The Middle East
The Longest Approach March In History
During the absence of the ‘battle experience’ party the battalions in Kirkuk were warned that they would shortly be moved to train for amphibious operations. Toughening-up exercises started, with intensive training using ropes and rope-ladders, which included assault courses over the mountains, being carried out. It was a well trained and very fit Brigade that was relieved by Polish troops on the 20th and 21st March. It proceeded to Lancer Camp, Baghdad, the battalions being divided into two parties, the transport and as many men as it could carry being organised as a road party, with the remainder installed in the uncomfortable wagons or dingy compartments of the Iraqi State Railways. The journey took the road party from the 20th-23rd March to complete because of heavy rains. The vehicles were bogged down and delayed by floods and impassable roads for two days, while the rail party left Kirkuk on the 21st and marched into Lancer Camp the following day. This caused a day’s unscheduled wait before the battalions were reunited to start the next stage of their journey. The rail parties were loaded into 3-tonners driven by Indians of the RIASC, and the whole Brigade set out, due west, across the desert.
The road was a wide, well used track, marked with old oil-drums, across a featureless area of sandy, stony desert. It was just wide enough for three vehicles to travel in a narrow echelon, thus avoiding most of the dust thrown up by the vehicles in front. There were three rest stages, at Wadi Mohamed, Rutba and M2 (a pumping station on the pipe-line). These were spaced out at distances varying from 120-150 miles apart, and contained the only water and petrol points. The routine was very similar to that experienced by lorried infantry units, except, of course, there was no need to proceed spaced out tactically nor to leaguer defensively. Vehicles were usually parked in a herring-bone formation, forming a triangle, which could be watched by one guard. Reveille was at 4.30am, breakfast before first light, 10 minute halts were taken every hour, a three-quarter hour halt for lunch, and then a final halt before dusk for an evening meal, cleaning-up and early to bed. During the fourth stage the track entered a lava belt, an incredible area many miles deep, covered by rocks of many different shapes and sizes all polished smooth by the passage of time, and reflecting the sun, which was very trying to the eyes. Towards evening the country became more fertile, and Arab traders were encountered. That night there was a brisk trade in oranges,
Once through the desert the Brigade came into green and cultivated areas, and the road dropped down into the Jordan Valley, with grasses waving in the breezes, and poppies, scarlet anemones and lilies growing in profusion. Instead of scattered bands of Bedouin, the inhabitants were hard-working farmers tending their fields. Eventually the Jordan was crossed and the column entered the Hills of Ephraim, to arrive at last at Tulkarm. At Tulkarm they learnt of a change of plan.
It had originally been intended that the 5th and 56th Divisions from the Tenth Army should train in Palestine to prepare for the landings in Sicily, but instead General Montgomery decided that one of the veteran divisions of the Eighth Army should be relieved by 56th Division and move back to Egypt and Palestine for the amphibious training. Ultimately the division selected was the 50th (Northumbrian) Division.
The advance parties of 56th Division, having erected their tents around Gaza, were ordered on to Egypt, and in due course 167 and 169 Brigades followed. 168 Brigade was taken out of 56th Division and retained in Palestine. The rest of the Division retained their RIASC transport, and turned south from Tulkarm, taking the main road running parallel with the Palestine coast down to Gaza. They passed through the white houses of the Jewish settlements and groves heavy with oranges and grapefruit. At Gaza the road turned back into the desert to Beersheba before entering the desolate Sinai. The road across the Sinai Desert was a great engineering achievement, consisting of two or three inches of tarmac laid directly on whatever the surface happened to be, whether sand, shale or black lava. It was a constant battle for maintenance parties to keep it clear, and no vehicles were allowed to stop on it except at special ‘pull-off points’ provided at intervals, for fear that a stationary vehicle would sink into the sun-heated tarmac. However, it did provide a smooth fast route to the Suez Canal at Moascar. From Moascar the roads through the Nile Delta were excellent until their arrival at El Tahag, a camp which practically every unit in the Middle East had been directed to at one time or another. Here the battalions had their only long halt during their journey, a halt of four days, in which they were required to draw complete war kits and equipment to scale, including 6pdr anti-tank guns, which were novelties to 169 Brigade. The aim at El Tahag was to give each man one day’s leave so that he could visit Cairo. Most men availed themselves of this opportunity to revel in the luxury of a vibrant and exciting large city again.
At El Tahag the battalions again split into road and rail parties, leaving on the 4th and 5th April for Tobruk. Both the MT and the trains crawled past the battlefield of El Alamein, where as far as the eye could see lay the wrecked tanks and vehicles, minefield signs and barbed wire, still uncleared. Then those in the road parties drove over the very bad roads through Sidi Barrani and Mersa Matruh to the Halfaya Pass, with its magnificent views of Sollum Bay. Finally all the parties met up again at the railhead, which had now moved forward to Tobruk,
At Tobruk there was a day’s pause whilst transport arrangements were sorted out, and this gave time to visit the town and harbour, and wonder at the destruction caused by two years of war. At this time no less than 123 ships had been sunk in the deep clear waters of the harbour, and the masts of many were still showing. As the men from the Queen’s battalions gazed at the ruins, contemplated the remains of the perimeter defences or the burnt out tanks and vehicles resting amongst the broken wire, it is doubtful if many realised that they were following in the wake of four other battalions of their Regiment; the 2nd Battalion, which had taken part in Tobruk’s defence during the Siege; and their own parent battalions of 131 Brigade that had pursued the enemy from Alamein, and were even now in action ahead of them in Tunisia.
After this brief halt 169 Brigade, now all in vehicles again, mostly provided by the Sudan Defence Force, drove on along the well built Italian road westwards. The first day was still through the desert, but then the landscape changed as they entered the Jebel Akhdar with its well wooded ridges, pine trees, and neat white Italian villages and settlers’ farms, once fertile and well cared for, but now showing signs of neglect and war damage. They zigzagged down the steep Derna Pass and continued on towards Benghazi, that town that had given its name to so many ribald Eighth Army jokes. There was a pause here for maintenance. The town was dead except for a small garrison of British troops.
After Benghazi the road entered the desert once more, and became rather monotonous as it took the Brigade through El Agheila and past the incongruous Marble Arch on to Misurata. A pleasant relief was the close proximity of the sea, and on most days it was possible for everyone to take a refreshing bathe in the clear Mediterranean waters. It also provided the only washing facilities. Eventually the 2/5th and 2/6th Queen’s arrived at Azizia, in the olive groves just south of Tripoli, which gave some personnel the chance of a quick look at that city, a disappointing and rather unattractive modern urban area tacked on to the old Arab city.
From this point on vehicles were parked tactically each night, and the sound of gunfire could be heard across the Gulf of Gabes. To their amazement the battle experience parties met up with their units at Azizia. They had expected to rejoin the Division in Palestine, but, of course, nobody had told them of the change of plan! The 2/5th and 2/6th Queen’s moved forward again on the 16th April. The route led through Medenine, where only six weeks previously 131 Brigade had so greatly distinguished themselves. The Mareth battlefield was then passed, as was that of the Wadi Akarit, before they drove through the Gabes Gap to Sousse. The final day’s march (which happened to be on Good Friday) on the 22nd April took them to a bivouac area some 10 miles south of Enfidaville. During this last day the Commanding Officers of the 2/5th and 2/6th Queen’s were sent on ahead to be met by the Brigade Commander, who informed them that they were to take over positions from units of 50th Division forthwith. Hasty reconnaissances were carried out by the Commanding Officers, who then frantically drove back to meet their company commanders, who had hurriedly been sent for. Because of the length of the column, the company commanders did not all arrive together, so it was only possible to take half of them to see their positions in daylight. Early next morning, while it was still dark, the remaining company commanders were taken forward to carry out their reconnaissances as soon as the light permitted. Meanwhile the battalions had got on the move, and as the result of exceptional efforts by all ranks, the 2/5th Queen’s took over from the 7th Green Howards and the 2/6th from the 5th East Yorkshires, in the line, by 9am on the 23rd April. Shortly after 10am they received their first casualties from shellfire.
2/Lt G.B. Curtis joined the 2/6th Queen’s straight from OCTU while the Battalion was in the middle of sending personnel on embarkation leave, and was the Battalion’s junior subaltern. He remembers vividly the impression, both physically and psychologically, of this dramatic launching of his platoon into battle at such short notice.
“For most of the last month I had been sharing a 3-tonner with 36 men under my command, being jolted and bumped over terrible roads, with cramped leg room and little opportunity to take exercise or relax. For the last few days we could hear the rumble of guns ahead, but when we stopped in the evening of the 22nd of April and were told that we would be moving into reserve positions in the line next morning, it was a surprise and a shock which we had not anticipated.
Next morning I led my platoon through the streets of Enfidaville and up the road towards the front, not too certain where I was aiming for. We were advancing in what was known as ‘anti-aircraft formation’, which is to say that two sections were in single file with a gap between them on one side of the road, whilst platoon headquarters and the third section were similarly deployed on the other side of the road. We were a well trained battalion, and were properly spaced out and dressed in battle order with properly fitting webbing equipment, and wearing steel helmets.
We made a strange contrast to troops coming out of action, marching down the road the other way. Exhausted and dishevelled, but in lighthearted mood, they really enjoyed themselves at our expense. “What mob are you then?”, “Get your knees brown”, “What kept you so long?” The platoon pressed doggedly on, if a little self-consciously.
Then suddenly there was the whine and crash of shells bursting around us. Under fire for the first time, my platoon vanished. After this ‘stonk’ there was silence, and I gingerly lifted my head to see that the other lot were already on their feet and, much amused by our disappearing act, were already on their way. Still somewhat apprehensive I got to my feet and gave the order to continue the advance, and I was very relieved and not a little proud when they all immediately fell in and we moved off again in our anti-aircraft formation. The funny thing is that, only three weeks later, we came out of action down that same road, and we looked just like that other mob! It is amazing what a bit of battle experience does.”
Thus ended this historic approach march over 3,313 miles accomplished in 31 days. Admittedly it had not been planned as an approach march initially, when the battalions had packed for a routine move from Kirkuk to a destination in Palestine; but the fact that two battalions arrived after dark behind the front, to be in action early next morning after such a journey, entitled them to regard this feat as an extraordinary tactical manoeuvre,