of the day, the 2/33rd Battalion held Bmeriq, Kheibe, Ibeles Saki, Khiam Fort; the 2/King’s Own held the Pimple; the 2/2nd Pioneers had companies in Merdjayoun and companies forward on the ridge north-east of the town; the Greys had a detachment near Bourqouz, a detachment at the Litani River bridge and the rest of the unit with the 2/2nd Pioneers; the 6th Cavalry were covering the roads and the valley between the Pimple and Merdjayoun.
Since the 17th Berryforce had now made four attacks; two of them had been carried out since General Lavarack had allotted General Allen a defensive role while the main weight was put into the Damascus operations. On the other hand possession of Merdjayoun was desirable as a defensive measure; and support for the aggressive policy Berryforce had followed was given by both Lavarack and Allen; and, on the 23rd while the Ibeles Saki attack was in progress, by Wavell. Wavell held a conference at Berryman’s headquarters attended by Lavarack and Allen, and suggested that the offensive should be resumed “wherever possible” – a suggestion which, the diarist of the 7th Division reflected, “rather conflicted with the role which had been allotted to the division by I Aust Corps”.27
The enemy now had his right on Col’s Ridge, which dominated Routes “A” and “B”, and his left on Hasbaya to protect his line of communication against a possible incursion through the Anti-Lebanon, where at first Australian infantry and now Australian horsed cavalry patrols had been active since the first day of the campaign. After a reconnaissance Berryman decided to test the enemy’s strength by attacking Col’s Ridge with a company of the Pioneers. Colonel Wellington gave this task to Captain Camm’s company which was then established on the Balate Ridge to the west.
It was decided to attack from the north, thus striking the enemy’s right flank and rolling it up. The Pioneer company moved forward from Balate at 2 a.m. on the 27th and were guided forward to the creek at the foot of the ridge.28 At 4.5 a.m. artillery fire descended on the top of the ridge, then dropped to form a creeping barrage lifting 50 yards at a time which would lead the infantry to their objective. Camm’s three platoons were lined up on a front of about 850 yards, Lieutenant Hamilton’s29 on the right, Angus’30 in the centre and Houston’s31 on the left.32 Bayonets fixed,
they advanced up the hill, apparently without being observed, until they were about 300 yards from the first objective – the saddle north of Col’s Knoll. The advancing men met machine-gun and mortar fire, the machine-gun fire at first passing well over their heads. Then men began to fall, but a final rush carried the company on to the knoll.
Hamilton’s platoon reached the objective at first light without casualties. It took two prisoners and killed a third Frenchman. Hamilton decided that he had met only outpost positions and the French strength was farther on. He was consolidating on top of the ridge, rather than on the reverse slope where the rocks allowed only a small field of fire, when he saw large parties of the enemy in front and on his left. A mortar fired on his right, causing two or three casualties. Private Pugh33 stalked forward, shot the crew with a Thompson gun, threw parts of the mortar away and returned. On the top of the hill Hamilton went forward until he could see the French artillery “a mile away in a copse across a creek”. His equipment was hit by bullets. He and some of his men fired at Frenchmen on the forward slope.
The French fire intensified and, as soon as the supporting artillery fire ceased, their infantry began to press forward covered by mortar and machine-gun fire. Camm, Lieutenant Angus and a number of others were killed, and Captain Nason,34 who was with Hamilton’s platoon, took command. Then Hamilton was hit through both legs. A corporal, Hann,35 went forward to him and offered to carry him out but Hamilton ordered him to lead the platoon back; a strong counter-attack was developing from the left, ammunition was running short, and there was no means of bringing more forward. The survivors, only about twelve men, disappeared down the slope under sharp fire, escorting their two prisoners and leaving a group of five wounded men ‘who lay and watched groups of men of the Foreign Legion picking up abandoned rifles and ammunition as they advanced. Lieut-Colonel Monaghan, realising that the attack had failed, called down defensive fire by the artillery. Thereupon Sergeant Warburton36 led out the survivors of Angus’ platoon, and Lieutenant Houston, seeing the others withdrawing, also moved back to the start-line, where the sergeant-major, Topfer,37 had collected all the men he could, including wounded, to form a defensive line.
The ridge, which was the main French position, had been held by two French battalions which had withdrawn over the hill during the barrage, and, when it ceased, had advanced again. Of the company which went into the attack twenty-seven were killed, more than thirty were
wounded, and others were taken prisoner. After dark Staff-Sergeant Peeler38 (who had been awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917) led out a patrol which brought in four wounded men, but, after much searching, failed to find Camm’s body.
On the night of the 27th–28th June and the following day the 2/King’s Own relieved the forward companies of 2/33rd Battalion, which was placed in reserve. The Australian battalion had been fighting continuously for three weeks. Its strongest rifle company now had a strength of only 3 officers and 63 other ranks, its weakest 5 officers and 51 other ranks.
During the attacks at Merdjayoun the enemy force there was increased until, by the 21st, it included five battalions: III/6th Foreign Legion, II/16th Tunisian, I and II/22nd Algerian, and II/29th Algerian.
In the evening of 29th June Berryforce ceased to exist. Brigadier Galloway, the commander of the 23rd British Brigade (the same who had been General Wilson’s chief of staff in Greece), took control of the troops in the area, and Brigadier Berryman returned to the command of the artillery of the 7th Division.39 In the course of the next few days units of the 23rd British Brigade relieved most of the Australian units in the Merdjayoun area.40
The Australians who fought the long and often costly battle round Merdjayoun had held the pass which, if given to the enemy, would have let him into Palestine with disastrous consequences. They had also attracted to that sector a substantial part of the defending army and thus, to an extent, had eased the struggle in other sectors.