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The 2nd-7th Gurkhas in the action at Tor, Sinai, on 12th February 1915

The Sinai Peninsula in 1915

On 3rd February a well-organised Turkish force with German advisors attacked the Suez Canal after marching across the Sinai Peninsula.  A few Turks crossed the canal but they were quickly killed or captured by the British canal defenders, who were predominantly from the Indian Army.  Two days later the surviving Turks withdrew in good order, and apart from air sorties the British failed to interfere with the withdrawal; an account of the battle was published in Durbar, Volume 27, No. 1 under the title: ‘Turks Across the Canal.’

However the canal was not the only Turkish objective in Sinai.  Much further south on Sinai’s Red Sea coast was the small port of Tor.  This was a quarantine station for pilgrims travelling inland to the Convent of Saint Catherine that lay at the foot of the Mount of Moses.  If the Turks seized Tor then they could float mines into the Red Sea to attack and disrupt Allied shipping sailing in and out of the Suez Canal.


The British had seized the Turkish territory of Egypt in 1882 and that theoretically included Sinai; however the peninsula had been largely ignored, apart from small British garrisons at El Arish on the Mediterranean coast and at Nakl, mid-way across the peninsula due east from the town of Suez.  The status of Tor was not defined, both sides assuming that the town was theirs.  The British forces in Sinai were Arab camel-mounted or dismounted policemen, and when Britain abandoned the Sinai ahead of the Turkish advance to the canal, most of these police went over to the Turkish side, as did many of the Sinai tribes.


Parker Pasha
 

One British officer serving in the Egyptian Army knew the Sinai exceptionally well; he was Lieut.-Colonel Alfred Chevallier Parker, known as Parker Pasha.  He was very well-connected, being a nephew of Lord Kitchener, and he had served for several years in Nakhl, commanding the garrison and organising an intelligence network amongst local tribesmen. After that he worked in the Intelligence Department in Cairo, and in early 1915 he held the appointment of Governor of Sinai, reporting to the Director of Intelligence.

Right: Parker Pasha in 1924.


In February 1915 Tor was garrisoned by two companies of the 2nd Egyptian Battalion commanded by Captain G.F. Pridham, the Welsh Regiment.  Reports of nearby Turkish troops accompanied by Germans reached Pridham, and he passed these on to Parker, adding that he could not trust his own troops to attack the enemy.  On 7th February Parker arrived at Tor aboard HMS Minerva to investigate.  He found a worsening situation in the town; the local police had looted shops and deserted. An enemy force outside the town was suborning the townsfolk and the Egyptian garrison to join the Turkish cause or to at least surrender.  Curfews and access control measures were difficult to implement because monks from the convent and desert tribesmen from the interior were constantly moving in and out of the town.


Parker telegraphed the following message to the Director of Intelligence in Cairo, Colonel Gilbert Clayton:  


‘In my opinion the present situation contains very dangerous elements, which can be obviated in two ways:  

(a) the entire abandonment of Tor and the withdrawal of the garrison;
(b) the sending of a sufficiently strong party of Gurkhas or British to ensure the destruction of the enemy.  

‘The first would entail an incalculable loss of prestige among Egyptians and Muhammadans who know Tor as a pilgrim station, as well as among Russians who regard the Convent and its environs as a holy place… ‘Unless reinforcements reach enemy, a double company of Gurkhas should be sufficient.  The arrival of the ship or the disembarkation of men should be by night to avoid the possibility of alarming the enemy.’ 

It was the proximity of the Convent that swayed Cairo headquarters to act.  Parker had discovered from monks in his intelligence network that the Turkish camp was at the rear of Jabal Hammam, among the hills of Saidna Musa (‘Our Lord Moses’), in the Wadi of Al Sidd.  The British government did not want to publicly appear unconcerned about the fate of the Convent of Saint Catherine. Parker returned across the Red Sea to join a British operation being mounted against the enemy force outside Tor. 


The voyage


Lieut.-Colonel C.L. Haldane, commanding the 2nd Bn, 7th Gurkha Rifles, was ordered to embark half his battalion at Suez in HMS Minerva on 10th February.  His mission was to punish a party of the enemy harassing the Tor garrison.  Haldane selected No. 2 and No. 3 Coys and his Machine Gun Section for the operation; the British officers who sailed with the half-battalion were Captains C. Macdonald, H. Exham and N.M. Wilson and 2nd Lieut. A. Mills.  Captain A.R.S. Alexander of the Indian Medical Service (1) also boarded Minerva with a Section of 135th Indian Field Ambulance.  Colonel Parker was also aboard with Major A.T.S. Dickinson, Brigade Major of 30th Infantry Brigade.

HMS Minerva left Suez at noon on 11th February and steamed the 200 kilometres to Tor in ten hours.  The initial plan was to land to the north of the port under cover of darkness, scale the cliffs and approach the enemy’s position from the rear. This had to be abandoned as the sea was too rough.  It was decided to leave the machine guns on board, and the troops were rowed directly into Tor harbour. It was a difficult exercise, in open boats on a heaving sea and in darkness with no lights showing, but all ranks were ashore by 01.00 hrs on 12th February, where they met up with the 150 Egyptian soldiers of the Tor garrison and a section of the 136th Royal Field Artillery.  

The approach march  

Speed was now vital in order to achieve surprise. Haldane’s column, augmented by the Egyptian troops, commenced the marching at 01.30 hrs, although some of the Gurkhas were so sea-sick that they had to stay behind in Tor.  Parker had enlisted the support of the one local leader who had stayed loyal to the British, Shaikh Mudakhil Suleiman, and Mudakhil’s son Zaidan led the column with Parker on the circuitous nine mile approach march through the desert.  Parker, Zaidan and twelve scouts led, followed by No. 2 Coy and then No. 3 Coy, the 150 Egyptians, the Section of Field Ambulance and finally a Gurkha section as the rear guard.  At 05.30 hrs the range of rocky hills was approached where the enemy camp had been reported, and Captain Exham moved off with his No. 2 Coy to the right.  No. 3 Coy under Captain Wilson then formed up as the centre of the force with 150 Egyptians moving to the left.  Haldane’s HQ party with fifty Egyptians formed a reserve 750 metres to the rear, with the medical staff behind them.

The advance to contact

At 06.00 hrs the advance began and after 900 metres No. 3 Coy found the camp and quickly encircled it.  Enemy sentries must have alerted the camp. Although a quantity of Mauser cartridges was found, no weapons were discovered as they had probably been quickly buried. The prisoners that were taken came from the recalcitrant tribes in the region who had sided with the Turks, and they were handed over to the Egyptians in the Reserve.

As No. 3 Coy moved forward from the camp, which had been sited by a small village, enemy rifle fire started coming down on No. 2 Coy from the rocky high ground ahead.  This firing then spread along the front of the British force from spurs, ridges and sangars.  Both Gurkha companies now commenced a slower and more methodical tactical advance,

often encountering Arab adversaries who would fight to the death. Meanwhile the Egyptian infantry turned the Arabs’ right flank and positioned a group in the enemy rear.

As the morning progressed No. 2 and No. 3 Coy joined up in the hills and worked together to eliminate the trapped enemy. It appears that, at this stage, few if any prisoners were taken.  By noon the remaining enemy groups had been isolated and destroyed and Colonel Haldane ordered the concentration of his troops, who were now widely scattered. 

Captain Exham had found another enemy camp in the hills and he returned there with a party of Egyptian soldiers who destroyed the camp and drove in the enemy camels and goats that were there. Captain Macdonald with a party of Gurkhas under Jemadar Jaman Sing Gurung searched the village whilst Egyptian troops cordoned it off. 


The withdrawal

Colonel Haldane then ordered a withdrawal to Tor. The Egyptians formed the Advance Guard, Captain Macdonald commanded a Right Flank Guard and Subadar Pahalsing Karki commanded the Rear Guard.  Tor was reached at 16.00 hrs and the prisoners, twenty camels and various arms that had been seized were handed over to the Royal Marine detachment garrisoning the town.  HMS Minerva was signalled with a message stating that success had been achieved, sixty of the enemy had been killed and 108 captured including six wounded, and 5,123 rounds expended.  One of the prisoners was a Turkish major. Haldane’s losses had been one Gurkha killed and another slightly wounded.  A later visit to the battlefield by the Egyptian garrison found there were at least seventy-eight Arab bodies were lying there.  


A military funeral and the return to Suez



Upon hearing that there was a fatal casualty, the Minerva’s Captain indicated his intention of holding a military funeral ashore. Thus a solitary Gurkha was buried whilst a Royal Navy Guard of Honour paraded and a Royal Marine party fired a salute.  Wearing swords, the naval Captain and three or four of his officers attended the funeral alongside the Gurkha officers, both as a mark of respect to the battalion and in recognition of the exemplary behaviour of the Gurkhas when they were on board and when they were in action.  All British ships in the harbour flew their flags at half mast and a Royal Navy wreath was placed over the grave by men of HMS Minerva.  

‘In the record, the remark appears: “It is improbable that any Gurkha rifleman has ever been, or will ever be again, attended to his grave with so much honour.”’  (2)

Colonel Haldane boarded his men at 17.20 hrs and Minerva departed at 22.30 hrs.  The Captain dined in the wardroom and toasted the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles. Colonel Haldane responded and expressed great satisfaction at the kindness and consideration shown to his Gurkhas whilst on board Minerva

On the return journey the ship arrived at 06.00 hrs, 13th February, at Abu Senima further up the Sinai coast, where it was seen that the local manganese mine had been attacked by saboteurs.  The report of Germans in the area had not been inaccurate, as two Hungarian demolition officers were operating in the Sinai under the direction of the Turks and their German advisors.

Eight hours later the Gurkhas landed back at Suez. Before leaving the ship in lighters, Subadar Pahalsing Karki (3) gave three cheers for HMS Minerva, to which the Captain responded by piping all hands on deck, lining the side of the ship, and giving three cheers for the 2/7th Gurkhas.  The Gurkhas then returned to take over their old post at El Shatt.

Recognition

The action at Tor had been a classic example of an intelligence-led military operation.  Lieut.-Colonels Alfred Chevallier Parker and Charles Levenax Haldane were mentioned in despatches.  Later that year Haldane received a Companionship of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) and was promoted. The following year he was awarded the Order of the Nile 4th Grade. None of Colonel Haldane’s subordinates received awards for gallantry displayed in the action at Tor, on  the principle that:

No names were submitted owing to the fact that where all did well it was impossible to differentiate’.

However one Gurkha naik (corporal), who had been reduced to the ranks by order of the Brigade Commander for slackness on patrol in letting deserters pass him, was reinstated in his rank and place of seniority because of the good work of himself and his detachment at Tor.

Sources

London Gazette supplements, dated 21 Jun 1916 (No. 29632 p.6169) and 27 May 1919 (No. 31538 p.6491); Lieut.-Gen. Sir George MacMunn and Capt. Cyril Falls,

Official History, Military Operations Egypt & Palestine, From the Outbreak of the War with Germany to June 1917 (Imperial War Museum in association with The Battery Press, Nashville.), p.53; War Diary of 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, 10-13 Feb 1915 (kindly provided by Gavin Edgerley-Harris Esq., The Gurkha Museum, Winchester); Col. J.N. Mackay, DSO,

History of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles (Blackwood, London 1962); H.F.V. Winstone (editor),

The Diaries of Parker Pasha. (Quartet Books);

A daring Commando Raid on the Suez Front (article by Mehmet Fatih Bas); research notes kindly provided by Per Finsted of Denmark.

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(1) Capt. Alistair Ralph Spiers Alexander, IMS, had been Medical Officer of 2-7 GR since the battalion left Quetta in October 1914. During the defence of Kut, serving in the trenches with 2-7 GR, he was wounded by shell-fire and succumbed to his wounds on 9 Feb 1916.   He was interred in the Kut War Cemetery.

(2) History of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, p.29

(3) Subr Pahalsing Karki lost his life in Mesopotamia on 4 Jul 1915 and is commemorated on the Basra Memorial. The circumstances of this officer’s demise are not known, although at the time 2-7 GR was part of the force fighting its way towards Nasiriya on the Euphrates.

 
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