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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Tobruk-style defense positions at Tripoli and unrest in Egypt in February 1942

Men from the 2/24th Battalion were located in positions in a curved line that lay on Azge, Kafr, and Aya-Khlaisse. Men from the 2/48th Battalion were "on the plateau behind them". Tobruk veterans immediately recognized that the positions around Tripoli reminded them of Tobruk. They had learned a great deal from their Tobruk experience and used that to improve the Tripoli defenses. Some positions were moved and overall, they used Tobruk-style positions rather than the traditional type.
A Middle-East Officer Cadet Training Unit was maintained in Egypt for the use of British and Commonwealth units. In February 1942, the Australians had men attending the training. They had some additional duties that occurred spontaneously that were not part of the officer training course. The political situation in Egypt deteriorated suddenly. Egypt had a king, Farouk, who was just 22 years old in February 1942. He was considered to have "pro-Italian sympathies". Egypt had a parliament and a prime minister, Sirry Pasha. He had been loyal to the occupying British. In late December 1941, the finance minister resigned. Sirry Pasha resigned on 2 February 1942. There had been "student demonstrations" thought to have been inspired by King Farouk.
The British were aware of the progression of events and had moved a composite brigade into Cairo. The brigade was composed of British, New Zealand, and South African troops. On 3 February, the British ambassador  visited King Farouk and told him that the British wanted him to appoint Nahas Pasha as prime minister. Nahas Pasha was "leader of the Wafdists, the anti-British party". King Farouk did not immediately make the move.
At the officer candidate academy, the men had been practicing with "mobile battle-column tactics, with tanks". Eventually, the  men were told to have live ammunition ready. "At midday" on 4 February, the British ambassador gave King Farouk an ultimatum. The ultimatum was to expire at 8pm on 4 February. Before that time, "the mixed brigade surrounded the palace." At 8:30pm, the officer candidates were assembled and were sent "to the palace to force the issue". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The 9th Australian Division taking over Syria in January 1941

Since the Tripoli fortress was so important, as we mentioned, two brigades were in residence. The brigades were the 24th and 26th. The 24th was to the "right" or east, we would think. The 24th Brigade was in French-built winter quarters in Tripoli. They did send small groups of section-size forward to the defenses. The 28th Battalion had replaced the 2/14th Battalion near Srar. They had one company extended out of support reach, 24 miles away. They had one company in reserve. The men sent out had to travel by "pack-mules", because there were only tracks made more difficult by constant rain. The tracks were incompatible with vehicles, so that was the only option.
One battalion, the 2/43rd, was located at Arbe. They were to the left of the 2/28th Battalion. By "to the left", they must have meant if you were looking at a map, with the north at the top, left would have been to the west. The 2/43rd were sitting on the slope of the Jebel rtourbol. They were near Kafr Aya, and had a goarge between them and the 2/28th Battalion. The third battalion was held in reserve at El Ayoun. They were also responsible for security for the 24th Brigade.
The 26th Brigade was to hold the coast. They were in the Legoult Barracks, which also held the 2/48th Battalion. The 2/23rd Battalion was housed in the Beit Ghanein Barracks. The battalions were still obligated to send patrols to the forward lines to work on improving the defenses. This travel had to be made on foot. That mean that two to three  hours a day were lost in travel time. This was made necessary by the lack of tents. Once tents became avaiable, men camped near the forward area, saving travel time. The 2/24th Battalion was already living in tents "in the foothills east of Madjlaya. They eventually sent two companies to postions on an arc on the eastern and northeastern "slopes of the Jebel Tourbol". The defenses near Tripoli started to remind the Australians of the defenses that surrounded Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The situation in Syria in January 1942

With the 20th Brigade Headquarters located in Aleppo, there were also the brigade administrative units. In addition, the 2/15th Battalion had a substantial presence in the barracks at Aleppo Idlib, but was also scattered among three frontier posts. The 2/13th Battalion, which had remained at Tobruk when the other Australians had left, was situated at Latakia. Latakia is about 100 miles distant but was more when you had to travel by road. Latakia put the battalion in a position to block the coast road from Turkey. The 2/13th headquarters and two companies were located near the town. One company was initially put at Bedriye, a village some 40 miles northeast of Latakia. Another company was put a Kassab in the mountains. The two companies were eventually pulled "back to Latakia for training". One platoon was left at Kassab "for show."
Unit commanders were kept busy conducting reconnaissance. That was true down to the platoon leader level. The Australians were interested in learning about the country and the people with their "customs and the novel and sometimes quaint styles of dress". The Australians had good relations with the people. The inhabitants of Afrine were Kurds, and like today, they cooperated with the soldiers.
Unlike Tobruk, the men had very little work to do on contructing defenses. 20th Brigade wanted to concentrate on training, although winter storms and weather in January in Syria impeded training. Storms hit the Syrian coast during the last week of January. Two ships had run ashore at Latakia in the storms. The 2/13th Battalion had huts and tents blown down. 27 January saw a snow storm that made travel difficult and they were unable to travel to the posts on the frontier, except for the groups near the railroad. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Turkey and the MIddle East in late 1941 and early 1942

Turkey was a concern to the British due to their central location and the possible threat of a German attack into the Middle East. Such an attack might come through Turkey. Turkey was considered unable to stop a German attack through their country. The Turkish army was largely equipped with archaic weapons. The British were supplying them with weapons and equipment to improve the situation. Turkey was also concerned about making any commitments to foreign governments. Both Germany and Britain might pose risks to Turkish independence. Turkey was attempting to maintain neutrality in the war, to keep from being drawn into the conflict. You could imagine Germany conquering Turkey while you could imagine the Britain trying to colonize Turkey.
The British were in such a precarious position that all they could do is hope that Germany did not attack from the north. There were natural barriers in the form of mountains and the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. All these issues were on General Auchinleck's mind. At times, we have thought that he spent more time considering how to deal with an attack from the north than was wise, as the risk seems pretty low from our distant perspective.
Ninth Army had responsibility for defending agsinst an attack from the north. They planned for a defense that did not include moving into Turkey. They would simply fight "delaying actions" along the border with Turkey and Syria. They would depend on "fortresses" in Lebanon and Palestine. General Blamey strongly disagreed with what was planned. The I Australian Corps was to be responsible for constructing fortresses at "Tripoli and Djedeide". They were also responsible for defensive demolitions in front of an attacking enemy.
With the 9th Australian Division now occupying Syria, the 20th Brigade had inherited the responsibility for defending the Syrian border with Turkey. They would also have to fight a delaying battle while falling back on the fortress at Tripoli. The 20th Brigade, because of how responsibilities fell, was stretched across 100 miles, not counting the small detachments holding villages. 20th Brigade was supported by the 9th Australian Divisional Cavalry. They were based in Aleppo. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The move to Syria in January 1942

Teams of men left Palestine for Syria on 9 January 1942. The main bodies of units left Palestine starting on 11 January and kept leaving until 18 January. The trips were through very cold, winter weather. They convoys carried men in open trucks, so that they were exposed to the cold. They drove north along the coast road, first to Tripoli. The mountains could be seen in the distance with snow on the peaks.
The 20th Brigade was first to move north. The 2/17th Battalion arrived at Tripoli on 13 January. They immediately continued onwards to Afrine. Afrine was about 20 miles north-northwest of Aleppo. The 2/13th Battalion drove to Latakia as well as "two frontier outposts". Their fellow battalion, the 2/15th, arrived the day after the 2/13th. There was a barracks for them at Idlib, as well some "tin huts". Two of the companies ended up traveling to Aleppo, where the 20th Brigade headquarters was located.
Components of the 24th Brigade came to Tripoli on 15 and 16 January 1942. They put the brigade headquarters at Madjlaya. The 9th Division headquarters was established in Tripoli on 16 January 1942. Brigadier Tovell was temporarily commanding the division. General Morshead was absent, as he was visiting I Australian Corps at Aley. He stayed until General Lavarack traveled to Lake Tiberius to travel by flying boat to the Far East on 19 January. General Morshead was acting as corps commander and traveled to Broumane to 9th Army Headquarters.
The rest of the 9th Australian Division arrived at Tripoli. This was the 26th Brigade, which came to Tripoli on 18 and 19 January 1942. Most of the aritllery also arrived in the area with other division-level units.
The British took Syria to prevent the Germans from pushing between Turkey and Palestine. The British were still concerned about a possible German attack by way of Turkey. The Russian successes in couter-attacking the Germans during the winter helped to ease the concerns, but they were still present. Winston Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt to present his views of the situation. He wrote the paper in December 1941. Churchill's summary said that while there was still a German threat against the Middle East oil fields, that the threat was diminished. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Plans made an overcome by events in December 1941

The British army had suffered in the process of raising the seige of Tobruk. The cost had been very far beyond what had been expected. The Eighth Army was even short of infantry divisions. 9th Army had requested on 10 December a division for the GHQ Reserve in the Nile Delta. 9th Army wanted the 7th Australian Division that was currently in Syria. They wanted to replace the 7th Australian Division with the 9th Australian Division in Syria. General Blamey objected due to the 9th Australian Division never being trained prior to being sent into action in early 1941. The immediate issue was solved because General Freyberg wanted the New Zealand Division to be sent to Syria.
The new situation in the Far East was going to affect the future employment of the Australian infantry divisions. Just on 7 December, the Japanese had landed troops in Thailand, Malaya, and had attacked the United States at "Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Guam", They also had attacked Hong Kong and Ocean Island. In another two weeks, the Japanese had taken the north of Malaya and had landed in Borneo. They soon would capture Hong Kong and had invaded the Philippines. By 21 December, the Middle East expected to be ordered to send reinforcements to the Far East. 7th Australian Division would be kept in Syria for now. In about a week, the 7th Australian Division was to go to Gaza for "training" while the 9th Australian Division would be sent to Syria, with General Blamey accepting the move.
In early 1942, the British Government sent a message to the Australian Government suggesting that two Australian Divisions should return to the Far East. By 6 January 1942, the Australian Government had agreed with the proposed move. By 7 January, the British issued orders for the 9th Australian Division to relieve the Australian Division in Syria.
The 9th Australian Division would assume responsibility for a large section of northern Syria. This was a some 1,200 square mile area. The area was adjacent to Turkey. The 20th Brigade would move to the area near the Turkish border. The 24th Brigade would move to Madjlaya. This was three miles to the southeast from Tripoli. The 26th Brigade would actually move into Tripoli. Part of the deal would involve sending independent battalions off to remote locations. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Life after Tobruk in the lands east of Cyrenaica from September 1941

Then the units of the 9th Australian Division were withdrawn from Tobruk by sea, they were taken by minlayer and destroyer to the harbor at Alexandria. They had a short stay and then were sent by train to Palestine to the AIF base. The first units arrived in late September 1941. Except for the 2/13th Battalion, which stayed in Tobruk, the rest were the 24th Brigade and supporting units. The other brigades arrived in October, with the 26th arriving prior to the 20th Brigade. General Morshead arrived at the end of October.
The Australians were eased into their new situation. They immediately were given two days off with no responsibilities. They also received treats sent from Australia. After that break, they were put back into a normal routine. After being in Tobruk for so long, the units were re-equipped and prepared for training. One of the benefits of their location is that they were often given day leave to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They also got longer leave to Haifa. Those who rated, got leave in Cairo.
Shortly after arriving, General Morshead got a tour of Syria. After that, he went to the Nile Delta and then onto Kenya for a month of leave. The general met with Brigadier Murray and representatives of the rest of the division, except for the 2/13th Battalion, newly arrived from Tobruk. While Morshead was in Cairo, he received a medal from General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister in exile. The Australian 26th Brigade supplied a band and honor guard.
Because Axis agents were thought to be trying to start trouble in Palestine, the British command decided to start sending patrols to villages. The Ausralians were ordered to send those patrols to Gaza. These were being done for propaganda purposes, to show that there really were strong untis in Palestine. They would hold parades in the center of towns with a band playing music. The patrols were either a company or even half a battalion. They would meet with the local officials to get permission to hold the parade.
The 9th Australian Division sent one company to guard the 9th Army Headquarters in Broumane, Syria. This was the first of many guard requests to which they needed to respond. That had a major effect on training for the division. General Morshead eventually met with General Lavarack and asked if the guards could be provided by "base troops". General Lavarack commanded I Australian Corps. With that settled, 9th Australian Division was able to concentrate on training, their new mission. When the men were not training, they took part in sports. The Australians sent three crews to a regarra in Tel Aviv that included "Jewish and Paletstinian Plice crews." 20th Brigade provided some hockey teams that competed with RAF teams at various gases.
The 2/13th Battalion only arrived in Palestine on 20 December 1941. They had planned to give them a lavish welcome, but their train arrived late, so that didn't happen. The 9th Australian Division had been receiving regular reinforcements, so the division was close to full strength. They got their cavalry regiment back as well as the 2/8th FIeld Regiment. The 2/7ty Field Regiment was still absent, sitting ate the artillery school in Cairo. Except for 2/7th Field Company, their engineers were still in Syria. Brigade anti-tank companies were disbanded and two were combined into the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment. One company were metged into 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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