Topic: AIF - Cars
1st AUSTRALIAN ARMOURED CAR SECTION, AIF
THE BATTLE OF BEERSHEBA
Below is a transcription from a manuscript submitted by Captain E.H. Jams called "The Motor Patrol". It is lodged in the AWM as AWM 224 MSS 209.
THE BATTLE OF BEERSHEBA.
On the 30th September, we were attached for duty to the A & AZ Mtd. Division and on the 28th October the division moved forward to Asluj which now became our Headquarters. From now on things began to move feet and furiously. Most of the moves were a one at night time. The air was generally thick with dust from the continual movement of horses, troops and transport, and the car drivers were generally smothered with white dust from head to foot. All our aeroplanes became intensely busy and were continuously inn the air to prevent enemy planes from viewing what was going on in our lines.
On the 30th October, we sent a couple of cars some miles up the Beersheba road to mark the track for a night march of the cavalry who moved off immediately after sundown in order to attack Beersheba from the rear. There was no sleep for anyone that night. Columns of troops with their transport were silently passing like shadows all night long on their way up the track marked by us the day before. Desert Mounted Corps headquarters moved off from the Asluj Railway station at midnight and at 4.30 next morning, before the first streaks of dawn, the Light Car Patrol moved out on its long task of overtaking all the troops that had been passing through the night. We proceeded for 14 miles in a North Easterly direction and then turned North West behind Beersheba.
Shortly after daybreak the division was well in position behind the town and the New Zealanders attacked the hill of Tel-el-Saba which they captured after a sharp fight. [Editor's note: Tel el Saba was captured at 3.15 p.m.] At 11 a.m. we were attached for duty to the 2nd. L. H. Brigade under General Ryrie who were also hotly engaged in driving the Turks across the valley. The Turks were surprised at the flank attack which was apparently unexpected. The Australian Mtd. Division attacked the town from the other aide and Colonel Scott's men made history by galloping across enemy trenches on horseback and charging with the sword. [Editor's note: General Grant was the G.O.C. of the 4th Light Horse Brigade which actually undertook the charge. Bayonets were used as swords had not been issued.] Meanwhile General Ryrie was using the Patrol cars for making a hasty inspection of his front line.
As the General motored round his lines he probably attracted attention from snipers as plenty of odd bullets raised the duet but a quickly moving motor car makes a very difficult target from any distances and no hits were recorded
in this instance. In the evening fires were burning in the town everywhere as the enemy retreated and it was not long after that the announcement was received that Beersheba had fallen.
The men of the patrol slept beside their motors that night while the outposts kept a constant vigil for counter attacks. Next morning at 4 a.m. everybody was standing by as it was sure to be a busy day and everything was ready for moving at a moment's notice. The Patrol oars were drawn up behind Brigade Headquarters which was on a slight rise. At 7 a.m. two enemy aeroplanes appeared flying very low and began dropping bombs on any targets visible. One of these happened to be the field Hospital which suffered severely. The two planes then came straight for us apparently attracted by the groups around the Brigade Headquarters flag, and as the were flying so low that we could sea the bombs ready for us we prepared to give them a hot reception. Our cars were equipped with Lewis Guns and our machine gun car had already had considerable experience in firing at moving planes. We knew that it was useless firing at any aeroplane unless it was moving either straight towards or away from the gun. We also had learnt that it was no use firing directly at the machine but the correct thing was to send a stream of bullets directly in front of the pilot through which he must pass. We accordingly reserved our fire waiting until he was coming in a straight line towards us and a few hundred yards away. We then let him have the concentrated fire of our four Lewis Guns and every rifle we possessed. Our tactics were thoroughly successful. One plane turned sharply to the left and left us severely alone. The other one turned slightly and very nearly landed. Everyone cheered as we thought he was done. But suddenly he rose again and steered an erratic course to the left. We heard afterwards that he came down in our lines about a mile away. We found that the pilot had been shot and the observer had quickly seized the controls when the plane nearly came to earth the first time thus saving a smash. As he landed afterwards in the lines of one of the Infantry regiments they probably received the credit of bringing him down. But there is no doubt that our fusillade had done it. We calculated that at the speed the plane was flying and the rate of fire of the Lewis Guns the fuselage of the aeroplane should get about two bullets from each gun when passing through the stream of fire. This means that he would get about eight pretty effective hits as well as sundry rifle shots aimed at him. In any case, we think that everybody was pretty well relieved to see no bombs drop.
The enemy put up a pretty stout resistance with machine guns and light artillery during the rest of the day and very little advance was made. However, under cover of dark during the night he retired and entrenched in the hills. We bivouacked on the same position as on the previous night and next day (the 2nd November) we advanced with the 2nd. Light Horse Brigade for about 4 miles towards Dahariah, along the Hebron Road. We then met with very strong resistance as the road began to wind in among some very steep hills where the Turks had their artillery and machine guns posted with plenty of snipers scattered about. The Brigade Horse artillery were having a duel with the camel guns in the hills and we dismounted our Lewis Guns and leaving the cars hidden in a hollow, crept forward along the grass to a position where we thought we could get on to some machine guns bothering us. But we found it very difficult to get a target as the enemy was well entrenched. A couple of the Rolls Armoured Cars endeavoured to proceed up the Hebron Road through a defile but the enemy had dug a deep trench across a narrow part of the road leaving no available route for wheeled traffic. The cars were plastered with bullets which fell like hail on them and one of them had its engine sump punctured by a bullet which ricocheted off the road rising through the tray thus allowing the lubricating oil to run away. There was no room to turn on the narrow road and one car towed the other backwards after a couple of hours of very strenuous work. When they got back to cover every tyre had been punctured by bullets but the only casualty was one man injured by a piece of a door handle which had been struck from the outside by a bullet which forced through the door one of the broken pieces and this struck the machine gunner in the leg. The crews of these two cars had a very difficult task in getting their vehicles out of an awkward position and the rear car was drawn up alongside the disabled one to afford cover to one of the men who fixed the tow rope while the machine gunners did their best to keep the fire down.
For the rest of the day we endeavoured to keep the enemy busy with machine gun and rifle fire while some of the men of the 2nd. L.H. Brigade tried to work round the enemy's right flank in the hills which are very steep and rough at this part. Our situation on the bend of the Hebron Road was known as Igory Corner and the sniping was particularly severe there. Everything showing round the bend of the hill was sure to attract attention from the Turkish sharpshooters and machine guns. In the afternoon an ambulance waggon was so severely sniped that it was abandoned until nightfall when things quietened down considerably.
Early next morning (3rd November) we received a visit from an enemy aeroplane and kept him up with Lewis Gun fire but he must have given our position away to the Turkish gunners as we were well shelled by them about midday and we were compelled to send the cars away to better cover behind a hill further back in order to prevent them being smashed up by shell fire and we spent the rest of the day getting a little of our own back by sniping the snipers and we bivouacked under the cars for the night. The next day was Sunday, the 4th November, but it was not a day of rest. All had to stand to at 4 a.m. This hour was always the Turks Favourite time for a counter attack. It was very seldom that the enemy would attack at night time. He did not seem to like night operations and most of his attacks were made in the early hours of the morning.
As the advance on our sector was at a temporary standstill until the men on the hills had completed their outflanking there was not much use for the Armoured and patrol cars on their legitimate jobs, so we found other uses for them. Two cars were detached to bring up drinking water from some wells in the rear to the fighting men, one car was sent with six miles of signal wire to establish telephone communication between Brigade Headquarters and the 6th. Aust. Light Horse Regiment up in the hills to the right flank and this was successfully accomplished by Corporal Hymen after a very rough trip over boulders and country that had certainly never had a motor car over it before.
Next day instructions were received to join Divisional Headquarters. We obtained supplies of rations; patrol, water etc. from a dump established at Beersheba and proceeded with the division in a northerly direction after the retreating Turks, for several days and nights. The Turks were fighting rearguard actions all the way and on the 7th we pressed hard on the enemy capturing large quantities of stores and Railway. One of the patrol ogre sighted a body of 20 mounted Turks and gave chase.
We opened fire with the Lewis guns giving them a couple of magazines. The Turks then scattered in various directions. As the car could only follow one at a time and we had other important duties to attend to, we let them scatter. One car under Sergeant Langley was lent to the Camel Brigade to help their staff keep in touch with the various parts of their front which was pretty extended. Next day we made a further advance of four miles the enemy putting up a stout resistance all along the line, but still retreating. The cars got well shelled this day with shrapnel and some of the occupants almost wished they had their tin hats with them. (The drivers and gunners always preferred to wear their felt hats as the bumping of the motor cars over the rough roads knocked the helmets over their eyes, consequently they left the helmets behind.) However, fortunately none of the occupants of the cars were struck although numerous shrapnel pellets were dug out of the wood work of the motor cars that evening as souvenirs. That night we camped at Tel el Nagile, a hill where the enemy made a strong stand and during the evening we were bombed twice by our own aeroplanes who evidently mistook us for the enemy. Some of our gunners were quite annoyed because they were not allowed to return the fire with their machine guns. We complained during the night to the Air force Headquarters at being made a target for their bombs and the only satisfaction we received was to be told that we should not be so far ahead. Next day we continued the advance which began to get more rapid as the enemy became more disorganized and large quantities of transport, ammunition and guns which had been abandoned were passed from time to time. Shortly after passing through Huj we were fortunate enough to capture one of the enemy's aerodromes so we were able to refill all our tanks with patrol which had been abandoned by the Germans and we took a few drums along with us in case we should lose touch with our own supplies. That night we bivouacked with the 2nd. L. H. Brigade behind the village of Suarfie esh Sherikye and had a fairly quiet night.
Next morning, 10th Nov., we sent some of the cars back to bring up fresh supplies of small arm ammunition as owing to the rapidity of the advance it was difficult for the supplies to keep up with the mounted men. Our cars were gradually getting into a very decrepit state for want of adjustments etc., as owing to the continual movements by day and night it was impossible to give the attention to the machines that under normal circumstances they should have had. Practically all the travelling was done cross country and any roads that existed were merely tracks of hard clay. Movements at night were particularly severe on the chassis as owing to the absence of lights the drivers had to be guided by instinct more than anything else. Some of the escapes from disaster during night movements were almost miraculous and next morning we would often see where our tracks had been within a few inches of precipices and places that would make one's hair stand on end to drive over during daylight, let alone in darkness. On particularly dark nights in bad places the men would take it in turns to walk ahead and guide the drivers by the sound of their voices but generally this method of movement was too slow and we had to trust to luck. Needless to say, those on the cars would have a very rough passage as boulders or holes could not be seen until too late and it was quite a common occurrence for the occupants to be thrown out altogether. However, in the course of time, they became like flies and managed to hang on somehow no matter what the angle. This sort of work naturally was very hard on the vehicles which were tied up with fencing wire and temporarily repaired with various makeshifts. As they were gradually getting to a state that would soon be beyond repair, we received instructions to proceed to Hamama for a day and do our best to get them to a reasonable state of security. So after darkness we set off via Mejdel to do our repairs. We waited until it was dark enough to hide our movements because enemy marksmen had been particularly active that afternoon and our course for a mile or two was very exposed as it led over a ridge where there was no cover whatever. About seven p.m. we got clear away from the village, over the ridge without incident and drove steadily on for a couple of hours at a slow pace. The night was exceptionally black. There was no moon or glimmer of light whatever and we were only averaging about 8 to 10 miles an hour.
Progress was getting so slow and difficult that we were contemplating a few hours sleep leaving further travelling till some signs of dawn appeared, when suddenly, noises or angry map and a commotion sounded ahead. We stopped and walked ahead to ascertain the cause of the row and found a couple of Light horsemen escorting about 200 Turkish Prisoners back to a camp. The prisoners were beginning to get out of hand as they were very tired and thirsty and there was no water available. We arrived at the right time for the two troopers were at their wits end to keep the prisoners subdued. The escort had not had any sleep for a couple of nights so we decided to camp there and give them a hand. Fortunately we had a few gallons of drinking water on one of the care which assuaged the thirst of the prisoners who soon became subdued at the appearance of the armed patrol. We told the escort to have a sleep while our men took turns at guarding the prisoners until daylight. when we peaked up and went on our way after handing over the prisoners to their escort once more.
After a short run we arrived at our destination, Hamama via the village of Mejdel. We commenced at once to overhaul our vehicles and get them into reasonable order. Fortunately, we had a few necessary spares with which we replaced some of the most faulty units and everyone worked merrily away for about 18 hours by which time we had overcome the worst defects. The only interruption we had was a visit from a couple of enemy aeroplanes, but a few rounds from the Lewis Guns made them move on again and they left us severely alone.
Next day we received orders to join the Yeomanry Mounted division who we found at the village of Esdud which they had gust captured- The division was moving on and took possession of the village of Yebnah during the afternoon where they stayed for the night moving eastward next day towards Akir.
Next morning, 15th November, an extended battle opened up first thing end the enemy retired eastward abandoning guns and ammunition all along the line. The division pressed on and we drove into Ramleh the late German Headquarters and site of heir aerodrome. We managed to get some more petrol here. That night we slept in the building that was the German officers mess. For the next day and night we rested in an olive orchard at Ramleh where we discovered some broken German Motor cars. We managed to strip some parts each as spring leaves etc. off these and spent the day replacing broken springs etc. off our own vehicles with the good parts from the German cars. Next day we received fresh instructions to rejoin the ANZAC Mounted Division and proceeded with the New Zealand Brigade to the ancient town of Jaffa which fell during the morning and at 11 a.m. General Chaytor hoisted the British flag on the Town Ball in the presence of the local officials and inhabitants to the sound of cheering while the machine guns and artillery at the back of the town made a suitable accompaniment for the occasion.
With the fall of Jaffa on the 18th November, another stage in the campaign was completed. The troops were now able to rest a little and consolidate their position. One of the difficulties of the Light car units during the advance had been the problem of petrol supplies. We had been fortunate in being able to frequently replenish our tanks from supplies abandoned by the enemy during the retreat. The first thing we always did on overtaking an enemy motor lorry or car was to siphon out the petrol from the tanks into our own vehicles but sometimes we were forced to detach one of our own cars and send it back to the nearest supply depot. This would sometimes mean a long trip and by the time the vehicle returned the unit may have moved many miles in some other direction, and perhaps would take a lot of finding. However, petrol along with other supplies, was now being landed by boat at Jaffa.
The Division was now making its Headquarters at the town where we discovered a very well equipped German engineering shop with machine tools and first class equipment for repairs. Needless to say we did not waste any time in getting busy on our sadly neglected and overworked vehicles we very shortly had them quite like respectable motor cars again.
At Jaffa the rainy season struck us which was a now experience after many months of dry weather further south where the troops wore never worried by moisture except the dew at night time. Needless to say the place was very soon a sea of mud with the constant movements of horse and motor transport, so in order to prevent the occupants looking like mud figures we had to extemporise mudguards on our cars which we did with the aid of a few boards taken from packing cases and fastened on with nails and the ubiquitous fencing wire. While we were at Jaffa, the cars were sent to the various surrounding villages with proclamations which were printed in the native languages ordering the inhabitants to hand in to the authorities all the arms and ammunition etc. in their possession and explaining a few regulations that must be observed. This work was carried out under the personal supervision of Major J. Urquhart, General Staff Officer of Desert Mounted Corps, and his suspicions were aroused in one of the villages at the actions of one of the inhabitants who was dressed as a native.
Major Urquhart, who is an excellent linguist in quite a number of languages questioned this individual very closely and as his answers were unsatisfactory, we made him accompany us on one of the cars back to headquarters where we handed him over to the Military Police. We subsequently learnt that this supposed native was a Turkish officer disguised in native costume and he stayed behind in the village when his army retreated in order to transmit information of our movements back to his own people.
Needless to say he was sent away to a place where he would not cause any mischief until the and of the war.
On Sunday, 25th November, the enemy made a strong counter attack at the rear of the Town and brought artillery up to shell the outskirts but the attack was driven back. Next day a squadron of hostile aeroplanes heavily bombed the town and our Lewis Gunners had a little more machine gun practise. The following evening one of the aeroplanes got even on one of our cars driven by Sergeant H. Creek, who was out on reconnaissance work. The aeroplane came down low and following the car machine gunning all the time. Unfortunately, this particular car was not fitted with a Lewis Gun and no reply could be made, but it is understood that Sergeant Creek broke all existing motor records for that particular section of road. However, the pilot's shooting must have been bad as he did no damage beyond stirring up the duet and perhaps taking a few more chips off the body work of the car.
On December 8th, news was received of the fall of Jerusalem which was now the other end of our line which stretched from the coast at Jaffa to Jerusalem which is about 3000 ft. above sea level. The wet season had now set in earnest and it was apparent that things would probably settle down for a lull.
The unit moved into the village of Richon-Le-Zion on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road and were allotted billets by the Jewish inhabitants. The first bit of comfort since the campaign began.
Previous section: 1st Australian Armoured Car Section - Sinai
Next section: 1st Australian Armoured Car Section - Palestine - Part 1
Further Reading:The Australian Light Horse - Structure
Citation: 1st Australian Armoured Car Section - Beersheba