Mountain Warfare Training Centre

 
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Mountain Warfare Training Centre, Mountaineering Wing, Cedars, Lebanon, initially IXth Army Ski School.

The information below was largely gleaned from Dog in the Snow by James (Jimmie) Riddell. Published by Michael Joseph, London (1957).

Dog in the Snow is a delightful little book of memoirs and anecdotes from the Cedars centred around Rex, Jimmies Alsatian dog. Rex took a great interest in the activities of the ski school and his particular mission was to ambush students and cause them to fall, the more the merrier.

In 1941 Capt. James (Jimmie) Riddell was the British Political Officer in Central Syria and living in Homs. One hot and sultry evening he went to dine with an Australian Field Ambulance Unit. The conversation centred round the unbearably hot weather and also the incomprehensible and manifestly blundering orders and counter orders constantly being issued by the authorities at Army HQ. After some outrageously funny remarks about the Gabardine Swine – staff officers, the conversation turned - "Guess what the So and Sos sent in this morning! … In comes another perishing bit of bumph asking this time for returns and gen on anyone in the Unit who knows anything about snow and extreme cold! … Wanted to know if any of us blokes out here in the sand and heat knew anything about mountains and skiing!"

Jimmie had been an expert skier before the war and asked the Colonel to put his name forward even though he was not Australian. The Colonel agreed and a few weeks later Jimmie found himself attached to Australian Imperial Forces, promoted to Major and appointed as Chief instructor to the AIF 1 Corps Ski School.

The site selected for the ski school was the Hôtel des Cedars at 6000 ft asl, a few miles above the village of Becharré, Lebanon. The building, which had been unoccupied for some time, was unfurnished and none of the utilities worked. They took over the building in the early autumn of 1941 and apart from getting it ready they faced the problem of obtaining some 400-500 sets of ski equipment for the opening course due to start on 15 December.

No equipment was available from official sources but they managed to buy a few odds and ends from a sports shop in Beirut that supplied imported ski equipment before the war. Using their own knowledge and the small amount of imported equipment as models they set about making all their equipment locally – skis, wax, bindings, boots and ski suits. They even developed their own fluid for making the ski suits water repellent and which gave them a greenish hue. Later of course they were supplied with high quality equipment from the UK and USA.

From this inauspicious beginning, the ski school grew in to a huge organisation with an establishment of over 100 instructors and which was able to teach over 2000 students to ski at a time. In all over 20,000 men of all nationalities passed through the school between the winter of 1941/2 and summer 1944. The organisation gradually graduated from IXth Army Ski School to become the Mountaineering Wing of the M.E. Mountain Warfare School which was based near Tripoli. The organisation operated throughout the year and in the summer taught rock climbing. The Rock Section as opposed to the Snow Section was situated some 30 miles away at Laqlouq and was commanded and run by David Cox.

The course at the ski school was extremely physically demanding and required the highest level of fitness. There were no ski lifts so every foot of downhill skiing required the equivalent climb, often carrying heavy loads.

They knew little about teaching military personnel to ski and methods had to be developed and refined. At first it was assumed that fully fit soldiers could go straight into a full training program of 7 ½ hours a day on skis but they found that this was counterproductive. The students became exhausted and progressed slowly with a high drop out rate. Eventually they realised that they had to start more gently in order to allow acclimatisation and build up fitness. They also developed selection criteria which allowed them to predict accurately who was likely to stay the course.