1ST BATTALION – THE VOYAGE ENDS
The battalion passed through the Persian Gulf to Basra and thence up-stream to Marquill, where they disembarked. Then followed a most uncomfortable journey in trucks through a desert sand-storm to a large transit camp alongside the Baghdad railway at Az Zubair, a small Arab village whose minarets were the only break on the dreary sky-line. It was the battalion’s first experience of a sand-storm, and they were not prepared for it. Sand penetrated everywhere and everything, and all ranks were glad of an opportunity for a wash when camp was reached. But water in that remote desert area was scarce, and the utmost economy had to be enforced.
A fortnight was spent at Az Zubair, during which there were desert marches to harden the battalion once again. On November 15 the battalion entrained for the north.
The journey was made in covered goods wagons with an opening on either side, at which guards had to be on the alert against prowlers, particularly when halts were made at lonely stations. Changing stations at Baghdad the next day involved a brisk march through the Iraqi capital, the legendary and romantic charm of which was lost amid the filth of its beggars and the squalor and nasty odours of its narrow streets. At midnight the journey northwards was continued, through land famed in Biblical history. All that could be seen were the countless stars in a wonderfully clear sky, with the occasional outline of a camel train or a palm-tree in the foreground of the desert.
Journey’s end was at Kirkuk, about six hundred miles north of Baghdad, in the heart of the oil country. Camp was pitched about fifteen miles away on the virgin plain that stretched on either side of the narrow main road to Mosul. To the north-east were the long range of hills full of oil borings. In the background were the towering snow-clad peaks of the mountains of Iran.
The camp had literally to be dug out of the desert. Under a covering of about ten inches of soft sand the ground had been hardened by the summer heat, which was just declining.
A tropical thunderstorm accompanied by a fierce wind broke with sudden violence as the tents were being pitched, and everything and everybody was soaked. When the storm had subsided the camp was erected, and no one was sorry when night came.
For many weeks, training was interrupted by heavy and continuous rain and everyone had to dig in to a depth of six to eight feet, with a well-constructed drainage system round each tent. Nevertheless many tents were often flooded seriously, and on one occasion the Chaplain, Father Flynn, found all his possessions floating in four feet of water after a severe downpour. Roads and drains had to be laid through the camp, but despite these precautions the rain was so heavy at one period that a raging torrent, several yards wide, separated the cookhouses and mess-tents from the company lines.
Eventually the rainy season ended and the battalion settled down to strenuous battalion, brigade, and divisional exercises, prominent among which were forced night and day marches through mountains, instruction in handling mules, assault craft, and the rest. During one scheme a night crossing of the Little Zab River had to be made, and while engaged on a preliminary reconnaissance two young riflemen were lost when their canvas assault boat capsized in the swiftly flowing river. They were swept away by the current and despite gallant rescue attempts by Captain Sir James Henry and Lance Corporal J Short, of D Company, who dived into the river, the young men, Rifleman Tracey and Rifleman Andrews, were drowned.
The gallantry of Captain Sir James Henry and Lance-Corporal Short was brought to the attention of the Army Commander, who directed that it should be recorded in their Army documents in accordance with King’s Regulations.
The only operational duties performed by the battalion during its stay in Iraq were to guard the oil installations against saboteurs and parachutists, also the many large dumps of ammunition placed in the hills in case the Germans broke through the Russian defences in the Caucasus. That, of course, was the main reason why the 56th (London) Division and other British troops had been sent to Iraq—to help stem the German threat to the Middle East.
PREPARING FOR COMBINED OPERATIONS
WHILE the North African campaign was in its closing stages, the success of the Russian offensive in the Caucasus had removed the threat of German penetration to the Middle East. Early in 1943 British forces in Iraq were reduced, and among the first to move was the 56th (London) Division. Two brigades were sent in an emergency to Tunisia to assist in the final moves there, but the transfer of 168 Brigade was delayed owing to heavy rains in the south.
News came that the brigade was to take part in forthcoming combined operations, and this proved a great relief to the boredom which desert life eventually brings. A stay of nearly six months near the malodorous oil wells was enough for everyone.
The exercise ended and the London Irish began to receive new equipment of all kinds: guns, carriers, mortars, and the rest. Embarkation leave followed, and then came a hectic period of cleaning and packing. On November 10 the battalion embarked at Glasgow in HMT Duchess of York.
When the troop-ship was out in the Clyde and among a vast convoy, news was received of the Allied landings in North Africa. Everyone knew then whither they were bound, and that it was likely that the 2nd Battalion would be in battle first, although the 1st Battalion had already gone overseas.
The senior officers were given an outline of the progress of the landings, and maps of Algeria and of Tunisia were studied. Eleven days after embarking the lights of Tangiers were seen in the moonlight. Coming from a blacked-out Britain the lights seemed strange and almost unreal to the troops. The short voyage was without incident, and on November 22 Algiers came into view.
The tall, white buildings stood out sharply in the great bowl of the Algerian capital, rising steeply one thousand feet above the sea. As the convoy entered the harbour an air-raid warning was sounded. A smoke screen was swiftly laid by ships of the Royal Navy, and anti-aircraft guns went into action. Fortunately no bombs were dropped and the raiders flew away.
With the bagpipes leading, the 2nd Battalion went ashore in full marching order. The staging area was fifteen miles from Algiers, near Maison Carree, and the march through the streets of Algiers, up the steep, tortuous hills to Kouba, was one of the most tiring the battalion had up to then endured.
Algiers was raided that night by German and Italian bombers and the defensive fire was an awe-inspiring sight. From every degree of the compass a riot of tracers sped towards the raiders.
A very dry summer had passed, and the arrival of the London Irish in North Africa coincided with the start of the rainy season. Two days after landing a downpour began which lasted three days. The bivouac area in a vineyard rapidly became waterlogged, and no one could keep dry. Better quarters were found in a factory, and being out of the rain no one complained of the large brown rats which scampered about all night.
The journey towards the front was made in cattle-trucks, and for two days the battalion clattered through the snow-capped mountains of North Africa to Bougie. In that tiny but attractive port the battalion received all its transport, which had been sent separately from the United Kingdom. Trucks, carriers, staff cars, all had come through unscathed.
The next move was by road to Teboursouk. The battalion crossed the mountain range to Setif, three thousand five hundred feet up in the Atlas Range, and as it grew dark they reached Constantine, the great Byzantine city. The journey was resumed to Souk Aras and finally to Teboursouk, near the ancient ruins of Dougga, which once had a prosperous population of eighty thousand.