The Turning of the Tide
A most unusual historic find brings to us the story of how several men have contributed documents to help us understand the major historic event that occurred on Aug. 31, 1942 at El Alemein in Egypt.
"The turning of the tide in World War II"
An excerpt from Carpiquet Bound
the illustrated history of
4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters)
by Walter D.Allen and Roy F.H.Cawston
ISBN 0 952O592 6 6 Copyright © 1997 W.D.Allen and R.F.H.Cawston
Produced by Chiavari Publishing
15 The Mount, Ewell, Epsom, Surrey KT17 1LZ England
Authors' Note: Wherever the words "the Regiment" appear in the narrative the regiment being referred to is 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters). Similarly the words "the Brigade" refer to 22nd Armoured Brigade.
The above title and publisher-author information reflects a desire to let the reader know the source of a most unusual piece of information about a battle of WWII that may well have represented the first such turning point in the battle to stop Hitler and the Axis powers from overwhelming the free world. The battle has special meaning to all who participated in it for victory was not a common experience among the men who fought to contain the tide of the Fascists in Germany, Italy and Japan who combined to threaten all of the world with the real possibility of a global domination that would have destroyed the freedoms cherished by so many and sought by so many more in the decades of years between 1931 and 1945.
Few understood at the time that a greater threat to freedom lurked in the Soviet Union where Stalin had already murdered millions to consolidate his hold upon the peoples of Russia and its Asian neighbors. The free world had not expected to be involved in major wars after WWI- the war to end all wars- had been terminated with a glorious Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
As it was, the German Army was far more advanced than any of its opponents and victory came easily from Sept. 1, 1939 until this tank battle in the desert of Egypt near the gates to Cairo at El Alemein. Although the Italian Army experienced problems handling the fighters in Ethiopia, the German Army was undefeated and was racing through southern Russia by August of 1942 and the world could see the giant 'pincers' about to come together with control of most of the world's oil falling into the Axis hands along with the whole of the Mediterranean basin save the lone island of Gibraltar.
The sense of gloom in the world was even felt by this writer, who was just ten years old at the time. Of course, Pearl Harbor shocked most Americans who until Dec. 7, 1941 were still basking in the idea that two great oceans protected us from the foibles of European war makers. It is fascinating that even in 1999, at least one American politician, Pat Buchanan talks as though we should have avoided WWII! He knows better, but can't abide the idea that we can't be isolated from the rest of the world.
At the time of the First battle of El Alemein, it was not known to this writer that one of the heroes of the battle was a distant relative named Richard S. Tryon. He was one of the volunteers of the exclusive 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) of great fame in British military history. One had to be asked to volunteer for this group and Richard joined it in 1938 as an enlisted man.
He became a tank commander of this prestigious army unit and spent his time learning to be part of a team that was training to master the tanks and their weapons. By the time that he was sent to Egypt, the main tank in use was the Crusader, a light weight tank that was no match for the Mark IV of the Tiger Corps under the brilliant German General Rommel.
The 'Desert Fox' enjoyed a great advantage and the British tankers suffered one defeat after another until General Wavell was replaced by General Montgomery, who had to issue the order to reflect that retreat was no longer an option as they were driven so close to Cairo that no natural line of defense remained for Rommel to cross once El Alemein fell.
This caused Montgomery to plot a plan to entrap the Panzer tanks that favored attack at sundown with the sun at their backs and in the eyes of the defenders! He found a pass that faced south to defend and carefully placed his limited supply of American lend-lease Grant tanks into dug-in positions in the hills facing the valley road that was conveniently lined with telephone poles at distances carefully noted from the defenders positions. The Grant tanks were classified as heavies, but they still had only a 75 mm canon vs a 155 mm in the Mark IV. Further, the gun could only swing in an 18 degree arc and the tank had to be turned to go more.
Nonetheless, dug-in for protection and camouflaged, the 12 Grant tanks, with one American crew in the group to learn how to fight with them, faced some 60 odd attacking Mark IVs and won the battle! That story is found in the first person present tense narrative that is part of the "Carpiquet Bound" book that is excerpted here with permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.
Not told in their book, however, is the typical personal story of Lt. Tryon. It is an important part of the story, however, for it tells a lot about why the outgunned and outmanned Brits managed to defeat Rommel's finest!
Probably the most salient discovery about the character of the men of the 4th London Yeomanry came to me when I had the opportunity to ask my English cousin why he went AWOL from his three week assignment in the Sinai to recover from wounds inflicted when one of his ten tanks blew up in Tobruck several weeks before. He left, not to get into the fight again for God or his country, but because his buddies were his 'family' and he loved them! He managed to get back to his outfit without being caught as an AWOL and when his Captain was notified of the absence from the R&R camp, Lt. Tryon was already prepared for the big battle! His commander was more than a bit irritated by the notice from Cairo.
It is interesting to note that the following account was written as a personal letter to brother David Tryon and it surfaced after his death some fifty years later!
The Battles of Alam el Halfa and El Alamein, 31st August and 23rd October 1942
An excerpt from Carpiquet Bound
the illustrated history of
4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters)
by Walter D.Allen and Roy F.H.Cawston
The following is an account of the Battle of Alam Halfa written a few days after the action by 2/Lt. Richard S.Tryon, 'A' Sqn 4th CLY
31st August 1942 " I was suddenly awakened by the noise of the squadron scout car returning from the Colonel's tank where it normally stayed with a liaison officer. In the moonlight I could see it racing towards my squadron leader's tank. Although I expected what was coming I continued to lie there until the liaison officer came down the two rows of squadron tanks and stopped at mine. "Are you awake Dick?" . .. "Yes" . . . . "Game Birds Twelve Bore". Just two words but we all knew what they meant. My troop were almost all up before I had gone to wake them, packing tanks, rolling up bedding with an air of resigned determination and a casual "that's it then! " Some were getting out of bed for the last time and it was only 2 a.m. on Sunday 31st August 1942.
We were ready to move off within the few minutes it took me to get information and orders from the squadron leader's tank. Many of the men were already asleep again in their tanks when I returned - it takes more than this to spoil their night. "The squadron leader tells us the Germans are attacking to the south and making progress through our minefields. We are moving to 'Twelve Bore' in close formation now to carry out our role as previously arranged."
The whole regiment moves off in the moonlight 5 miles to our destination. It seems that the whole 8th Army is on the move - sprung to life as the code word went out. But it is all orderly - each unit knows where it is going and what's on. We reach our goal at about 3.15 a.m. each tank at its appointed spot, tank commanders alert on listening watch, each trying to cover the nearing flashes and rumbles with his own theory of what is going on.
Dawn breaks and still no new information. With it come the flies, thousands of them. The sun gets higher and we dismount to brew up, shave and have breakfast - sausages, biscuits, jam and tea. The squadron leader comes to tell us that the Germans are nearly through our minefields and that our light forces covering them are withdrawing according to plan, fighting a delaying action as they go. He has figures of enemy tanks ... 20 here ... 40 there etc. etc. moving east north east or north etc. etc. Behind them there seems to be a concentration of 3000 motor transport. We know this means lorried infantry, guns etc. as well. They are still 15 miles off so we close down the wireless and wait for more news.
All that long summer's day we wait. Some crews clean their guns and test sights, some read, some kill flies, some even sleep in what little shade there is to be had beside the tanks. News of the enemy filters through. Their movement seems to be slow and split up, but their general direction seems to be towards us.
At last at 5 p.m. four enemy tanks are reported on a ridge 3 miles to our south. As the rising sand and dust clears I can just see them through my glasses. Things are getting close now so we get ready to move out of cover into our battle positions. We are on the air again and the wireless is buzzing with orders. My squadron leader talks to me "Hello Heyday 2, Heyday calling. Enemy reported advancing down telegraph wire in front of us and coming through the depression. Go out and keep an eye on them and report progress and numbers. Heyday over." . . . . "Heyday 2 answering. OK but shall I do it on foot as my vehicle would be seen and give us away? Heyday 2 over." . . . . "Heyday, Yes Off." I go out on foot to some high ground in front, but I cannot see well enough to count numbers or even tell a tank from a truck. I return to report what I have seen. Then .... "All Heyday will move into battle positions and prepare to engage the enemy. No one will fire until ordered Heyday to Heyday out." A last look round and we mount up. "Driver, start up and advance to our position, halt and switch off".
We are now sitting in the holes we dug several days before, waiting should the enemy come on and attack us. I test the crew intercom. They can all hear me clearly and are keyed up for action. It is now 6 p.m. - the Germans seem to love an evening scrap, but they are coming from the south so they won't have the sun behind them this time. I wonder how many they are, what type, whether they are going to attack us or move further east.
A thousand such thoughts fill my mind and I know the rest of my crew are thinking the same. All but one of them have been in it before and know what it is like. He is the loader and won't see anything anyway except a smoking breech and a lot of empties. I tell the crew over the intercom all I know about the enemy and our own side. There are a few shells landing now in the depression 2000 yards ahead of us, but not many - on the whole things are very quiet. Now the German tanks are emerging from the low ground ahead. Their commanders are well out of the turrets and don't seem to be aware of what they are coming to. They appear to be forming up at 2000 yards to attack - four rows deep with some big chaps with nasty looking guns in the front. There are 60 facing our squadron position and a lot more to the right.
"75 armour piercing action! " There is a clang as the round goes home and the breech closes. "37 and Browning action! " I can feel the movements of my operator as he loads our other guns and a tap on the leg tells me all is ready. Now we just have to wait permission to fire. The enemy is sitting in the open without cover. We are making use of ground and have a good background for camouflage. The Germans move forward slowly and we remember our squadron leader's words of a few days before - "There will be no question of withdrawing. The Battle of Egypt will be fought at El Alamein - nowhere else! " . . . . . Before we start firing we lose a tank. Heyday 1 is on fire and he is bailing out. He has a dead man in his tank and one or two wounded, but he gets them all away. He's a brave man. I know because he was in my crew before he got his commission.
My 75 gunner has already picked out his victim and is waiting for the order to fire. We wait until they are well in range then ... "75 - 1500 target in front. Fire! " The tank shakes as the gun goes off and I am able to follow the tracer. "Observation minus - bring it up a bit. Fire! " This time 16lbs of lead tears its way straight through a large Mark IV which stops, shudders and goes on fire. A few more shots to make sure. My gunner hits his target each time. By now the firing on both sides is furious. Two more of our crews have reported bailing out and one or two are off the air. "Hello Heyday, Heyday calling. You are doing wonders. We are greatly outnumbered, but stick to it." We carry on firing, but only three tanks answer that call. "Hello Heyday 2 . How are you getting on down there?" . . . "Heyday 2 answering. Heyday 2 Ack has bailed out, but we're still plugging away." . . . . . "Good. Stick to it. Don't let them get through."
Wireless procedure is forgotten now. My gunner has picked another victim and we're pounding him with shot. Very few of the Germans seem to be firing now, but we are being hit a lot. Sparks are flying and the fumes from the guns make breathing difficult. My crew are still working calmly and the 75 gunner is doing marvels. We have run out of armour-piercing and are firing high-explosive now. The German bailed-out crews don't seem to like it either. A few of their tanks are burning; others have obviously been hit.
A constant stream of shells continues to pass my head. Some hit the tank and bounce off; others send rivets flying round inside. The right of our line is wiped out and Heydays 1 and 4 are still getting their wounded away. We hang on until suddenly there is a loud bang; flames, sparks and acrid fumes fill the whole tank. Something big has come right through. "Are you all right down there? " - No answer, just blinding smoke and flame. Time to leave. "Abandon tank! " I roar as the intercom has broken down.
We all gather behind the tank. My driver has a bad head wound, but otherwise we are still OK. After the tank had been penetrated and the gun put out of action, they all quietly waited the order to leave. It is too hot a spot behind the tank which is slowly being broken up by murderous fire. I give the order to run and we all make for a nearby trench, helping the driver as we go. Metal whizzes round us but none are hit.
The Germans are falling back now. They have failed to get through and they are leaving some 20 dead tanks behind them. They have had a nasty knock and though we've lost many men and all our 12 tanks, they've lost a lot more. Maybe, who knows? This little action near El Alamein may mean the turning point in the Battle of Egypt.
In a few days the Germans are sent back where they came from, crippled and sore. But they've got more to come yet. The Battle of Egypt will be fought at Alamein. There is no thought of withdrawing. "
The story was collaborated by the following account.
The following narrative details the course of events as seen from RHQ Tank Troop, 4th CLY by Harry Ramsbottom, Middlesex Yeomanry as recorded in his 'Memory Diary'. Harry was Regimental Rear Link Operator at the time.
31st August 1942
"At two o'clock in the morning the codeword "Pepsodent" was received - this indicated a "Stand to". Quickly and quietly the tanks were manned and ready to move. We were still dazed with sleep and hoped it would turn out to be one of the usual practice alarms. It was brilliant moonlight, everything was quiet and no sounds of battle were to be heard. Then the stillness of the night was shattered by the roar of engines and the Regiment moved off to take up the already allocated defensive positions.
The schemes had not been in vain and by four o'clock we were in position sceptical of an enemy attack, for still silence reigned. Everyone settled down to await the dawn. Just before dawn however, streaks of tracer far to the south dispelled any doubts - this was the long awaited attack. Egypt's fate was at stake - we looked grimly over the desert which in the cold half light seemed more desolate than ever and prayed for victory. Once again our backs were against the wall for there was no doubt that the enemy's efforts would be more than determined to fulfill his ambition.
We half expected to be confronted by the enemy at dawn so we were surprised when the morning turned out to be uneventful. Major Silvertop, the new Second in Command, took over the Rear Link that morning and I was sorry to lose Capt. Brown after our long association which had been one of complete mutual trust. He took over the spare Forward Link.
During the day there was much aerial activity and the exciting spectacle of our fighters intercepting Stukas brought forth loud cheers which were occasionally drowned by the roar of aircraft engines and the chatter of machine gun and cannon fire. It was good hunting, for at least four Stukas emitting long trails of smoke, crashed to the ground.
Periodically, reports of the enemy's tanks came through, but our policy was to sit tight and let him do the attacking, not for us to sally forth to ground of his choosing. The 25 Pounders were in action for the greater part of the day bringing heavy fire down on enemy concentrations hidden from our view. It was in this attack that the RAF really demonstrated its terrific power. Ever since the stand at Alamein they had given us wonderful support both in fighter cover and by bomber sorties. Today, formidable formations of Douglas Boston's continually flew over to drop their devastating loads on Rommel's supply lines and troops. They were shepherded by weaving fighters like hens fussing around their chicks. So different from the early days when very little of our aircraft was seen, with the exception of the few pioneer fighter Squadrons and a small force of Bristol Blenheims.
It was not until about 5.30 p.m. that the enemy tanks approached our positions. They appeared to be moving east, but when they spotted the occupied ridge they swung northwards and faced us, lined up for attack. The flat desert below us seemed alive with tanks, ugly menacing squat black objects looking most sinister as they cautiously approached. Actually there were sixty to seventy on our immediate front, but concentrated in this small area they seemed far more numerous. By six o'clock the battle was in full swing.
'A' Squadron with their Grants took the full force of the attack, fighting valiantly as they lost tank after tank until after twenty minutes there was hardly a serviceable one left in that Squadron. Their sacrifice was not in vain, for the columns of black smoke belching from stationary Hun tanks at least denoted "evens". The hail of fire continued until last light, but the enemy were so successfully held that it is doubtful if he got within a thousand yards of the ridge.
For my part I did not enjoy the battle too much as our tank conformed to the movements of the Colonel's. I was very conscious of the unpleasant proximity of many of the shots as we made short moves back and forth to confuse those who were firing at us. "Ginge" Long, the gunner who replaced our friend Chesterton at Amariya, appeared to enjoy it, but then it was his first action and a novelty. I grinned feebly at his occasional jokes, but inwardly I was far from amused.
A very heavy Stuka raid on the guns and 'A' Echelon caused a number of casualties in our ranks, among them were Capt.T.G.S.Rosekilly, Technical Adjutant killed, and Major Aldridge who was severely wounded. The Regiment leaguered in battle positions and Major Cameron of 'A' Squadron despite his hectic and courageous evening, excitedly pleaded with the Colonel to be allowed to go forward and blow up the destroyed enemy tanks. The request was refused, but shortly afterwards the desert for miles around was briefly lit up with a red glow as tank after tank was blown up by the Royal Engineers. Capt. Brown had a miserable night, his tank having been set on fire during refueling and burning his operator.
A roving enemy plane dropped a stick of bombs unpleasantly close, but this did not compare with the visible effects of the night bombing by the RAF on the Axis leaguers and the many fires
that resulted. Dead tired, we lay down to sleep, satisfied with our performance. The 4th CLY had taken the main weight of the attack and had not failed. 'A' Squadron's fine stand was typical of the spirit that prevailed. During the night about three German tanks penetrated to the edge of one of the minefields to our left and caused a little damage amongst vehicles, but they were successfully dealt with early the next morning.
We are grateful that the author also allows us to show here the additional passages to recount the history of this turning point of WWII:
1st September 1942
In the early morning the Regiment moved to a new position by the telegraph wires in the vicinity of two wrecked Bristol Bombay aircraft. Here, a short time later, a brief skirmish took place involving the 3rd CLY Squadron. The shellfire was fairly heavy and on one occasion Peter Green had a lucky escape. Returning to his tank with a spade in his hand, he was enveloped in the dust of a shellburst not more than ten yards away. Fortunately he was unhurt and was safely inside the tank before the dust had cleared. Two Ju.88s were shot down a short distance away and a Stuka attack was made on our nearby guns. About lunch time the tanks to our front began to withdraw, the 8th Armoured Brigade successfully rolling them back from the east. The Regiment assumed the easy role of watching and waiting for the remainder of the day. Throughout the night we stood to, prepared for an infantry attack, but nothing materialised and it was possible for us to advance a short distance next morning past the wrecks of many German tanks.
2nd September 1942
Here, in this new position, we overlooked a concentration of enemy vehicles and tanks about two miles away. Six times this day the Bostons flew methodically overhead and enveloped the column in a long line of smoke and dust when they dropped their bombs. Whatever the damage, it is certain that the enemy's morale was more than shaken under this constant hail of death and destruction from the sky.
Later, the enemy columns began to thin out and reports indicated that a withdrawal was being made through the gaps in our minefields which had been crossed successfully. Patrols harassed the Germans, picking off straggling vehicles so that by the next day the area was clear except for over forty destroyed enemy tanks and probably the same number which had been disabled and evacuated by their crews.
So ended Rommel's "Reconnaissance in Force", a term which caused us great amusement. Using for the first time his Mark III and Mark IV Specials with their longer 50mm and 75mm guns, he had hoped to crash through to Cairo, but the Army's stubborn defence with the co--operation of the RAF had destroyed that illusion in no uncertain manner. It was the turning point of the Battle of Egypt. The enemy's defeat in those four days had removed the immediate threat - now it was our turn to prepare an offensive that would not fail. The 4th CLY referred to as "Egypt's Last Hope", played a decisive part in stemming the last determined Axis drive on Cairo and the Suez.
5th September 1942 (approx.)
The Regiment, less 'A' Squadron which went to Amirya, moved to a new location, "Barrel 102" very near to the positions in which we had just fought. Hopes ran high of our being withdrawn from the desert for a spell, but that was the lot of 3rd CLY Once again 22nd Armoured Brigade maintained a desert vigil, plagued by heat and flies. Actually it was not too bad, for the enemy's attack having been liquidated the air had been cleared and it was unlikely we should be called upon to face another threat, but we had to be ready for any eventuality.
For the time being it was at least possible to settle down in comparative comfort out of range of the enemy's guns. Reversion to the normal desert existence of four "brews" a day ensured our domestic bliss and comfort. To relax over a mug of tea in the desert is sufficient to chase away the "blues" and restore a sense of proportion amid the desert's monotony. Water, though not too plentiful, was sufficient for us to be able to wash our clothes at reasonable intervals. It was a luxury to change ones clothing before it became stiff and yellow with sand and perspiration.
A petrol tin cut in half was our bath and regardless of convention one stood naked and unashamed enveloped in a froth of soapy water and gloried in the pleasant, clean glowing sensation of a body untainted by sand. That feeling was always short-lived, for within an hour the hot sun and drifting dust had restored the old unclean sensation.
German fighter bombers visited the area occasionally and caused many an undignified dive under the tank as their bombs whistled down. Whereas fighters had previously been ignored, these new pests demanded that we should keep a very watchful eye on them.
Training began again, each man having instruction in the work of another member of the crew. Operators doing D&M and the Drivers receiving wireless instruction. Despite the heat we even played a few games of football against A1 Echelon. Unaccustomed to the strenuous exercise we struggled gamely on with Major Sutton as referee. A large new draft also joined us.
The occasional night barrages to the north indicated the ever growing number of our guns. We would wake up thinking for a moment that an attack was in progress then, remembering where we were, thankfully fall asleep again while the guns rumbled on.
Towards the end of September rumours of our coming offensive began to gain ground. These were confirmed when we were informed of our future role - the unpleasant job of forcing two minefields in the south. Naturally, no date was given, but it was obvious the state of the moon would be a dominant factor and our eyes began to search the night sky for signs of the new moon.
30th September 1942
A big day, the Regiment was stood to, to support if necessary an infantry attack on the Munassib Depression. Also during the morning a General came to inspect a new wireless switchbox installed locally in the tank.
16th October 1942 (approx.)
The Brigade moved to a concentration area a few miles south of Barrel 102 and here were made the final preparations for the battle. Guns and tanks were adjusted and overhauled to fighting pitch. The moon grew larger with almost dramatic significance. Never before had its progress been followed so closely or been the subject of so much comment. By the faint light, friends would gather round the tanks at night and discuss our future role, making fun of the hazards and hardships to be encountered. As tank men we were no lovers of minefields and a night assault under such circumstances was something new and cause for much speculation.
A "griff" talk roughly outlined the coming offensive. The 7th Armoured Division, of which the 22nd Armoured Brigade now formed part, was to make a feint through the southern enemy minefields and the main attack would be made in the north. After holding the bridgehead for forty eight hours we were to be withdrawn to the Delta - or so the tale ran.
News of brigades equipped with the new Sherman tanks and self-propelled guns was indeed encouraging and meant the enemy's tanks were at last excelled in fire power. This was more than compensation for our battling against the odds for the past twelve months.
The Regiment now had a fair proportion of Cruisers mounting 6 Pounder guns which were a heartening improvement on the outdated 2 Pounder.
Zero Hour was to be the 23rd October."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
A troop leader recalls those weeks of reorganisation, the training of reinforcements and the take-over of soiled second-hand Crusader tanks, but most of all because of a steady improvement in morale and what would nowadays be referred to as the 'feel good factor'.
" Early in September there were rumours of possible LEAVE and shortly, blocks of men were sent bumping and rattling along desert tracks to partake of four nights of freedom in comfortable hotels or apartments in Cairo or Alexandria. A small recompense for the last seven months in action under very trying conditions.
No weekly pay parades had been held for a long time so Army Credits had been accumulated and most men 'blew' these as soon as they arrived in the Delta. Army pay for a Trooper tradesman was in the region of three shillings a day! Relaxation invariably started with haircuts, shampoos, hot baths, followed by unlimited food and consumption of liquor until the cash dried up. This all contributed to a sense of relief at having been spared from featuring in the casualty lists of the summer's battles.
Meanwhile, back in our fairly safe training areas (although our tanks were always at the ready for any possible enemy infiltration), something really big took place accompanied by the usual kit inspections plus official inspections for the cleanliness of tank interiors! The big event came in the form of John Harding our new Divisional Commander. He was to be seen everywhere as was our popular Brigadier 'Pip' Roberts 3rd RTR. Together they made a great impression and for the first time we came to feel that there was a future after all, fighting in this 'land of F.A.'
New equipment and supplies were constantly arriving and the desert soon became littered with ammunition and food dumps in readiness for Monty's next big effort against the enemy. Most of the newly arrived Sherman and 6 Pounder Crusaders were bound for other Divisions up North leaving our own Brigade to put up with our old type Crusaders and their 'popguns' and probably the highest mileage tanks in the Eighth Army. Men were cheered to see the continual air activity - evidence that at long last we did have air support. It was a joy to see those Boston bombers flown by American crews emptying their bomb loads over the enemy further west.
We even had the Army Commander telling us of our roles in the forthcoming battle and explaining the purpose and method of such an attack. Rehearsals took place almost daily practicing our planned role for negotiating the long and narrow minefield gaps - and at night! By full moon in October we all knew what we had to do, but not what was in store for us!
Having enjoyed a good leave, plenty of better rations, clean clothes and ample supplies of water, most tank crews were keen to get on and to smash through the enemy defences. In fact anything to get away from our particular bit of desert with its dirt and flies - yes, even in the Autumn the flies were still a menace.
Early in the evening of October 23rd we trundled off to our Start Lines some 10 miles to the west. Tanks broke down, wireless sets ceased to function and certain crews were switched, all to participate in this latest piece of History."
* * * * * * * * * * *
22nd Armoured Brigade at this time comprised:-
1stRoyal Tank Regiment; 5th Royal Tank Regiment; 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters); 1st Bn Rifle Brigade; 4th Field Regt RA; 97th Field Regt RA (Kent Yeomanry) and Divisional troops. The Brigade was part of 7th Armoured Division in XIII Corps (Lt-Gen.B.G.Horrocks).
* * * * * * * * * * * *
General Montgomery planned to attack in the north of the Alamein Line with XXX Corps and 10 Corps, but at the same time to make a diversionary attack in the south by 13th Corps.
The basic plan of 13th Corps' attack was for 22nd Armoured Brigade, the main strength of 7th Armoured Division, preceded by a minefield taskforce and supported by a creeping barrage from the combined artillery of the 7th Armoured Division and 44th Division to break through both the 'January' and 'February' minefields south of the Munassib Depression and form a bridgehead into which would follow the armoured cars, Stuarts and Grants of 4th Light Armoured Brigade and the infantry of 44th Division. Meanwhile 1st Free French Brigade under the command of 7th Armoured Division would hook round to the south of the Himeimat crests to capture the ground immediately to the west, and if possible the high ground as well.
With the bridgehead firmly held, 7th Armoured Division's two brigades and the French would drive westwards as far as Jebel Kalakh and the Taqa Plateau while to the north of the attack area 50th and 44th Divisions would act together to straighten the line. While it was hoped that this feint could effect a breakthrough its chief objective was to preoccupy and possibly contain 21st Panzer Division and Ariete Division who were known to be in reserve behind the main Axis defence line.
The attack was not to be persisted in at the expense of casualties which might cripple 7th Armoured Division's ability to participate in the final stages of the battle or the pursuit which was expected to follow.
All units were faced with a long approach march of some ten miles before reaching their various start lines. The reason for this was that after Alam Halfa two additional protective minefields 'Nuts' and 'May' had been laid by the Royal Engineers. These two minefields were four and a half miles apart and six miles east of the front edge of 'January' which was known to be nearly 500 yards wide. Two miles further west was the 'February' minefield, believed to be 1,000 yards wide.
23rd October 1942
22nd Armoured Brigade set off in bright moonlight on its ten mile approach towards 'January'. Some delay was caused by patches of soft sand and because some of the lamps marking the route had gone out. The southern gap in 'January' was the first to be cleared at half past midnight, the two centre ones by 01.45 hrs, but the most northerly gap was not cleared until 04.30 hrs. However, of the four gaps now cleared the two southern ones were impassable by wheeled vehicles due to soft sand.
The minefield force had suffered heavy casualties in clearing these paths through 'January' with the result that there were only enough men left to clear two lanes in 'February' which was its next task.
Daylight found 22nd Armoured Brigade crowded into a constricted area both sides of 'January'. This position became precarious when the Free French, having reached a point just west of Himeimat, were repulsed during the morning and after losing all their vehicles and suffering severe casualties, had to withdraw.
Brigadier Roberts was forced to call off the attack to clear two lanes through 'February' because the minefield itself had not been reached before dawn and it would have been impossible to clear in daylight. Gen.Horrocks had visited 7th Armoured Division commander in the morning and the decision was made to make another attempt to get through 'February' by attacking with 1st/5th and 1st/6th Queens of 131 Brigade of 44 Div. Their objective would be to clear two lanes for the passage of 22nd Armoured Brigade followed by 4th Light Armoured Brigade.
But after two postponements the attack could not start until 22.30 hrs. Both battalions reached their objective beyond 'February', but due to the extreme difficulty of digging slit trenches in the rocky ground they suffered heavy casualties when they came under intense enemy fire. This prevented the Sappers from marking the sides of the northern gap with wire as well as lights.
4th CLY lost more than twenty tanks trying to get through. Some had run on to mines before being knocked out by anti-tank fire. 1st RTR had similar difficulties from an 88mm gun firing along the edge of the 'February' minefield.
The anti-tank gunfire was so heavy that it was impossible to clear any further mines by daylight. This situation was made known to 13th Corps commander who, after consulting Gen.Montgomery, was told that 7th Armoured Division was to be "kept in being". Thus the operation was called off with 22nd Armoured Brigade between 'January' and 'February'. 1st RTR and 5th RTR remained to give support to the two Queens battalions while 4th CLY were withdrawn to reorganize.
" 23rd October 1942 The early part of the day was spent normally and quietly, an impressive Church and Communion Service being held in the morning. By the late afternoon the tank was packed for battle and a larger super Thermos flask, Major Silvertop's latest acquisition was filled with tea. There was nothing to do but talk and doze. Already the atmosphere had become unreal, the unnatural quiet being the lull before the proverbial storm. It was almost a relief when at about 6.30 p.m. the engines roared into life and when the Regiment had formed up we moved off into the fading light appearing grotesque amidst the swirling dust. The hour had arrived at last, the offensive which had been discussed in whispers for the past weeks was at last under way.
With the darkness, progress became slower with frequent halts and even the appearance of the moon did not noticeably speed up the column which wound ahead like a seemingly endless snake. On through friendly minefields and out into no-man's land where a burning carrier cast a ruddy glow over passing vehicles. The artillery came into action lighting up the sky with brilliant red flashes and the ground shook with their thunder. Machine gun fire, far ahead, indicated that the conflict had begun. Wireless Silence hitherto partially observed was now completely broken and reports came in from the Scots Greys who were forcing one gap, and from the 5th Tanks who were involved with another. Their progress was slow because the Engineers were having difficulty clearing a path through the first minefield known as 'January'. Long halts, some lasting over two hours were incurred. We listened anxiously to the progress of the leading elements and lost all count of time.
24th October 1942
Just before dawn the two leading tank regiments successfully crossed through their respective gaps, greatly aided by the excellent work of the 1st Battn. Rifle Brigade and a Recce. Group. As it was too late to force the second minefield, 'February', the rest of the Brigade dispersed as dawn was breaking to the area immediately in front of the gap in 'January'.
The cold dawn was heralded by enemy shelling, the first we had encountered. Weary infantrymen with their bayonets fixed added to the warlike scene. Our orders were to stay in these positions for the rest of the day and continue operations that night. Except for periodical and accurate shelling the day was uneventful. Jack apparently did not think so, for while heroically preparing a meal, a stone thrown up by a shellburst hit his head. Fortunately although surprised, he was not hurt.
Shortly before dark, enemy tanks were observed on the other side of 'February', but no serious engagement took place. As darkness fell, the Regiment formed up for the assault on 'February' for tonight it was our turn to take the lead. A long wait ensued to enable the path to be made through the minefield wide enough for tanks to pass. It must have been nearly midnight before we received the order to proceed. When we finally arrived at the appointed place on the edge of 'February' it was found that the gap was still incomplete.
25th October 1942
The enemy's defensive barrage harassed us as we waited impatiently in the pale moonlight. It must have been two o'clock in the morning before the path was cleared and once again the night was filled with the sound of moving tanks as we moved carefully through in single file, tank commanders straining to see the dimmed green lights and white tapes that marked the safe lane. Either side of the tapes lay destruction in the form of mines buried in the sand. The semi-darkness and blinding dust made progress difficult and tanks would suddenly swing to left or right as a warning blink of green warned commander or driver of a drastic change of direction needed to avert disaster.
Meanwhile. the enemy was not slow to realise what was happening. His anti-tank defences opened fire on seemingly fixed lines and within seconds it seemed as though the whole war was revolving round the Regiment with bursting shells and tracer illuminating the scene. There were many nasty moments. It was difficult to tell when the tank was clear of the minefield in this inferno. Even when in the clear, darkness made manoeuvring difficult and the split second gun flashes were the only indication of his positions. It was a helpless position with gunners trying to machine gun the unseen foe, but unable to bring accurate fire to bear. Already tanks had been
hit and disabled and flames from one of them lit up the fantastic scene. The Regiment was all through the minefield, but there were no signs of supporting infantry and on our left the 1st Tanks had failed to cross. One felt so helpless, unable to strike back as one sat in the red glow emitted from the wireless set, waiting and wondering - what next?
For our own part we had not long to wait. There was a rending crash and the tank came to a sudden halt. At almost the same time, the Colonel's tank had been hit. Major Silvertop leapt out of our tank and went over to confer with the colonel. He came back and shouted a message to be sent to Brigade. Even as I was talking to him another shot hit the tank amid a shower of sparks and dust. Instinctively we both ducked rapidly. When I next looked out of the turret, I saw him lying on the ground. I shouted to him and was once more relieved to discover that he had suffered no injury - he had sensibly been keeping his head down. In all we sustained three hits and once more in our career, Jack, Chesterton and myself found ourselves tankless in the dark.
All the Colonel's crew had also gathered at the rear of the tank where we all lay for a few moments while A.P. strikes on the ground around us sent up a constant shower of stones, sparks and dust. Some Cruisers were to be seen a short distance away and our party started crawling towards them. When we got near to them we rose as one man and dashed to clamber on the back of the first tank we came to, becoming separated in the process. To our dismay we learned that the tanks we were riding on were staying in action.
Then as if in answer to our prayers, a Scout Car (normal crew two) appeared out of the darkness. Without ceremony, about ten of us somehow clambered upon it and it drove off into the night. Another Scout Car approached, halted and took half of us aboard. I found myself sitting on the tool-box with Mogridge, in a far more comfortable position than previously.
We learned later that in this action Neville Burrell and young Torlot had been killed, Lt.A.Smith and Neville Gillman wounded (the latter losing a leg) and Tony Tulloh had been taken Prisoner of War.
Our Scout Car had barely moved ten yards when there was a terrific explosion - the car had hit a mine. The Driver was wounded in the foot, but fortunately for us yet another Scout Car arrived and with us on board, made its way laboriously back through the gap. It then began to rain, and as we were wearing only shirt and shorts, we felt bitterly cold. It was an unpleasant journey back with shellfire landing dangerously near us on either side of the path through the minefield. At long last we got clear of the minefield and located the Regimental Aid Post where we found a congregation of many crews including Mr.Smith and Jones of the Spare Rear Link, both wounded. I was worried about communication with Brigade H.Q. and tried to get in touch with them on the Scout Car's set, but could not do so because it did not cover the desired frequency. Fortunately at that point, Major Silvertop arrived and I was relieved to learn that the situation was well in hand. Captain Brown had been acting as Rear Link despite the fact that his tank had been hit and had run on to the minefield.
Our teeth were chattering with cold as we were all taken back to the location we had started from the previous night and awaited the rest of the Regiment, now sadly depleted. After an hour's exhausted sleep, some unknown hero supplied us with a reviving mug of tea and a breakfast of broken biscuits and jam. By ten o'clock Jack and I were once more installed in a tank, the nightmare of the events of the early morning were already beginning to fade.
We both visited the Doctor, Jack for his eyes and myself to obtain some aspirins for a splitting headache, the legacy of the exploding mine. The Doctor was quite a humorist. "Lost your nerve?" he said to me. Putting on an aggrieved air, I said "Good heavens No, I lost that twelve months ago". I got my aspirins and left, but to my sorrow Jack was evacuated and we were both to travel far before we met again, nor would we be members of the same crew again. So ended our long partnership as "co-belligerents", but another life long friendship was cemented.
Charlie Dennis of "C" Squadron was the replacement as driver and the faithful Chesterton was still behind the guns. For three days the Regiment relaxed a few miles from the "January" minefield and although there was spasmodic shelling in the area we were not troubled by it. From here a party of men led by the Colonel, crept up to the damaged and knocked out tanks on the other side of "February" minefield and retrieved maps and more important kit left behind during that fateful night.
This party was covered by infantry patrols and from all accounts it was quite exciting. To judge from some of the self-satisfied smirks on the faces of a few of those who took part, more than one bottle of whisky was recovered, which made the thrills all the more worth while. From this secluded location we sallied forth again to join the Rifle Brigade who were dug in only a short distance from the base of El Himeimat. Here it was a little 'warmer', because the enemy was entrenched at the base of the plateau three to four thousand yards away, and to remind us of his presence, dropped periodic salvos around us causing many an undignified dive. For our part we fired upon any moving target that presented itself, but there were few of those.
The same night the Division was relieved, though we stayed in position until first light, leaguering in a spot surrounded by dead bodies of both friend and foe. It was an eerie experience, made more so by the flying tracers of a heavy night battle in progress a few miles to the north of us. A shell bursting only a few yards from the tank ignited a derelict ammunition lorry nearby and the glare emphasized even more clearly the grotesque figures of the dead sprawled around. There was little sleep for us that night, the change over required great vigilance, for in no way did we underestimate the enemy.
We were able to pay more attention to food and sleep than to war. There was little news of the offensive as a whole and as yet, no signs of a general advance, but we had been told not to expect an immediate break-through.
30th October 1942 (approx.)
We moved a few miles to the north then halted for three days. It was now about eleven days since the offensive had started and still we had not gone forward. Little news reached us, but the story of the 2nd Rifle Brigade's magnificent action in destroying many enemy tanks against great odds and the award of the Victoria Cross to their Colonel, was hailed with satisfaction.
About this time the ferocious tank battle of El Aqqaqir was raging and the Division was moved still farther north in the area of the famous "Moon and Star" tracks. Here again we were still held back. All around us was more war material than I had ever seen in North Africa before. Tanks, lorries, guns of all calibres scattered around with less than fifty yards dispersal. A Stuka's dream, but fortunately, at least as far as we were concerned there were no Stukas! Nor were the guns silent. All day long they blazed away and the area was a veritable hub of activity. Passing vehicles flung up clouds of dust which almost choked those unfortunate enough to be enveloped.
Slit trenches were dug and occupied that night as a precaution against night bombing for we presented an unmissable target. Again no bombing was experienced, but spasmodic barrages from the heavy guns not far away shook the ground and made sleep difficult.
4th November 1942
The news on the wireless continued to be good. More gains by our infantry and tanks late in the afternoon then, at last, orders arrived to advance through the captured enemy minefields at last light to be in a position to exploit the breakthrough. The slow bitter nibbling process of the infantry had brought its reward. The Axis resistance was crumbling at last after twelve days of hard and savage fighting. The way to the West was now open and here at last was the chance to repay tenfold the debt of our own retreat to Alamein.
In the fading light the long columns passed by and through the marked gaps in the enemy minefields. Derelict burnt out vehicles and unburied German dead were dumb testimony to the fierce tide of battle that had so recently surged over this ground.
The clouds of dust caused considerable confusion, but the Brigade had got itself into some semblance of order and everyone settled down to await the dawn. Occasional enemy shelling and by our own artillery continued through the night.
5th November 1942, El Daba
Soon after dawn the Brigade advanced to give chase to the now defeated enemy. It was "Good-bye Alamein!" and already the air seemed to be cleaner and sweeter as we left the massive minefield area far behind. Once again it was possible to manoeuvre in open spaces without having to concern ourselves with mines. No opposition was encountered until late in the morning when we caught up with a force of Italian M13s and anti-tank guns just short of El Daba. A lively battle ensued in which a few German tanks also joined. Our old enemy the 88mm was once again in evidence. The duel continued throughout the afternoon, the number of burning M13s bore witness to the terrific punishment the enemy was taking. In fact our losses were negligible - it was the anti-tank guns that were the menace rather than the inferior M13s. Capt. Brown's tank received a direct hit from a H.E. shell which slightly damaged the tank, but not the occupants.
It was during this engagement that the Medical Officer, Capt. Brownlees, being new to tank warfare, adopted a new procedure. Previously it had been customary for the MO in his Scout Car to stay back a few hundred yards to await a wireless call if his assistance was required. The new MO changed all that. To his driver's discomfort, amidst shot and shell he would travel from tank to tank. Arriving at a tank he would shout or knock to attract its commander's attention and in a grave professional manner, esquire if everything was all right inside. On one occasion his Scout Car stopped alongside a 6 Pounder Cruiser which fired a shot while he was making his enquiry. The effect of the blast considerably impressed the occupants of the Scout Car and among other things, blew their hats off. Once he had regained his usual composure and realizing the futility of his well meaning efforts, he turned to William's his driver, saying "I think we'd better leave" and thereupon reverted to the wiser policy of waiting and watching.
By nightfall the battle was virtually over and the Regiment leaguered a few hundred yards from the burning Italian tanks. The Rifle Brigade patrols pushed on a further two miles without making contact with the enemy. It had been a very satisfactory day - at least twenty five enemy tanks were left on the battlefield. This was the first time that the Regiment had used its 6 Pounder Cruisers in a tank versus tank action. The results were highly encouraging, the M13s armour not only being penetrated, but also torn asunder. A few prisoners were also collected including an Italian Medical Officer who was very bitter against Mussolini and was glad to be out of it. During the battle the RAF demonstrated their accuracy by bombing the enemy only a thousand yards or so from us - it was a magnificent sight."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Accounts of tank battles tend to give the impression that tank crews were completely self sufficient. Nothing could be further from the truth, as all tank crews would freely acknowledge. Tank operations were entirely dependent upon the 'A' and 'B' Echelons whose unarmoured 'soft' vehicles kept the crews supplied with all their fighting needs.
Essential items such as Petrol, Oil, Water and Ammunition were carried up to the leaguers which were often under enemy fire at the time. This, in all probability after being strafed or dive bombed en route either by day or by night. There were of course many other items carried by the Echelons which although not strictly classed as war material were valued by the crews just as highly - such as Food, Mail and Canteen goods. The vehicles were mainly Chevrolet 3 tonners and 15 cwt trucks plus the occasional Albion six-wheeler, water tanker and scout cars - the majority of these had 4 wheel drive.
Good navigation was an absolute necessity and many a tricky situation was saved by the arrival in the dark as if by magic, of a convoy with its precious cargo for a squadron or even the Regiment which had been on the move all day and only arrived in their leaguer minutes before.
What then if a tank (or more likely, tanks) broke down or were damaged in action beyond the capabilities of the crew to get going again? There is only one answer - The Fitters or Black Gang.
No better place to tell their story, which is inextricably linked with that of the Echelons, than in the account of the two momentous battles which marked the turning point of the war in favour of the Allies.
Here is the unassuming story of Alan Rae, Fitter of 'B' Squadron 4th CLY.
" I don't know what the Squadron Establishment was for fitters, but as I recall we operated with 4 to 6 fitters per squadron, which we split into two in the 'A' Echelon and four in 'B' Echelon. Generally the Sergeant was in 'A' Echelon and we took it in turns one to go with him. In the desert the two in 'A' Echelon had a 15 cwt truck while the other fitters were based in the 3 tonner workshop truck.
Originally Sgt Charlie Hurkett was 'B' Squadron Mechanist Sergeant, with John Kirkley, myself and Sergeant Williams who was an electrician; I seem to recall that in the early days we had a driver allocated to us (the name of Broadbent comes to mind). Later Charlie Hurkett left us and John Kirkley was promoted to Mechanist Sergeant and we then had Tim Healey, Jim Wright, Charlie Milburn and myself.
As you will recall we had Crusader tanks at first in the desert and the main problems we had on those were the cooling fan chains and oil leaks from the flanges to each main bearing on the main oil gallery pipe; each flange was held to the main block by two 3/16" bolts which were wired. These used to work loose and oil poured out under pressure; it was a common sight to see two 5 gallon drums roped on the back of a tank to replenish the constant loss of oil. There was one small plate about 4" x 4" underneath the hull which unbolted and through which one could tighten the bolts on the one you could reach - the number of bolts and spanners one lost in the hull was impossible. The only way to do the job properly took 2 days as the top armour, radiators and oil tanks had to come out from the top to allow one proper access to the bolts. I took my Class One Trade Test in the desert at 7th Armoured Division Workshop the day REME was formed from the RAOC, and the practical test was the rectification of bad oil leaks on a Crusader tank !!
Usually the 15 cwt truck in 'A' Echelon stayed as near as possible to the tanks in order to deal with emergency short term repairs or adjustments, especially when the tanks leaguered at night. The 3 tonner workshop truck normally stayed with 'B' Echelon while the tanks were in action and joined them when things were more static. There are a number of incidents which stand out in my mind:
Firstly, the Sidi Rezegh Steeple Chase; I was with the workshop truck in 'B' Echelon then with John Kirkley and we were replacing a broken road spring on a 15 cwt water tanker when we noticed a flap going on in the Echelon. Trucks were starting up and shooting off in various directions; we then realised that a number of tanks were approaching us on the horizon. We assumed rightly that they were German tanks and that we should depart promptly. The water tanker was on three wheels and could not be driven or towed, so we disabled it in a number of ways and moved off rather quickly. Apparently these German tanks had circled round to catch the supply echelons, but after a couple of days we managed to link up with most of 'B' Echelon.
Secondly, at Gazala when we were chasing Rommel and trying to encircle his forces by cutting the coast road; this was in December 1941 and we were deep in the desert on Christmas Day. We set off with 5 days' rations and were into the seventh day and thus very short of food, when for the first time in seven days the ration truck, with food, cigarettes and post, caught up with us on Christmas Day. Earlier that morning, as food was so short, the MO had shot a camel and cut it up - we got a few steaks and some liver. However, that morning a parcel was delivered to me in the desert, a Birthday present for the 23rd December, a lovely iced cake from home; it lasted about 10 minutes, shared among the Black Gang.
Thirdly, at the battle of El Alamein, the Regiment was ordered to go through the southern end of the line of minefields. I was in the 15 cwt with John Kirkley and when the artillery barrage opened up we started to go through the swept gap in single file. After a while the column of tanks was halted and our truck was sandwiched in a queue of 'B' Squadron tanks. I felt very naked sitting in the truck with a lot of stuff flying about so I sheltered in a shallow trench nearby; after a while we withdrew from the minefield and the Regiment moved up during the night to the Northern sector.
It was some days before the line was breached and then the Regiment was in the forefront of the chase. This time I was in the 3 tonner workshop truck in 'B' Echelon, but it was not long before we had to stop for a 'B' Squadron tank that had broken down. While we were working on it I noticed a column of four trucks headed by a motor cycle; the trucks did not look British, so I got out our tommy-gun and beckoned to the motor cycle which came towards us followed by the 4 trucks. Suddenly he realised we were British, fell off his bike and surrendered, quite obviously influenced by the tank than by me. We then rushed round the trucks, and in all, about 40 mixed German and Italians got out and surrendered, among them a German captain and an Italian major whom we disarmed.
It was getting dusk so we made tea and a meal for them as they had none in their truck and were very hungry. We maintained a guard on them all night and in the morning contacted Squadron HQ on the tank radio while we hastily completed the work on the tank. We were told to let our prisoners loose and rejoin the squadron, which we did.
Shortly after this I was evacuated suffering from infected desert sores, to Scottish General Hospital at Haifa so it was not until May 1943 that I was able to rejoin the squadron at Homs. "
Copyright ©1997 W.D.Allen and R.F.H.Cawston
There are, of course other historians that will sense other battles as 'turning points' in WWII. Examples might include from a Naval perspective, the battle of Midway which probably sealed the fate of the Japanese notion of Empire by conquest; or the 'Battle of Britain', as the air battle that saved England from falling in 1940; but even though the British had earlier driven the Italians far to the West before Rommel appeared, this battle represented a major turning point that 'electrified' millions of readers who were desperate for a sign of progress to contain Hitler. This was it!