Topic: AIF - Cars
1st AUSTRALIAN ARMOURED CAR SECTION, AIF
Below is a transcription from a manuscript submitted by Captain E.H. James called "The Motor Patrol". It is lodged in the AWM as AWM 224 MSS 209.
On the 18th May, 1917, the patrol loaded their cars and baggage on the trucks of the little narrow gauge Military Railway at Railhead W.D.A. Everything was securely roped up for the long journey to Egypt and at 6 p.m., the little engine whistled and puffed away m its long dusty trip across the Libyan Desert. The personnel spread themselves in their cars as these were the only seats available on the train. We slept on board as comfortably as could be expected under the circumstances and in the morning had our usual breakfast of bully beef and biscuit. The next day was a never-to-be-forgotten one.
The temperature was between 119 and 120 degrees in the shade (which was difficult to find) and a genuine Khamseen (sand storm) was in full force. It seemed to us to be working itself up into an extra fury to give us a send off. The coarse grains of sand (from which it was impossible to get protection) would sting the face and hands like driving hail stones. The engine of our train was making heavy weather as it had to rise nearly 1000 feet from the Kharga oasis to the top of the scarp which was the level of the ordinary desert. The difficulty was intensified by the drift sand which covered the rails. The troops, every few miles, would walk ahead with shovels and clear the truck to give the engine a chance to get going.
Once on level ground the going was easier and the train ands better progress.
On the subject of the oases it is just as well to mention that these are not exactly what they are popularly supposed to be. The oases in the deserts in the North of Africa are merely deep depressions in the ground. Some of them are very large and are generally from 20 to 100 miles in diameter.
They owe their fertility to water which comes from the mountains in the South, from underground sources. Most oases are populated by natives who sink wells and pump the water over the depression. They cultivate date palms principally. The dates are collected, dried and sent by camel to Egypt in exchange for other merchandise.
After spending the day in the train we ultimately arrived at the Nile Valley and transferred from the narrow gauge train to the Broad gauge Egyptian State Railway's train at oasis Junction and after another night and day, in this train, we arrived at Cairo at 10 P.M. only to be immediately shunted off to the train to Kantara which we reached at 11.30 A.M. on 21st May.
We unloaded here and packed our baggage once more on to our fleet of "Lizzies" and drove across the Canal at Kantara by the pontoon bridge to the terminus of the new Military Railways to Palestine.
Once more we loaded up and entrained for the new front, getting away after a hasty snack of lunch at 1 P.M. After a day and a night on board this train, we ultimately arrived at our new destination at the new front outside Gaza. We off loaded at a place known as Khan Yunis and were immediately welcomed at the new front by an enemy plane who promptly tried to bomb the train and was greeted by the "archies" whose spent Shrapnel dropped all over us much to the annoyance of one of our drivers whose haversack and breakfast was ruined by a piece of shell case.
We moved off to our new camps which were in an old Arab orchard surrounded by prickly pears and we were told to dig dugouts for ourselves as the place was supposed to be popular with enemy aeroplanes especially on moonlight nights.
Next morning we were introduced to General Sir Harry Chauvel, the Commander of Desert Mounted Column which was reputed to be the largest body of cavalry and mounted troops ever assembled. We were inspected and welcomed by the General and his staff and were informed that the motor units would co-operate with the mounted troops in forthcoming military operations. We were to get the hang of the country as quickly as possible and learn the various routes from one end of the front to the other.
On the 30th May, with two of our machine gun cars accompanied by one car from No. 7 Patrol, 2 Rolls. Armoured Cars and 1 waggon from the 11th Light Armoured Motor battery, we took part in a reconnaissance from the Wadi Ghuzzie in an Easterly direction. About 20 miles out the country became very sandy and we decided to leave the heavy armoured oars in a commanding position and proceed further with two light Patrol care across the doubtful looking country. We ran across several of our light horse patrols who reported numerous small bodies of mounted Turks to the Fast in which direction we proceeded without encountering any of them, although they could be seen in the hills through the glasses. We reconnoitred the district for about an hour and returned to the armoured cars and then back to our camp in the evening.
During all movements such as these, we made it a fixed rule that all patrol cars must invariably work in pairs. This was necessary for several reasons.
First of all in case of mechanical trouble one vehicle could always help the other out of difficulties or if necessary even tow it home.
Secondly it was also a great advantage to have the extra man power with two car crews in bad country when any manhandling of the vehicles had to be done.
Thirdly it was a great preventative of disaster. It rendered ambush almost impossible, provided the cars always kept their proper distances from each other on patrol; also in difficult crossings of creeks or depressions etc., one vehicle could generally cover the other until it was across, when the first vehicle would in turn cover the crossing of the second and so on.
This patrol throughout its existence was remarkably free from bad accidents or disasters of any description and there is no doubt that our rule of working in pairs in this fashion was largely responsible for our good fortune in this respect.
For the balance of the week we busied ourselves overhauling our engines and chassis and trying out our Lewis Guns so that everything would be ready for any emergency and on the 5th June, we moved out to the outpost camp at Tel-61 Fare and were attached to the Imperial Mounted Division. Next day we took part in an armed Reconnaissance with the mounted troops for about 8 miles towards Beersheba. No serious opposition was offered by the enemy and our force after obtaining the information required, returned to camp before 6 P.M.
On 8th June, Instructions were received that the whole patrol would be required next day for an important Reconnaissance at El Esani. we accordingly sent a couple of motor cyclists in company with one car to pick out the easiest crossings at Gorz Mabrook (a place where it was necessary to get the cars across deep wadis) as we did not wish to waste any time next day. Early next morning we nicked up the Divisional Commander, Major General Hodgson and his General staff officers and proceeded with four machine gun cars reconnoitring the whole of the Esani district for four hours while the Light Horse Regiments were making a demonstration and engaging the Turks (towards the south East) in order to distract their attention from our activities. We returned shortly after midday to camp without any untoward events except a misfiring engine which was quickly rectified.
On the 14th June we picked up the Corps Commander and staff again for another reconnaissance which was carried out this time during the afternoon in the direction of Beersheba near a place called El Buggar.
Everything proceeded satisfactorily except that an inquisitive enemy aeroplane became too interested in our movements and we were compelled to keep him bum by concentrating three of our Lewis Guns on to him until he rose to a reasonable height again. We returned to camp before dark.
[Note: Wadis. - The Egyptian name for old river beds or creeks.]
All motor movements had to be made by daylight (except well behind the lines) as of course lights were not allowed to be used in any advanced positions. Although on moonlight nights very good work could often be done after sunset.
Next day one of our cars was out of action through being driven over a deep shell hole hidden in the long grass, with the result that a front axle was badly bent. However, we built a log fire in the evening and managed to get enough heat to straighten up the axle again, so the vehicle was ready for business as usual in the morning.
On the 20th June, we took the whole patrol on another inspection of the Turkish positions this time to the North East to El Dammath and El Nagile. Much useful information vas apparently obtained by the staff. We returned to camp before nightfall without our presence even being noticed by the enemy
About this time daily reconnaissances were made of all enemy positions until the 25th June when we took part in a new type of engagement.
On this date it was decided to make a big drive on "no man's land" between the entrenched positions of both forces as bodies of the enemy were secreted in various concealed places therein. Accordingly two bodies of Mounted troops operating from each end of the position to be enveloped started out at daybreak and began to gradually converge.
The gun cars of No. 1. Light Car Patrol accompanied the Mounted Troops and we left a stores car with reserve ammunition also a few important spares in a good concealed position known to our dispatch riders who could quickly find the spot if necessary. It was not to be expected that the enemy would ignore such a demonstration of force as this, and we were heavily shelled when passing the exposed positions between the Wadi Imleih to the Wadi Hanafish. However, we suffered no casualties although a few mounted men were hit.
The chief duty of the Light Car Patrol was to cover the retirement of the mounted men when the movement was completed.
We accordingly took up a position along a ridge and engaged the Turks with machine gun fire until the mounted force was well back towards our own lines when we ceased fire and packed up our machine guns and with our superior speed soon regained our own lines, picking up our stores car on the way, arriving back at our camp almost as soon as the rest of the force.
The operation was quite a success as a number of prisoners were roped in although not as many as was expected. The day's work proved how usefully motor units could be utilised in covering a retirement.
Two days after this, Brigade Headquarters discovered a new use for a Light Car patrol by sending us out to a position to draw fire.
Our instructions were to travel quickly over an exposed position making as much dust as possible as it was desired to know what sort of artillery the enemy had here. We were quite pleased to find out that our mission in this respect was not successful as we did not draw the fire.
About this time rumours had reached headquarters that gas attacks were being prepared for us by the Turks. Supplies of gas masks were issued to the various units. Gas instructors were detailed also to instruct all ranks how to use these. The men of the Armoured Car sections and Light Car patrols did gas drill along with others. No Information was available as to how the motor vehicles would behave in a gas attack or what effect the gas would have on the running of the engines so it was decided to try this out and one morning we had a full dress rehearsal. Gas masks were carefully fitted by the whole unit. The cars were lined up with full equipment and fully manned. A smoke and gas barrage was prepared in a suitable valley, and at the word go the whole unit drove quickly through the screen. On reaching the other side the cars were turned round and slowly driven back again along the same route to the starting point. All masks had been carefully adjusted and neither the smoke nor gas bad any effect. It was thought that perhaps the running of the engines would be affected by the impure air mixture passing through the Carburettors, but it made no apparent difference whatever as the motors seemed to run as steadily as usual without any misfiring being noticed. Possibly they may not have developed their full power but as the cars were not fully extended we could not tell this. One thing was demonstrated however, and that was that motor vehicles could operate in gas even if the animals could not.
During the month of July the patrol was engaged on many small stunts and reconnaissances along the whole front, but mainly towards the east. The chief object seemed to be to obtain more information about the country and roads for transport and the possibility of obtaining water for the horses and troops in the country ahead, in the event of an advance in this direction by our forces. Towards the end of the month there was a rumour that the Turks were evacuating Beersheba so we did a trip out in this direction but as we got well shelled for our inquisitiveness we did not persist, neither did we believe the rumours.
During August we were attached for duty to the A. & N.Z. Mtd. Division, Desert Mounted Corps, and later on to the Yeomanry Mounted division. It was the custom for the various divisions to relieve each other periodically for front line duly. The relieved division would move back a few miles and would have a bit of a spell from their more arduous duties. The Light am Patrols however, generally stayed with the new duty division in order to put them "au-fait" with the country and roads.
Nothing really exciting happened in August until the 23rd and 24th, when the Patrol was operating with the Yeomanry Mtd. division which was bivouacked at Rashed Bek and reconnoitring the country around Ibin Said. During these operations the Divisional Commander Major General Barrow wished to view as closely as possible some enemy works being constructed near Gnaam. The patrol oars conveyed him and other staff officers to the spot required. By keeping well separated and under cover of tile folds in the ground we managed to escape observation. However, when we left the observation point to return, our movements were evidently noticed as two shells immediately dropped beside us. The car drivers then took a track under cover of a slight rise in the ground and although this was out of eight of the enemy gunners they evidently had the range of it registered exactly for shells continued to drop r along the track about every 25 yards. The road was too unhealthy a place to motor along consequently the care had to take to the open ground. This meant travelling over very bad and bumpy country, it also meant that we were compelled to take a route which had to cross a deep wadi or creek. We traversed the side of this wadi looking for a suitable crossing for nearly half a mile till at last we discovered a possible track across and by dint of hard work with plenty of pushing end swearing all care except one were safely across. When the last car was nearly over and half way up the bank, some treacherous ground gave way with the result that the vehicle dropped to the bottom again (about a 15 foot fall). Fortunately, it dropped on its four wheels right side up. A quick examination showed a burst tyre, damaged wheel, some broken water joints and a cracked engine hanger. We hastily changed the wheel and tyre, patched up the water joints and braced up the broken hangar with some fencing wire. A rope was then fixed to the front axle and the other end to one of the ours that was across. Another ten minutes towing and pushing brought the damaged car to the top.
All the time the car was in the wadi, an attack was being very vigorously pushed by the Turks and a number of mounted men in our vicinity were being extremely hard pressed. At one time it looked as if the car would have to be burnt and abandoned but fortunately some reinforcements came up in time to push back the attack, giving us time to get everything clear away. During the whole operations of the War, No. 1 Light Car Patrol never lost a vehicle, but this occasion was the closest shave we had in this respect.
On the 4th September, we carried out an interesting experiment in conjunction with the Signal Squadron Royal Engineers, during one of the armed reconnaissances which were being conducted fairly frequently by us about this time. In these stunts, time was the essence of the contract and as much information as possible would be collected in the enemy's territory before he was able to bring up powerful reinforcements by which time we ware generally back behind our own entrenchments again. In these affairs it was very important for the various Brigades and Divisional Headquarters to be kept in constant touch with what was going on at the various points in their sectors. The moat satisfactory way of doing this was by field telephones. These however, sometimes when done by hand took a considerable time to lay and pick up again after the stunt was over.
It was decided to do it by motor car, accordingly we took the Machine gun out of one of our Lizzies and in its place mounted a large cable drum which had been prepared by the R.E. men. This drum revolved on a spindle supported by a couple of bearings, a handle was fitted for paying out and winding up the cable as the motor was driven across country.
The trial proved very satisfactory and after the stunt was over the cable was being collected while the car travelled at about 12 or 15 miles an hour and was about half in when an enemy aeroplane became interested and began to take a hand in the proceedings.
Hal Harkin, the driver of the car who was also a very expert machine gunner, was very upset at having left his machine gun behind, when the Pilot of the Aeroplane began machine gunning him from above. Two of the R.E. men endeavoured to keep the plane up with their rifles but they veto having a rough spin until another car came back to give them a hand when the plane rose and let them got back with their cable.
For the next few weeks, the Patrol spent most of its tine studying the ground and possible roads, tracks and water supply, on the Eastern flank of the force and on the 18th September, The Australian Mounted Division took over the outpost lines from the Yeomanry Mtd. Division who went back for a rest. We were now attached to the new division and things seemed to be getting busier. The raids began to go further into the enemy's lines and there was a feeling of subdued excitement in the air as if something was going to happen at any moment. Orders are received to send all unnecessary equipment and baggage back to the dumps at Rafa.
Evidently moves were contemplated so all weight was to be out down to the minimum. On the 24th September a big reconnaissance took place to Asluj (a point on the Turkish Railway line) and the whole district was reconnoitred very thoroughly and in the evening the force returned back to their old camp.
Previous section: 1st Australian Armoured Car Section - THE LIBYAN DESERT
Next section: 1st Australian Armoured Car Section - Beersheba
Further Reading:The Australian Light Horse - Structure
Citation: 1st Australian Armoured Car Section - Sinai