Friday, December 12, 2008

Monday 18th January 1943

We came into Syria. It was a day of many impressions, which grew more chaotic as the day and our mileage lengthened. We came through the Mus-Mus Pass in a drizzle of rain. And we thus reached the Plaines of Esdraelon and Affula. Last time I came here, a bridle path led down from the Pass to Affula; now there is a good road.

Through the town, we turned right off the Nazareth road, towards Tiberias. The convoy crawled. Kelly, a keen RC, was very disappointed. He wanted to see Nazareth. To placate him: “There it is” I said pointing, “Those white buildings on the hill, about four miles away. They're at Nazareth.” “Ah!” said Kelly, leaning forward happily. “Nazareth! Where our Lord worked, once!” “That's right.” Kelly drove on happily. Anyhow, it probably was somewhere near Nazareth.

We'd been following some slow and broken-winded old trucks. After a while, defying orders, we cut past them and pushed on fast. The convoy ahead, we found, was out of sight. After a few miles we lost sight of the rear vehicles behind as well. Alone! This was fine. At each hill crest, I looked forward and back. Nothing in sight, for miles! Sheets of blinding rain struck us suddenly. The windscreen wouldn't close. As Kelly drove on miserably, I could see him making fierce, mental resolves to get that defective windscreen rectified!

Hilly country, empty roads. Then, out of the squall loomed up a truck. It was A2, ditched. They'd slipped off the road and into soft earth. We tried to tow them onto the hard surface, failed, and went on, leaving them for the following fitter's trucks... Out of the mist, far below us, loomed vaguely a sheet of water – Lake Tiberias. To my regret, we overtook the rear of the convoy now, and tagged on behind.

The rain decreased to a thin drizzle. It was much warmer, as we went around the lakeside. Saw an almost ideal house about 2 kilos from the town. The house was small and snug and stood by the roadside. It's big garden sloped steeply, or dropped in tiers, down to the water's edge. Many flowers and a good deal of grass. I expect there was a boat, too. The garden gate stood open. It was the sort of house where an artist or writer or musician should live; but in it probably dwelt some ruthless business man who'd fought his way into the money – if he didn't inherit it. Life is like that.

We halted for lunch and then drove on, at last into country which was strange to all of us. We followed curving, zig-zag roads into great hills. It became colder. Trucks began to fall out by the wayside. We had to take a limber in tow. We saw hill tops wreathed in cloud. Sometimes we ourselves, as the road climbed, were level with the clouds. Tank traps and wire. Was this the frontier?

A mile further we passed under an archway where a French flag flew. There were English MPs and French soldiers. Was this the frontier? “Beyrouth gauche, Damas droit” said a sign. The convoy turned to the right. Down into a valley, through a quaint hamlet. Beret-wearing folk languidly watched us rumble through. In this valley there were big trees – not date palms – and a river – not a wadi - and cattle and sheep grazing in green fields!

Up hill again. Colder still and bleak again. But it was always grass or rock, never sand! “Malaria. No camping next 10 miles” said a notice. Great hills all around. More rain. The afternoon grew greyer. El Quneitra, small town we raced through, with MPs holding up all other traffic.

Then – mountains! Beautiful at first, he sunlit brown slopes, we being in dark shade. The rain had stopped, leaving many swirling streams running in the fields on either side of the road. The Arabs by the road, begging, were nearly all bare-footed, poor devils. The clouds shifted, revealing a bigger lump of savage mountain and we could see as much of Mount Hermon (9,150 feet) as we were to see this day. The sunlit slopes went black as we circled the mountain. Above, incredibly higher, sheets of snow swept up into the gloomy clouds. Grim! I shivered with cold each time I looked!

It was dusk, and bitterly cold now. I huddled down in my seat, letting the heat from the engine play on my face. But sometimes a fatal fascination made me turn and stare back at that deadly mountain. Black rock, white snow, grey mist, grey cloud. Brgghh!
I shuddered but couldn't help looking!

We had a breakdown, then pushed on following another late truck. “DAMAS 5 KILO” a sign flashed-up in our headlights. Downhill. Dim mountains on the left. French sentries... A wireless station. An MP: “Straight on. Close up in the town. Are you the last?” “Don't know.” “Hope you are. G'night.” The streets of Damascus suburbs, almost empty and no wonder. Lights in windows. Tree lined avenues. A street crossing and an MP. “Next turn right, to the transit camp!” “OK”

I looked to my left at a place where there were no houses – and there was the main city, stretched out below a mountain. It looked bewitching! Blue, bright yellow and dim yellow lights below a great dark rock! There were woods beside us now; wide roads. A lighted tram almost empty, clanked past. I saw a man with a fez at a street corner.

Then we left the city and drove along quiet roads through woods of bare, wintry trees. And so came to transit camp. The others were just marching to supper. We soon joined them. We were to sleep in thatched huts but these had no doors or windows. I came back from the latrines (which I was pleased to find were marked “OFFICERS ONLY”!) and there was Kelly on the vehicle park, unloading chairs and tables from A7, in our usual manner. “Kelly!” I said. “Yes?” “You're a lone wolf!” “Sure!” he cried smirkingly. “Smirkingly, Steve!” “Awa,” I responded, helping with the unloading. So we slept in the rear of A7 as usual, not forgetting our usual mug of hot milk, either!


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