Monday, December 17, 2018

Back to the Western Desert in June 1942

The events in Syria in early 1942 seemed like a side-show. The real action was in the Far East and in the Western Desert. The Far East had a significant effect on the situation in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Formations from the Middle East were sent to the Far East, such as the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions. From the beginning of 1942 up to April, "180 bombers and 330 fighters" were transferred to the Far East.
The facts were, for the British, were that despite winning the Crusader Battle and breaking the siege of Tobruk, they were unable to exploit that success. The reasons were the commanders that they had were inferior as were the methods that they used for employing tanks and artillery. General Auchinleck's personal involvement to some extent could overcome those issues, but they were not really solved until Bernard Law Montgomery arrived in the Middle East to command the Eighth Army. The effort required to supply and arm Malta was also a drain on resources. This primarily affected the navy and air force.
During the middle of December 1941, the Axis forces pulled back from Gazala to Agedabia. This meant that the British were able to move into Benghazi "on Christmas eve". The Guards brigade (presumably the 22nd Guards Brigade) had moved forward to "make contact" with the enemy forces by 22 December 1941. The British 1st Armoured Division moved to the west to be close to the enemy. The Axis forces responded by pulling back to Tripolitania. Early in January 1942, the small groups of Germans "at Bardia, Salum and Halfaya" were captured.
The Italian navy was able to push a convoy through to Tripoli (Libya) on 5 January 1942. The convoy brought armored vehicles and supplies that allowed Rommel to quickly attack the British. Sadly, the British were caught by surprise. Rommel was strong enough to be able to push the British forces back to the Gazala line. Gazala was reached on 6 February 1942. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Training, unrest among the Australians, and a panic in Syria

General Morshead wanted to train his Australians. When 20th Brigade was available with no other distractions, they turned to training. They were involved with battalion and brigade-level "field exercises". You can tell that this was necessary for the 20th Brigade had never had any training since the brigade had been formed 22 months earlier.
There were reports of "unrest" among the Australians. Partly, this was due to their employment in Syria while men were defending Australia at home. No mail from Australia simply aggravated the problem, because no one knew anything about what was really happening in Australia. The men were stuck in the Middle East while their wives and girlfriends were in Australia, possibly meeting American men.
The typical reaction to this sort of thing was almost a parody. They sent the A.I.F. Entertainment Unit to Syria and Lebanon. The review opened in Beirut on 10 March 1941 and played to a VIP audience, including "General Maitland Wilson, General Morshead, the President of Lebanon, the American Counsel-General (Mr. C. van Engert) and other notabilities". The show was called "All in Fun". They eventually played to all the Australian venues in Syria. They also tried showing movies almost nightly for each Australian brigade. They kept someone busy planning events to entertain the troops. They had trips to where there was snow and visited "places of historic interest". Men were allowed to take leave in Beirut and Tripoli. They did things which seem familiar, even thirty years later such as "table-tennis, chess, draughts, boxing tournaments and euchre parties".
The food situation in Syria improved since there had been a "bumper grain crop". Typically, they did not trust the local people to handle distribution, because they assumed that there would be profiteering. The military was to supervise the harvest. We see a warning, that the 9th Australian Division would be gone from Syria before the harvest happened. We suspect that was because the situation in the Western Desert was collapsing.
The cause of panic in late May 1942 was over a report of warships and large transports on the coast when there was no notice of a British convoy. The panic ensued over what was eventually acknowledged as a British convoy sailing north along the Syrian coast. No reason for panic, but they panicked over lack of information. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The food shortage in Syria and wrong-minded British command priorities

Some steps had been implemented as early as Fall of 1941 had helped the food situation. There was the "Spears' Mission wheat plan". We can understand the natural desire to hoard what is scarce. Having a political leader hoarding food, as Suleiman Murshed was thought to be doing, only aggravated the situation. The United Kingdom Convention Commissioner thought that the Alaouite leader was the best person to receive aid and distribute it, but the British military were concerned that he  might just add to his personal cache in his village. A plan was floated that had the commissioner selling wheat to the poor. The comment was that part of the problem were "wartime profiteers" that they thought should be controlled. All these issues were ready grist for the Axis propaganda mill.
Other initiatives included supplying Syrian workers involved with road and defense construction with ten pounds of flour per week. They had started this step when the men were first hired. Another step was handled by the 2/17th Battalion. They were responsible for distributing five thousand pounds of flour to the poor near Raju. The flour was supplied by the American Red Cross, after requests made by the 2/17th Battalion.
One major change happened when most of "the New Zealand Division arrived in Syria". A New Zealand brigade was sent to "the Djedeide fortress". A second brigade was sent to  Aleppo, freeing up the 20th Australian Brigade. That allowed the concentration of the 20th Brigade "around Latakia". The arrival of the New Zealand Divsion allowed the 9th Australian Division to be better concentrated. They did not have to distribute "detachments east of the Orontes River."
General Auchinleck was concerned about the lack of British strength in the north. He felt that they needed to take steps to look stronger than they really were as a preventive measure. This sort of thinking was foreign to General Morshead, who was irritated by the need to "create the illusion of strength". This is based on the account n Vol.III of the Australian Offiicial History.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The situation in the Far East and Australia in early 1942

The Australians had temporarily kept the 9th Australian Division and some corps troops in the Middle East. The rest of the 1st Australian Corps were being sent to the Far East starting on 30 January 1942. General Lavarack, the corps comander, was sent ahead of the bulk of the corps. The men and equipment were embarked on convoys. The original plan was to send the 1st Australian Corps to Java, but the Chief of the Australian General Staff canceled the deployment to Java after the Japanese captured Singapore. The convoys were instead sent to Australia, which would sensibly be seen as a base for future attacks against the Japanese forces in the western Pacific. They really wanted to have the 9th Australian Division in Australia as soon as possible.
As was often the case, Winston Churchill had his own plans. He wanted to send the 7th Australian Division to Burma. The Australian prime minister, now Mr. Curtin, opposed the move and wanted the division in Australia. As early as 18 February 1942, the Australian government was informed that the Pacific War Council wanted the 6th Australian Division and the 9th Australian Division sbe sent to Australia, while the 7th Australian Division was wanted in Burma. They also wanted to send the 70th Division (defending Tobruk) to Burma. The Australian government was being pressured to send forces to Burma, but General Sturdee and Mr. Curtin opposed the move. The British then raised the stakes, offering to send an American division to Australia, if they would agree to the diversion to Burma. The Australians were still opposed to such a step. Winston Churchill was very upset that the Australians opposed his plan. To try to appease Churchill, Mr. Curtin offered to send to 6th Australian Division brigades to Ceylon. That was offered with the condition that the 9th Australian Division be returned to Australia "as soon as possible". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Big changes for Australians in the Middle East from February 1942

The enemy was busy spreading rumors about Turkey and the Syrian coast. The British had heard about the possible German attack through Turkey from sources in the Balkans. Italians in Greece were also heard talking about "small-scale raids on the Syrian coast". The British believed that the main Axis effort was being spent on preparing for a new attack  in Western Cyrenaica. The rumors were sufficient to cause the 26th Brigade to have to supply a "mobile group" with an infantry company, a carrier section, and a machine-gun platoon. They had to be ready to respond with thirty minutes notice. In addition, they had to provide additional strength at the Tripoli port and at Chakka.
Australian security at the Turkish border were preventing couriers with letters from crossing into Syria. There were also deserters from the Turkish army. There was also constant attempts to smuggle items such as sheepskins. They were thought to be intended for the Germans in Russia.
22 February 1942 saw a big Australian milestone. General Blamey informed General Morshead that he was leaving the Middle East for Australia. It turns out that he also had his wife there with hem. Morshead was promoted to Lieutenant-General and "would become G.O.C., A.I.F. (Middle East). They had met in Cairo to talk about the future plans. General Morshead still had his smaller concerns to deal with. He complained to General Wilson that he needed three brigades to adequately defend Tripoli. General Morshead was then called back to Cairo for a three day meeting with General Blamey. He also spent time with ceremony regarding General Blamey's leaving the Middle East. Attendees included General  Auchinleck, General Freyberg and his wife, He wished General Blamey and his wife farewell when they flew from Cairo airport to South Africa on 7 March 1942. Because of security concerns, the general announcement about General Morshead's promotion was not made for three weeks. There were still 45,000 Australians in the Middle East at that date, but some ten thousand were due to leave for Australia. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The 9th Australian Division in February 1942 in Syria

February 1942 had better weather than January had. There was one day of "torrential rain", but that was just in the 2/13th Battalion area. The temperature grew warmer towards the end of the month. The men were hearing news about the war in the Far East. The Japanese army was advancing and there was "the air raid against Darwin". There had also been a rumor of Sydney being bombed, but that was false. The Australians wondered if they should be "at home" rather than in Syria.
The Free French forces were also in  Syria, but the ordinary soldiers did not meet them. Only commanders had contact. The British had hoped for contact with Turkish troops on the frontier, but that did not happen during the day. At night, they were "friendly and eager" to have some Australian tea.
One concern was the behavior of Australian soldiers during the occupation of Syria. General Morshead had tight control of how the men were dressed and how they behaved. "Leave" followed tight rules. Most of the men naturally were well-behaved. Esprit d'Corps was usually enough to keep men in line. Senior officers in the division staff were kept informed about how things were handled.
The Australians in Tripoli had set a good enough example that the civilians became friendly with them. The situation had improved enough that the string of complaints about Australians coming from "General Auchinleck, General Maitland Wilson and the Spears Mission" had stopped. The main problems became men visiting villages that were prohibited and later by selling "government property" for cash.
The men were more enthusiastic about training than they were about digging defenses at Tripoli. Some useful unit training occurred during the three days a week set aside for such exercises. Men were able to fire their weapons and were acquainted with "wire crushing" and the "spigot anti-tank mortar". The 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment "received 32 guns".  They created a range where they could practice shooting at targets. One feature of February is that small  groups were sent back to Australia to training replacement troops. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The British get their way on 4 February 1941 in Egypt and then back to Syria

The cadets from the Officer Candidate Training Unit were informed about the ultimatum given to the Egyptian government and were sent to the palace of King Farouk. They arrived before 9pm and were formed up in parade. The Egyptian royal guard presented arms in response. The British ambassador arrived after 9pm and went to speak to the king. He was there for about 15 minutes and then left. After he left, Nahas Pasha was asked to form a government. He did accept the request, although he wrote a letter for the British ambassador saying that neither the treaty between Egypt and Great Britain nor the fact of Egypt being a sovereign nation should allow the British to force political changes in Egypt. The British agreed that they would treat Egypt as a valuable ally and enter into a collaboration with them. This calmed the political situation. Elections were held that approved of the agreement, although the political opposition disliked the deal. The whole incident was kept secret until after the end of the war. The incident was one of many reasons that ended the British military occupation of Egypt after the war.
Back to Syria, in early February 1942, General Morshead traveled the 20th Brigade area for five days, seeing the situation for himself. He disliked having the 20th Brigade at Aleppo, as it seemed exposed and that they would not be able to withdraw. He remembered his experience in 1941 in the withdrawal from western Cyrenaica into Tobruk. In addition, 20th Brigade was considered to be the 9th Australian Division reserve. He thought that is they really would have six weeks warning, they should blow demolitions immediately. He was also skeptical about how long the air force would use the "covering landing grounds". He thought that they would almost immediately abandon them, leaving 20th Brigade with air cover.
General Morshead was also unhappy with the emphasis on building defenses at the expense of training. The Australians had previously been permitted to traing for three days a week and then build defenses for three days. General Morshead objected to the situation and General Wilson, 9th Army Commander, agreed that training was important. They agreed that they could hire civilians to dig so that Australians could train. Another problem was equipment for the 9th Australian Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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