REPORT NO. 78
- HISTORICAL SECTION (G.S.) - ARMY HEADQUARTERS 2 Jan 59
Some lmpressions of UNEF. 1957 to 1958
Memorandum by Capt J.A. Swettenhani, RC.E.
1 Attached as Appendix "A" is a
Record of impressions of United Nations Emergency Force prepared by Capt J.A. Swettenham, R.C.E.,
Of Historical Section (G.S.).
2. Capt Swettenham was Second-in Command of the UNEF Engineer Company from 14 Sep 57 to 28 Sep 58.
3. A sketch map to locate place-names mentioned in these impressions is at attached to the accompanying memorandum.
For (C.P. Stacey) Colonel
Director Historical Section (G.S.)
Report No. 71
Some Impressions of the UNEF. 1957 to 1958:
Memorandum bv Capt JA Swettenham. R.C.E.
1. lt was not until September 1957 that I arrived in Egypt with the Second Canadian Contingent to the UNEF. These impressions therefore are based on the year September 1957 to September 1958. Due to my appointment as second-in -command of the UNEF Engineer Company and living as I was in the UNEF Maintenance Area mess at Rafah which was Iargely Canadian, my impressions of the UNEF are apt to be coloured by comparison with Canadian standards.
2 The force voted into existence by the General Assembly
of the United Nations on
5 Nov 56 "to secure and supervise the cessatíon of hostilities between Egypt and Israel" was made up originally often nations. The lndonesians were withdrawn shortly before our arrival, leaving contingents from Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, India, Norway, Sweden and Yugosiavia. English was the official language of the UNEF but apart from this there was scarcely any common denominator. National uniforms were worn by contingents, and even berets of UN blue were not in general use, the Indian parachute battalion having insisted on wearing turbans and berets of traditional maroon. National ration scales were adopted which varied from contingent to contingent, leading to obvious complications in procurement and supply. Not all components were members of NATO so that there was a divergence in professional standards and procedures. Social customs were bound to differ in a force recruited from the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Despite these difficulties, it was easy lo see on arrival that much had been attempted to obtain cohesion between the components of the force. Much remained to be accomplished.
3. Early in 1958 the Finns were recalled leaving eight nations to stand guard along the Armistice Demarcation Line, dividing the Gaza strip from Israel, and to patrol the International Frontier between Egypt and Israel. We Canadians were sorry to see them go. They were hard soIdiers and hard drinkers who treated the inactive role of the UNEF as a joke. Nursed in the heroic tradition of their struggle against Russia during the early days of the second world war, they sought an outlet in feats which, though wild, were illuslrative of their courage. AI Sharmei-Sheikh. for exarnple, a soldier would plunge into the Red Sea and swim about about until he attracted a shark. With the shark behind him, the human decoy would then head for the shore, attracting the fish within range of his comrades who, armed with rifles and automatic weapons, were lining the cliffs. To our knowledge the Finns suffered no casualties, although the same cannot be said for the sharks.
4. The Gaza strip is about 40 miles long and about five miles wide. It is bounded by Israel on the north and east, by the Mediterranean on the west and by the Sinai district of Egypt on the south. It is a part of the old Palesline, placed under Egyptian adniinistration because of the thousands of Arab refugees who steamed into this area as a result of the war between Israel and the Arab nations in 1948. Its boundanes are defined by a narrow ditch but these have never been accepted by Egypt, as the very existence of Israel is denied by the Egyptian authorities. the village of Beit Hanun is situated to the north of the strip near the Israeli frontier. the coastal tovrn of Gaza town of Gaza also lies to the north of the strip, about ten miles from the Israeli Frontier. South of Gaza are the villages of Deir-el-Ballah and Khan Yunis, Refah on the southem border of the strip. Thirty milles south of Rafah is the town of El Arish which is the provincial capital of Sinal. During the year 1957/58 the eight reniaining contingents of the UNEF were responsible for guarding sectors of the Armistice Demarcation Line from North to South as follow:
(a) DANOR (*) Bn based on Beit Hanun;
(b) Swedish Bn based on Gaza
(c) Indian Bn based on Deir-el-Ballah;
(d) Colombian Bn based on Khan Yunis;
(e) Brazil Bn based on Rafah.
composite battalion made up of Danes and Nporwegians.
The International Frontier was patrolled from Rafah by a Squadron of the 1/8 (Canadian) Hussars R.C.A.C., based on Rafah, and by the Yugoslav Reconnaissance Battalion based on El Arish. From El Arish east to the Gulf of Akaba on the Red Sea,, Otters of the R.C.A.F. based on El Arish undertook this task, aided by desert outposts manned by the Yugoslavs. There was a small garrison of the UNEF located at Sharm-el-Sheikh to guard the old Egyptian army instaliations there . The Headquarters of the UNEF was located in Gaza, while the headquarters of the Maintenance area was housed in an old British Army Camp at Rafah. The R.C..A.F. detachment was based at El Arish.
5. The newcomer arriving by plane at El Arish is ímmediately impressed by the barreness of the place. Tuming away from the airfield installation he sees nothing but the glare of sand stretching away flatly to where the horizon is bounded by a distant range of hills. It is hot and seems like the land of Genesis before the earth had cooled or life was created. Two miles away, however, there is inigation and the flat-roofed houses of the town are surrounded by datepalms, figs and olives.
6. The road from El Arish to Rafah was built by the British as a main northern route from the Suez Canal Zone into Palestine. It requires maintenance but is still in a reasonable state of repair. It winds first through dunes criss-crossed by the tracks of camels owned by the Bedouins who are the nomadic inhabitants of this area. Here and there the dunes have drifted across the road and gangs of ragged natives are at work digging out the sand with crude shovels. They are barefooted and dirty and make derisive gestures as the white painted jeep drives by.
7. Farther north the sand gives way lt a mixture of sand and clay which is sufflcient to nurture scattered scrub and
bushes. Those bushes bear a red flower which develops into what looks like a miniature
chestnut. lnside this is the kernel from which castor oil is made. Flocks of sheep and
goats, together with a few camels, are browsing, tended by young Bedouin girls dressed from head to foot
in loose blank garments, who veil their faces as we approach. It is impossible to photograph them as this is a
contravention of Moslem law and if the jeep were to slow down for this purpose, they would rapidly
scatter into the desert.
8. In places, especially in the shallow defiles, the road has been broken by air-stikes, and crudely patched. Here the carcases of Egyptian military vehicles líe rusting in the desert, as a result of the lightning Israeli campaign of 1956. These twisted and mangled wrecks are to be found lining every major road in Sinal.
9. Rafah Camp is a large camp of permanent buildings and was a major British Ordnance Depot in
the Second World War. The UNEF Maintenance area is centred here, staffed by Canadians together with a few Indian
administrative troops. There are large tank hangars used by R.C.E., R.C.A.S.C., R.C.A.M.C., R.C.O.C. and
R.C.E.M.E. The camp is serviced by rail as well as by the main road from the Canal Zone, through El
Arish, to Gaza. During the lsraeli withdrawal from Sinai, buildings were largely demolished or
the Jews, so that rebuilding and renovation was a major task for the engineers of
the first contingent, and was still continuing after the departure of the second
contigent. New works included:
(a) the UNEF Hospital;
(b) the BLUE BERET Recreational Hall;
(c) Two churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic;
(d) An Electrical power house, together wilh distribution system;
(e) Kilchen for Indian troops;
(O POL point with tanks and pumps;
(g) Latrines, showers, urinals.
Renovations and mainlenance are a continuing progranime.
10. Driving north to Gaza, the land becomes more and more fertile, until at Gaza itself there are orange groves, cypress trees, mimosa hedges and masses of flowers. Irrigalion from underground cistems is possible and is practised in this area. Here the nomadic tribes give way to the villagers who live in mud-walled houses and cultivate crops. It is interesting to see oxen, camels and even donkeys pulling wooden ploughs which do little more than scratch the surface of the ground. Methods can have changed very little since biblical times, and it is a common sight to see long-robed, veiled women returning from the wells wilh earthenware urns balanced on their heads. All this is in great contrast to the mechanized agriculture practiced by the Israelis on the other side of the Demarcation Line.
11. Headquarters of the UNEF is in a modem, single-storeyed block in the new part of town. From here, Lieut-General E.L.M. Burns, a Canadian, commands the UNEF. It is staffed by representatives of all contingents and in addition contains civilians from UN Headquarters in New York. Some of these civilians are women of various nationalites and competition to escort them is undoubtedly severe. Accomodation for the staff is found in villas scattered throughout the town, numbering aboul sixty in all.
12. Battalion accommodation throughout the Gaza Strip and in the desert oulposts is largely tented, though use had been made of permanent buildings where they exist. Much was done by the Canadian engineers to improve tented accommodation during the year I was there. A Nationa1 Contingent Programme" was carried out, virtually completed in March 1958, which provided tent-kits for all tents, fly-proof kilchens, showers, latrines and urinals. Tent-kits afforded wooden and fly-screened walls, and floors of concrete-tile.
13. the overall picture can be summarized by saying:
(a) the headquarters of the UNEF is at Gaza.
(b) From Gaza General Bums commands about 5000 Men, drawn from eight countries, whose role is to guard the peace along the armistice line between Egypt and Israel.
(e) This force is maintained by Canadian Administrative units and Indian adminislrative troops at Rafah.
(d) The force is supporled by R.C.A.F.. aircraft based at El Arish.
14. ln conclusion, I should like to include some random thoughts and impressions under various headings:
(a) Headguarters of the UNEF:
(i) the Commander. A grin, colouriess personalily who seemed singularly lacking n a sense of humour. He was very deliberate. He deallh with all contingents impartially as was illustrated by this wearing a UN uniform believed to be of his own design as opposed lo Canadian uniform, and the meticulous way in which he attended all contingent functions. He seemed lo be the right man to command force committed to an inactive role, and hedged around with political boobytraps.
(ii) Staff Officers. Recruited from all contingents. Insufficient knowledge of English and staff procedures led to the promulgation of ambiguous orders, some of which it was impossible to implement. Canadian procedures, due to the lack of any others, were largely adopted as a result of vigorous representations by the Canadian Maintenance Area Staff, but these were not always best for local conditions. For instance, a Logistics Policy Instruction was forced through dealing with the operation of the UNEF Engineer Company on similar lines to the Army Works Services in Canada. The unit was reorganized to fit this instructions, whereas it might have been better to draw up instructions to fit the peculiar role of the unit. In September 1957 there were no scales of issue, and few were promulgated by September 1958. It was very difficull for the Ordnance Company to function wilhout these, and lack off firm scales of accommodation led to a good deal of unnecessary work for the engineers. Every requesl had to be treated individually, leading to friction and jealousies between battalions.
There is no doubt that the real power lay in the hands of certain key civilians we were sent over from United Nations headquarters in New York. the Chief Administrative Officer was one of these, and he controlled the purse strings. Very little could be done without his authority. In general, civilians lacked knowledge of army procedures as is instanced by the refusal of a civilian to authorize visits at United Nations expense by a Canadian CO. to his detachments working on the docks in Port Said. Civilians served with UNEF for periods of síx months, and the resultant taking-over and handing-over jobs led to reduced efficiency.
This vital branch was not efficient. Catalogues should have been held by Procurement and by requisitioning units such as Engineers and Ordnance. In the absence of these, items were requesitioned by description and it was left largely to the whim of the procurement officer as to what quality of item was procured. There was also room for errror in transposition from the requisition to the order. As an example, a request for rat-tail springs produced rat-traps. Lines of supply were long, a great many items being procured from the U.S.A. Any ambiguity in description led to interminable delays. In my opinion, this branch should have been located at Rafah with the Maintenance Area unils so that questions could have been ironed-out on the spot. It was always frustrating lo know that some 40 miles north of Rafah was a dynamic western-type state, Israel, which could have supplied the bulk of our needs. As Israel had refused to allow UN troops to be stationed on its soil in the autumn of 1956 no dealngs with Israel were permitted except in case of dire emergency.
(e) The Ballalion
Their job of guarding the Armistice line was boring. There were no major incidents to the best of my knowledge during the year I was there. Men would sit in observation posts training their binoculars on Israel. Occasionally a few sheep would violate the border. Troops were rotated frequently, and from every battalion headquarters beaches were near. Morale was generally high, accounted for by the facts thal their strengths contained a high percentage of conscripts who might as well be in Egypt as at home, pay was higher than the national scales, tour of duty in many cases was for only six months, and their Iight tasks enable them to make full use of leave quotas and welfare trips to Jerusalem in Jordan.
(d) Maintenance Area
Rafah Camp housed the headquarters of Maintenance Area, which consisted of the
Commander of the Canadian Contingent, Deputy Commander, DAA&QMG, Staff
Captain A, and Staff Captain Q, who also doubled as Canadian Quartermaster. A H.Q.Company, containing a major and Welfare Officer, worked directly under lhis
headquarlers. there were the following units:
(i) 1/8 Cdn Hussars R.C.A.C. This was an operational unit.
(ii) the UNEF Engr Company RC.E.
(iii) 56 (Canadian) Signals Company R.C.C.S.
(iv) 56 (Canadian) Transport Company R.C.A.SC.
(v) The UNEF Hospital (Consisting of RC.A. M..C. personnel and a Norwegian
(vi) The UNEF Ordnance Company R C O C (with an Indian Section attached).
(vii) 56 (Canadian) Infantry Workshop R.C E M E
(viii) the UNEF Base Post Office.
In addition there was a Dental Section, Pay Office, Medical Stores, Chaplains, and a Public Relations Officer, all Canadian. There was also a Provost detachment of mixed nationality. the Indian Administrative Troops supplied personnel to run the Supply Depot and POL point and a transport platoon which worked in conjunction with the Canadian transport company. they also operated the PX. All major units were responsible administratively to HQ Maintenance Area. Operationally they came directly under HQ UNEF. The busiest units were the engineers, signals, ordonance and the R.C.E.M.E. workshop. An air of frustralion could be sensed at Rafah as a result of lack of policy and direction from Gaza. To take one instance, it was estimated by R C E M E that as many as thirty different types and models of vehicles existed in the Force. Sandy conditions, combined with a low standard of unit maintenance in the contingents, led to blown head gaskets, broken rear springs, worn brake drums, severe tire wear, as well as transmission and exhaust system repairs. Situated at the end of a long supply line, spares were alwavs a problem.