Chapter 4: Division in Syria
DJEDEIDE fortress was one of a series of five areas in the Lebanon and Anti- Lebanon ranges intended to be made into keeps designed to deny the enemy the use of the main arteries of communication in southern Syria, Palestine and Transjordan. The others were about Tripoli on the coast, Barada Gorge and Qatana–Bourouch near Damascus, and Merdjayoun, south-west of Mount Hermon on the central highway. Sorties were to be made against the enemy’s communications should he bypass the keeps, which were also to be the bases for counter-attacks when the enemy had expended himself in his efforts to press forward.
Djedeide fortress covered the northern entrance to the Bekaa valley between the two ranges and was centred on the village of Djedeide, about five miles north of Laboue and 20 miles north of Baalbek. The fortress was designed for four infantry brigades and an army tank battalion, an army field regiment and a medium battery. Tripoli fortress was held by 9 Australian Division with, under command, Free French Troupes Speciales to guard the rugged Lebanon range between Tripoli and Djedeide. This area could be traversed by infantry but was considered to be almost tank-proof.
Administrative instructions reveal the type of defence being developed against a fast mechanised attack likely to bypass the main points of resistance which the enemy was expected to leave to be mopped up later. The division within the fortress was to be self-contained for sixty days. Five days’ supplies were to be held in each company area, five days’ reserves with each brigade, and the remaining fifty days’ supplies were to be under divisional control. Every man was to have a four-gallon water container at his post and a series of water cisterns was planned, including one to hold 6000 gallons in each brigade sector. The main dressing station at Divisional Headquarters was to have an operating theatre so that, if the fortress were invested, surgical operations could be done. All transport was to be dug in and cages made for prisoners of war.
An elaborate system of section posts, protected dugouts for sleeping, pillboxes, gun emplacements and observation posts was designed within a perimeter of anti-tank ditches, minefields and barbed-wire entanglements. Each section post was to be
self-contained in sleeping accommodation, sanitation, stores, rations and water. The extent of the works and the nature of the terrain made concealment impossible and the deception principle was adopted for camouflage. The whole area was to be roaded and a network of mule tracks built to connect the less accessible parts.
Some work had already been done at Djedeide but there was still much to do, and at speed, to comply with an order by the Commander-in-Chief that the fortress should be completed by 15 May. Continuous rain and cold winds made conditions most unpleasant during the first few weeks of the Division’s tenure of the fortress. Roads became bogs, signal lines were broken, and camps were flooded and blown down. The weather reached its worst on the night of 22 March when, after three days of heavy rain and gales, snow fell over the whole of the area and blocked all roads out of the valley. The temperature in 18 Battalion’s huts was three degree below freezing point. In 19 Battalion’s tents in the hills, water, lime juice and even eggs froze. The Maori Battalion had three to four inches of snow on its positions and the wind reached gale force on exposed hill faces. Statements by the inhabitants that such cold weather had not been experienced for sixty years were poor consolation for the arduous conditions. The troops appreciated the more solid comforts of rum, extra blankets, balaclavas, mittens and leather jerkins that were issued.
The storm was winter’s parting gesture. By 25 March the mountain passes were clear of snow, and at the end of the month the valley was enjoying mild spring weather.
Construction of the fortress was mainly a job for the engineers but one infinitely more complex than any the field companies and field park had previously been called upon to undertake. Most of the weapon pits and gun positions had to be dug in solid rock in high, hilly country exposed to the weather and often difficult of access. The infantry’s picks and shovels were inadequate for such work and the engineers had to use compressor drills and explosives. Tools, equipment, and rations were taken as close as possible to each area by truck and were then manhandled to the company sites or packed in on mules of 6 Cypriot Pack Transport Company.
Besides supervising and helping the infantry battalions and artillery batteries in their battle positions and camps, the engineers employed 600 Bechuana pioneers and 600 civilian labourers, the latter working mostly with civilian contractors. The contractors had been engaged before the New Zealanders moved in. Examination showed that some of their work was so unsatisfactory that non-commissioned officers were detailed to make daily rounds of the contracts. Occasionally, work was held up by labour troubles among
the villagers and the engineer officers became adept at settling disputes.
There was ample scope for ingenuity in Djedeide although not to the same extent as in the more urgent and trying conditions of the later campaign in Italy. Owing to the shortage of timber in the Middle East, the engineers designed a model dugout requiring only corrugated iron and sandbags. A machine for curving the iron was borrowed from Ninth Army and the model was shown to units so that they could copy it for section posts in the outer defences.
Again, a deviation on the Laboue–Arsal road presented an awkward filling problem at a dry watercourse along which the road was to be built. An engineer officer found a simple solution. He placed rows of natives on the hillsides to work down to the watercourse, pitching stones ahead of them as they moved. His report adds a picturesque note to an otherwise prosaic military file:
It made a colourful picture with the hillside streaked with lines of gaudy colours and a perpetual rain of stones coming through the air. The formation appeared like magic in the watercourse as holes became filled and large boulders disappeared into the roadway. The strangest sight was the women who squatted in the rows, holding and suckling their babies in one arm and throwing rocks with the other.
In northern Syria 6 Brigade, and later 5 Brigade which rejoined the Division and relieved 6 Brigade in mid-April, had a more varied role. The brigade’s primary responsibilities were frontier control and the preparation of demolitions on the main approaches from Turkey. These were the main road and railway in the Kara Sou valley in the north and a road from the coastal plain at Alexandretta through Harim in the west. Should withdrawal become necessary, the brigade was to cover demolition parties and fight delaying actions back to its allotted position in Djedeide fortress.
The brigade’s secondary role was more difficult to carry out. Over an area of more than 10,000 square miles from the western border of Syria at Antioch to Deir ez Zor on the Euphrates, the brigade was required to simulate Allied strength and the omnipresence of British forces as part of Auchinleck’s deception plan. In addition, the brigade was called on to suppress banditry, thefts of military stores and the activities of fifth-columnists, and also to cultivate the goodwill of the inhabitants. The last was considered most important.
The troops soon became conscious that the British forces in Syria were in an invidious position. Although the fact did not disturb them, they were aware that they represented a nation which had conquered the country but which had no desire to appear as a conqueror. Nor could the forces assume the guise of liberators.
Syria and Lebanon had been separated from the control only of Vichy France, not of France as the people desired. The liberation, if it could be so called, had been in the larger interests of the Allies, not those of the native people. No promises could be made concerning their political future other than that Britain would use her good offices with the French post-war government on their behalf. In the meantime, French laws were upheld and enforced through French officials, who were kept in office so long as they were not proved to be pro-Vichy or pro-Axis, even although they might not be ardent supporters of the Free French movement. The population could see little difference between the new administration and that of the past which they disliked.
Nor was there any liking for the British except perhaps by the Christian minority of 530,000, a fifth of the total population. It was even questionable whether this liking was genuine or whether it was inspired by hatred and fear of the Moslem majority. The Moslems, who hated the French and despised them after the collapse of 1940, were firmly convinced that Britain had betrayed the Syrian-Arab cause after the First World War. They also mistrusted the British attitude to the Jewish-Arab rivalries in Palestine. In general, the Moslems were pro-Axis. Homs, an important communications centre north of Djedeide, was a hotbed of their nationalist and anti-Ally activities.
Two political groups fostered attitudes and action inimical to Allied interests. A sovereign Syria as part of an Arab empire was envisaged by the nationalist bloc parties. The bloc was opposed to the Government and was both anti-French and anti-British. An independent Syria within Hitler’s new order was hoped for by the Syrian Popular Party, which was definitely pro-Nazi and had been declared illegal. The party worked underground and it was from its adherents that most fifth-column activity was feared. Although some 3000 German and Italian agents and agitators had left Syria as the British entered, there was reason to believe that others had gone underground to organise and stir up feeling against the Allies.
As if these opposition elements were not enough, the British forces had to contend with the peculiarities of the Syrian outlook. ‘The Levantine, generally speaking, is suspicious, dishonest and very greedy,’ the New Zealand Division’s field security officer noted. ‘Life is cheap, justice the prerogative of the highest bidder, business methods are shady, and intrigue, whether for personal gains or for the advantage of particular sections of the community, is the sauce of existence. This outlook is bred in the bone, and for that reason, the local inhabitants impute the very lowest of motives to everyone else, and, in particular, refuse to admit that the occupying army
or administration can have different ideals and methods from their own.’
This official appreciation to the contrary, the troops saw that the Syrian and Lebanese Arabs were superior in intelligence, had greater stamina and were more independent than the mobs of Cairo, the hangers-on around Maadi, and the fellaheen of the Delta. An officer reporting on the labourers employed on roadmaking described them as ‘splendid workmen – and women. In all their work and play they conduct themselves with a dignity, a reserve and courtesy which are in marked contrast to the servility of the Arabs in Egypt.’
The Division had to learn to distrust the Syrians and, in their distrust, to differentiate between the indigent native who succumbed to the temptation to steal from the Allies’ seeming abundance, the thief to whom theft was the normal way of life, and the aggressive bandits and marauders inspired by political motives. When villages were raided for stolen army equipment and suspects against security, the security officers, Provost Corps, and supporting troops had difficulty in deciding whether the non-cooperation of the headmen and inhabitants was due to a natural desire to protect blood relatives, political animosity, fear of starting a feud, or to the Syrian predilection for intrigue. In such circumstances, cultivation of the good will of the population was not easy.
There soon was evidence of the existence of an active and often efficient fifth column. At Laboue, which was within Djedeide fortress, a man was arrested while inciting the populace with anti-British propaganda. Reports of the dropping of enemy agents were confirmed when three parachutes were found not far from the Division’s southern boundary. Prices far in excess of market values were offered to soldiers by civilians for army stores and equipment, suggesting that the goods were sought not for profit but to inconvenience the army or to equip enemy agents and supporters.
Thefts of equipment, especially arms and ammunition, were numerous, serious and often daring. A train was held up at Ras Baalbek, about four miles north of Djedeide, and 25-pounder ammunition was stolen. Almost every unit reported losses of rifles, including thefts from huts in which men were sleeping. Tommy guns, pistols, gelignite, detonators and tents were favoured loot, but the thieves would lift anything not closely guarded.
The daring of enemy agents and the need for vigilance were emphasized in a Ninth Army report of a raid on an ammunition dump under the care of a New Zealand unit. The report was circulated as a warning to all British forces and said:
A man dressed as a British warrant officer and speaking perfect English drove up in a civilian lorry at 0100 hours. He had a pass and stated that
he was going to a certain officer’s quarters to get authority to draw 36,000 rounds of small arms ammunition. He was allowed to go in that direction and returned shortly afterwards saying it was all right and producing an army form with a signature and stamp on it. He was allowed to enter the depot. The lorry was loaded with 36 boxes of ammunition.
The suspicions of the guard were aroused but nothing was done in the way of waking an officer. On the lorry coming to the exit gate the alleged warrant officer went off again towards the officers’ quarters to get an exit pass, came back, said it was OK and was allowed to leave the depot. Neither he, the lorry nor the ammunition have been seen since.
This blot on the Division’s escutcheon stimulated action against the enemy agents and thieves. Since this action was at the expense of construction, training, leave and recreation, and as comparatively little of the stolen property was recovered, the enemy, on balance, was the beneficiary. Fourth Brigade had to maintain a complete company on mobile duty in the Bekaa valley between Baalbek and Homs. In one raid on a suspected village, no fewer than 240 men were required as supporting troops. The reserve battalion at Aleppo was a reserve only in name, as one company had to be sent to the frontier post at Azaz, some 30 miles north, and another to Nirab airfield. The battalion also had to supply guards for a number of dumps and installations, including the main railway station, the engineers’ dump, a petrol dump at the quarries, and the ammunition caves outside the town.
Thieves and marauders quickly learned, however, that it was unwise to molest patrols camping out overnight. The patrol bivouacs were laid out as if in the presence of the enemy and sentries were ordered to shoot without hesitation. Some did.
As another means of impressing the natives with Allied strength and efficiency, the troops were ordered through talks and routine orders to be on their best behaviour at all times, the high standard of conduct of 20 Australian Infantry Brigade which the New Zealanders had relieved at Aleppo being cited as an example to be followed. Where guards were posted in public places the reliefs were made with ceremony and units made ‘flag’ marches wherever possible. Hospitality was exchanged with local officials and sheikhs.
In safeguarding the physical health of the Division, the Medical Corps could not ignore the incidence of such diseases as malaria and typhus in the civilian population. As far as possible the doctors assisted civilian practitioners and officials in control and curative measures. This work, and the establishment of medical posts, was one of the most practical methods of encouraging the natives to trust and show friendliness to the Allied troops. Once suspicion was overcome, the villagers took full advantage of the benefits of free medical treatment and co-operated in the inspections and other measures taken to control malaria.
An account of the work of a medical detachment at Djerablous, a village on the Euphrates near the Turkish border, described the medical post as a hut
with a bevy of children around it while inside the RAP orderly treats sores, cuts and all the ailments found in such villages. After the first visit they bring him along as a present a few eggs which the orderly accepts if the ‘kids’ seem well off. Later he will visit his other patients in the village. There is, however, plenty of need for discretion as it is foolish to take on anything beyond his capabilities, but, even so, this is possibly one of the best ways of winning the villagers’ goodwill.
The New Zealand Division, while making its own traditions, could claim that in Syria it fulfilled the traditions of the British regular soldier. There was much hard work, but such was the contrast to conditions in the desert that the troops looked upon their sojourn in Syria as a rest. What they could have done against an attack from the north is a matter for speculation. It is enough that when the enemy was at the gates of Cairo, in the Caucasus and penetrating Burma towards India, when, in brief, the enemy appeared to be triumphant everywhere and the northern front was bereft of troops to meet the dangers elsewhere, Syria remained quiet.
Although Divisional Headquarters was relieved of the pressure concomitant with close contact with the enemy, its ease was offset by the volume of work to be done. Besides directing the construction of the defences and controlling the normal activities of the Division, General Freyberg and his staff had three important problems to study. These were:
1. Possible roles for the Division in Turkey or Persia.
2. The future of the Division in relation to the Japanese advance in the South Pacific.
3. Organisation and training to knit the Division into a fighting entity.
In a detailed appreciation for the Prime Minister, General Freyberg1 said the evidence showed that Germany had made administrative arrangements to resume the offensive on several fronts either simultaneously or in succession. The possible fronts were: (1) Russia; (2) Turkey by land, sea and air; (3) Cyprus and Syria by sea and air; and (4) North Africa.
Everything would depend on the results of the battle in Russia in the approaching summer, as Germany’s first objective must be the removal of the threat of the Russian Army. If this were achieved, Japanese successes in Burma would tend to draw the German effort
south as soon as possible to break the Allied hold on the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Germany would aim at a winter campaign attacking Iraq, Syria and the Western Desert.
General Freyberg estimated that from the start of a German offensive in Russia, 14 to 15 weeks would elapse before the enemy could place four divisions on the Persian frontier for an attack on Iraq through the Caucasus. He allowed a month for the advance to and capture of Stalingrad, two to three weeks for consolidation and regrouping, and another eight weeks for the advance through the mountains to the frontiers of Turkey and Persia. Assuming the offensive started in mid-May, as then seemed probable, the enemy would be on the Persian frontier at the end of August.
For an attack on Syria through an acquiescent Turkey, a month was again allowed for the capture of Stalingrad, another month to withdraw troops from Stalingrad and concentrate in Thrace, and a further two and a half months to move four divisions through Turkey to the Syrian frontier, making the date of arrival mid-September.
Freyberg warned the Prime Minister of the difficulties facing the Allies, of the need to be prepared for loss of territory, and of the possibility of very heavy fighting during the late summer. ‘Come what may,’ he said, ‘we must be prepared to fight very hard during 1942, either in defence of the Middle East or in attacking the Axis wherever possible to support our ally Russia and possibly Turkey.’
The assistance to be given Turkey on the appearance of German concentrations in Thrace was named, somewhat aptly, Operation SPRAWL. The New Zealand Division with, under command, an additional brigade, probably from 4 Indian Division, was to advance some 700 miles to a road and railhead at Ishmid in northern Anatolia. From this point detachments were to be sent up to 250 miles further on to provide ground defence of airfields then under construction for the Royal Air Force, and on which there was already Air Force equipment. Thus sprawled over the landscape, the Division was to secure the landing fields against airborne attacks and possible land raids across the sea of Marmora. From these fields the Royal Air Force was to bomb the Roumanian oilfields and enemy concentrations in Thrace.
Middle East Headquarters expected no more of these operations than that they would delay an enemy advance and gain time for reinforcements to reach the theatre. The three services, in a joint appreciation, estimated that the Germans would need three weeks to acquire control of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus and that a Turkish capitulation would not accelerate their movement to any extent. Assuming that the enemy moved unopposed through Turkey,
a ‘blitz’ attack by three divisions against Syria could not be developed in less than five weeks from the date the enemy obtained possession of the straits. The alternative to a ‘blitz’ of three divisions was a deliberate offensive calling for ten divisions which, for their deployment, would need three and a half months from the date control of the straits was obtained.
Freyberg did not like the plan for operations in Turkey. He also doubted whether it would be put into force as the Royal Air Force did not have sufficient bombers in hand or in sight. Consequently, when he was asked to obtain the Government’s reactions to the proposed employment of the Division, he replied that as it was fully occupied with local defences and the plan might never be put into operation, the matter should not be pursued.
Middle East Headquarters, however, pressed for the Government’s views. It suggested that even if the Russians were not defeated, the Turks might let the Germans into their country. In that event, the plan might have to be put into operation without time for consultations. Moreover, an immediate move might stiffen the Turks if they showed indecision.
General Freyberg had already stipulated that the Division must be made fully mobile with the transport under his command before he would take it into Turkey. Experience in Greece, where civilian train crews had often decamped whenever a bomb was dropped near a train, had convinced him that he could not depend on the railways for troop movements and supply.
This condition and the terms of the Government’s consent illustrate the manner in which the reserved powers were exercised. The Government’s reply2 said:
We have given most careful thought to the considerations to which you call attention. On the following assumptions, namely:
1. that the move is undertaken only with the full support and approval of Turkey;
2. that an assurance is given by the Commander-in-Chief a. that adequate air support is provided sufficient to ensure that the Division does not have to go through another Greece or Crete, and b. that adequate forces will be available to protect the Syrian flank and, if necessary, to assist in supporting and extricating the Division, we agree that the Division should be used for the operational role proposed.
The Japanese advance southwards in 1942 created a five-fold political, military, logistical, manpower and morale problem concerning the Division.
By March, when the Division had settled down in Syria, the Japanese had captured Singapore and were in Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea and Rabaul in New Britain. Darwin in Northern
Australia had been bombed and the enemy was reaching for the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides. Australia had been chosen by the Americans as their main army base in the Pacific. In consultation with the United States Navy, the American Army had given priority to the security of the communications between the United States and Australia. To this end, New Zealand had been incorporated in the United States South Pacific Command. There was a project to develop Auckland as a battleship and cruiser base. Supply authorities in the United Kingdom gave New Zealand first call on equipment for the defence of the Dominion and its approaches.
News bulletins posted the Division and the public on the enemy’s advance. Counter-measures necessarily had to be kept secret. The Government was deeply concerned for the security of the Dominion. The Territorial Force had been mobilised and expanded. Extensive and increasing demands were being made by the American forces on the manpower and resources of the country. By March it was clear that, after meeting requirements for home defence, the Royal New Zealand Navy, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the Empire Air Training Scheme and of the American forces, there would be considerable difficulty in reinforcing the Division in the Middle East.
In this situation, the Government had to notice a growing public agitation for the return of the Division to New Zealand, but for security reasons could not reply clearly and convincingly to it. The recall of two Australian divisions and the strain beginning to be felt by the Dominion were substantial arguments in favour of its return. So also was the contention, which could not be refuted, that the Division, fully equipped and trained, would be a considerable accretion to the Pacific forces.
Opponents of the recall, who probably were better informed on the problems of a nation at war and the difficulties of the situation, had to argue their case only in broad terms as they, also, were restricted by security requirements. They were not helped by the reports supplied to the newspapers of the Division’s activities in Syria. These emphasized the Division’s garrison role, its recreation and rest, its sightseeing tours and hostels. Even the ski-ing schools were referred to more as a sport than as military training. New Zealand as a whole was pleased that the Division was having a change in a non-operational role in more or less congenial surroundings. But it did not seem to be in keeping with the gravity of the crisis that the Dominion’s best fighting force should appear to be kicking its heels on garrison duty.
In the circumstances the Government was courageous in agreeing to leave the Division in the Middle East. The war in the Pacific at this period was not in the balance. It was almost wholly in favour
on the enemy. As later events were to prove, the only Allied division available in the South-West Pacific, the 1st Division United States Marines, had to be sent to the Solomons to halt the Japanese advance. Such was the narrowness of the margin of the Dominion’s safety.
The Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States urged with all the power at their command that the Division should be left in the Middle East. They submitted that for its fighting qualities alone the Division in the Middle East was more valuable to the Allied cause than it would be in the Pacific. Mr Churchill emphasized that the presence of Dominion forces in the Middle East would help to maintain the morale of the British troops in the theatre. They also were fighting away from their homeland. They had been sent from the United Kingdom when their homes and kin were in grave danger.
On the other hand, the Government had to consider the effects on the morale of the Division of its retention in the Middle East. Week by week from January, the Field Censorship Summary noted increasing anxiety among all ranks and a growing desire for the return of the Division. The consensus of opinion, as revealed in soldiers’ letters, was that the defence of New Zealand was a task for New Zealand troops. If more forces were needed at home, the Division should be recalled. The letter writers argued that if shipping could be found for the Australians and Americans it should also be available for the Division.
Anxiety in the Division was not allayed by reports that American forces were being sent to the Dominion. Married and affianced men said their womenfolk should not be subjected to the hazards which the troops, with remarkable frankness, associated with occupation forces. Their regard for the well-being of New Zealand women was also expressed in adverse comments on the policy of sending New Zealand VADs to the Middle East.
The future of the Division and the defence of New Zealand were discussed at length in correspondence between Britain, the United States, New Zealand and the Middle East.3 Eventually the Government yielded to the outside pressure and accepted a promise that an American division would be sent to the Dominion.
To allay apprehension in the Division, General Freyberg issued a circular letter pointing out that the Dominion was being adequately defended, that there were no forces other than New Zealanders stationed there for defence purposes but that the Dominion was being used as a base for American operations. Emphasizing that the Division was giving much better service to New Zealand and the Allies in its present role overseas, the letter continued:
It is natural for us to want to be at home while there is a threat of any kind but even if the threat to New Zealand became much greater the return of the NZEF might not be practicable. There are shipping problems. ... We have also to realise the importance of the Middle East. ... This spring she [ Germany] will without doubt launch an offensive against Russia and possibly against the Middle East with every man, gun, tank and aeroplane she possesses. ... If our Division... trained and experienced in fighting Germans both in the desert and in hill country such as Syria, were to be moved from the Middle East at the present juncture we would be doing exactly what the German Higher Command wanted. ...
The letter stilled rumours and did much to restore confidence. Incidentally, the admission of the troops into the sphere of higher strategy and the councils of Governments showed how far the Army had departed from its older attitude of ‘Theirs but to do or die.’
General Freyberg, his brigadiers, and senior staff officers were united in opposition to the brigade-group and battle-group theories which dominated British tactics in the Western Desert. In this they clashed with the opinions and directives of Auchinleck and Middle East Headquarters, ‘who believed they had a right to break up divisions and that it was the right thing to do.’4 At the reorganisation and training conferences in Syria, the divisional command had before it further directives outlining brigade and battle-group organisation and tactics and orders for their adoption. The conferences firmly resolved that brigade groups should be used only for movements and that in battle the Division should fight as a division. Freyberg intimated that never again, if he could avoid it, would he permit the Division to be committed to action piecemeal.
Although New Zealand Division cannot claim that it alone was responsible for the subsequent abandonment of brigade-group and battle-group tactics in North Africa, it was a most active pioneer of the opposition. The decision to oppose the theatre commander and the considerable body of expert opinion which supported him was not made lightly. It was based on study of theory and practice. Nor could the decision have been made effective had not organisation and training been reserved to Freyberg in his ‘charter’.
The origin of brigade groups as tactical entities is difficult to trace. Several factors appear to have influenced their evolution. Probably the most important was pre-war apprehension of the effects of air reconnaissance and bombardment on large concentrations of ground forces concurrent with, or followed by, assaults by armoured formations. Dispersion, the obvious counter, was not merely a matter of increasing the distances and intervals between battalions of infantry and batteries of artillery. The dispersion had to be made
in self-contained groups capable with their own resources of defending themselves against air or armoured attack, and so organised that they would fit readily into higher formations for larger operations.
The brigade group of two or more infantry battalions, a regiment of field artillery, a battery of anti-aircraft artillery, two or more troops of anti-tank guns and a proportion of the ancillary services was thought to be the solution of the problem. The theory proved to be sound. Later, however, the overriding principles appear to have been forgotten or disregarded. These were that the brigade group was a device to ensure safe movement and manoeuvre, and that the three groups provided by a standard infantry division should always be within mutual support of each and under the close control and direction of the divisional command.
Pre-war economies imposed on the Army were probably another factor. Because of the shortage of troops and equipment and the cost of assembling divisions and corps, field exercises were generally restricted to brigade groups pitted against each other by their divisional commander. Repeated exercises with the groups created the habit of thinking in terms of the groups rather than in those of divisions and corps. In Britain, divisional and corps training was largely a matter of theory to which only a few officers with vision appear to have given thought. In New Zealand even brigade training was more nominal than real.
Operations by brigade groups in the early days of the war, some of them outstanding, led to a widespread belief in their value as tactical formations. The British actions in Norway were fought largely by brigade groups. At Furnes in May 1940 the 7th Guards Brigade Group held the enemy for three days to keep open the road to Dunkirk and successfully extricated itself against seemingly overwhelming odds. The defence of Britain in the first critical months after the evacuation from Dunkirk was organised on a brigade group basis, although the groups were under divisional control. In North Africa Wavell carried the pursuit of Graziani’s Italians into Cyrenaica with brigade groups. General Cunningham’s victories in Abyssinia were won mostly with swift-moving columns of brigade group strength and under. The pursuit of Rommel to Agheila had been made with brigade groups. When Rommel advanced again into Cyrenaica he had been held on the Gazala- Bir Hacheim line by brigade groups. The brigade-group battles, however, were generally directed by the divisional headquarters of the several groups.
Thus there was a formidable amount of combat experience to be challenged by the Division in its opposition to the group theory. The Division’s case was based chiefly on its experiences in Greece, Crete, and at Sidi Rezegh and Bardia, but it might well have pointed
out that organisation was not the sole or even the dominating factor in the successes claimed for brigade groups. The Division did not object to the use of a brigade group when it was sufficient for a specific operation or when, as with Wavell’s pursuit, Cunningham’s operations and the early defence of Britain, there was no alternative. It did challenge the theory held stubbornly by Auchinleck, supported by Gott who was later designated commander of Eighth Army, that the brigade group was the ideal tactical formation.
In his original report on the operations in Cyrenaica, Freyberg said:
The Brigade Group organisation is necessary for movement in the desert, but is unsuitable for attacking organised positions in daylight as it has insufficient field artillery to cover an adequate frontage of attack. Further, a Brigade Group gets into immediate trouble if it is attacked. The normal divisional organisation should therefore be reverted to if possible as soon as organised opposition is met.
These passages leave no doubt as to Freyberg’s views. Auchinleck’s attitude was made equally clear by his order that the remarks should be deleted from the report with other comments on the danger of committing small forces piecemeal and the inadequacy of reserves.
In December 1941 Middle East Headquarters produced ‘Lessons from Operations in Cyrenaica, No. 6.’ There was no comment, favourable or otherwise, on the use of brigade groups, but there was an interesting paragraph on reserves. This said:
Lack of reserves was seriously felt on a number of occasions. Any det of Bde Gps from Div should be avoided whenever possible. The operations of NZ Div westwards towards Tobruk were seriously hampered by the fact that only two Bdes were available throughout the operation. The 5 NZ Bde which was of necessity temporarily detached was never able to rejoin the Div.
These remarks led Freyberg to make the bitter comment, ‘Our operation was sabotaged.’ He was convinced that had he had the complete Division at Sidi Rezegh, Rommel would have been decisively defeated.
New Zealand Division continued to receive brigade-group and battle-group directives and with equal persistency ignored them. Middle East and Army Headquarters in the desert did not force the issue, possibly in the knowledge that Freyberg could and would defy them in the matter and that if he appealed to the New Zealand Government he would receive support which might embarrass the theatre command with the British Government.
By the middle of May sufficient progress had been made in reorganisation and training and on the Djedeide works to permit the withdrawal of formations for advanced exercises. These were
planned on a divisional scale as the culminating effort in freeing the Division of the idea of brigade groups as fighting entities. Shortage of transport, however, prevented the training of more than one brigade at a time. But the exercises were so arranged that the participating brigade operated within a divisional plan as if the other brigades were on the flanks, in support or in reserve. Although short of the ideal, the exercises were the nearest approach to divisional training since the Division was formed.
The desert formations for movement which the Division used so successfully in later campaigns in North Africa were improved and practised in moving to and from and within the training area at Forqloss, a few miles east of Homs. Advances and withdrawals, wheels, turns, and day and night formations were practised until the drivers reached near perfection in keeping station. Officers and men became accustomed to the sight of a brigade group spread in orderly array. They learned how to locate any company, troop or headquarters by reference to the position of their own trucks. Despatch riders by day or night had merely to establish their own identity and that of the occupants of any truck or car to find their way immediately to their destination.
Rapid movement and keeping station on the roads were also practised. Sixth Brigade, in moving from the Bekaa valley to Aleppo to relieve 5 Brigade for the divisional exercises, did unit training to perfect attacks at speed. Each unit moved in its vehicles to within a short distance of chosen objectives, when the men debussed to complete the assault on foot. Drivers learned to maintain uniform speeds and to keep fixed distances according to the nature of the country. The infantry learned to debus quickly and to deploy from long columns for attack. The experience was to prove valuable.
Forqloss was a milestone in the history of the Division’s field artillery. Hitherto, except on two brief occasions at Molos in Greece and at Belhamed in Cyrenaica, the artillery had fought only on regimental levels. At Forqloss the field and medium guns were concentrated to fight as a division. Brigadier Weir, who had succeeded Brigadier Miles as CRA, became more than an advocate of the concentration of the fire power of the artillery. He was a wrathful opponent of the dissipation of the fire power in the brigade-and battle-group tactics.
With General Freyberg’s encouragement and full support, Weir took each field regiment in turn into the desert, where it was initiated into a divisional artillery manoeuvre and deployment drill, communication drill and, most important, a divisional artillery fire drill. Quick barrages, the putting down of smoke screens, and other
forms of close support of the infantry were also practised. In this training the foundations were laid of the ‘stonk’ and ‘murder’ concentrations of artillery fire, which were later widely adopted throughout the British Army and which became the joy of New Zealand infantry especially when they were hard-pressed in defensive positions. Although these early exercises were carried out by regiments, each regiment as it passed through the training camp had to learn its part and place in the divisional artillery machine. They were well practised by the time they took their places in the divisional training at Forqloss.
The New Zealand Engineers, under Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson,5 also made substantial contributions to the theory and practice of a division in modern battle, besides developing many techniques peculiar to their arm. The engineers believed that in spite of the experiences in Cyrenaica, the Division was not sufficiently conscious of the value of mines, of the formidable obstacles they were against attack. For the Forqloss exercises, the sappers made and laid practice mines loaded with small charges of black powder which exploded with a bang and a lot of smoke. Clearing drills for antipersonnel and anti-tank mines devised before the Cyrenaican campaign were improved and practised. Drills were also devised for laying minefields rapidly from trucks. The practice mines and drills were later adopted throughout Eighth Army.
Thus there was much to absorb, to practise and to polish when, on 21 May, Divisional Headquarters, 4 Brigade (with 28 (Maori) Battalion under command), 4 and 6 Field Regiments, the Divisional Cavalry and 6 Field Company moved into the desert. Over the next three weeks these and most other formations and units manoeuvred in realistic set and encounter battles, often with live ammunition and supported by 451 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. Fifth Brigade was on its way to the training area, and Brigadier Weir was about to take all the artillery and 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, on a final combined exercise, when the Division’s sojourn in Syria was brought to an abrupt end by an urgent call to the Western Desert.
In little more than a fortnight the refreshed and spirited Division was for the fourth time to be in peril of its existence.