A DESERT RAT'S STORY
BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN
A huge German force attacked us and our artillery could not
keep them back. Another flap took place, this time all the ground we has taken
in the previous campaigns was lost. We went so far back that we were in Egypt
again and finally stopped at a place named El Alamein. I don’t recall
seeing a house, just a bit scrub here and there. We all dug in, awaiting the
onslaught from the Afrika Korps. We were happy to now see our Army as building
up at an enormous rate, huge numbers of tanks, vast amounts of artillery,
ten of thousands of infantry troops.
On the 23rd October 1942, at nine-thirty p.m., the most enormous barrage started. The sound was deafening. All our heavy artillery fired and the sky was alight. It went on non-stop and I thought that nothing could live on the German side as so much steel was thrown over. The Royals were ordered to swing South fifty miles behind enemy lines to report on the damage inflicted and the number of tanks opposing us. It was thrilling to know we were behind the Germans. We could race in and fire with every gun we had, watching their cars in flames. Before they could load up, we were speeding away. Gratefully there were no casualties on our side. After two days of gathering information we returned to our side of the line which had not yet advanced a great deal.
The artillery kept up the barrage for what seemed days on end. When our infantry followed the tanks in they met a lot of resistance. By then the Afrika Corps were as battle hardened as the Desert Rats and did not give up easily. It was touch and go for a few days.
We were now working with the 51st Highland Division, one of our finest, mainly composed of infantry brigades. They had a hard time getting through the German defences. Many of the Scots were slaughtered as they tried to force a way through. We followed them. After some very tough fighting, one of our armoured cars fell into a slit trench and had to be abandoned, another was hit by an 88mm shell. It was by no means an easy task.
A few months earlier the First Army, a mixture of British and
American troops, had landed in North Africa. The Germans were now fighting
on two fronts, a situation that gave them no chance at all of staying anywhere
in Africa. They still fought hard though, even lumbered with having the Italians
as partners, who surrendered to our troops as soon as we came in sight. As
usual, the higher ranking officers with their absurd uniforms chattered away,
insisting on their rights of rank, prancing about in front of us with relief
that the war for them was over. We had seen it all many times before.
On the 6th May 1943 the Desert Rats of the Seventh Armoured Division entered Tunis, the Cherrypickers in the lead. On the 13th the cease fire order was given. This was ignored by our old adversaries, the 90th Light German Division. They staged a mild counter attack but surrendered two days later. They marched in to surrender in parade ground order and showed pride, in complete contrast to the Italians. There was no evacuation for them and a quarter of a million men laid down their arms, a shattering defeat for Germany. Three days later the Royals left for the Delta to train and prepare for the next battle which was to take place very soon.
We later learnt that General Rommel had enormous respect for the fighting qualities of the Desert Rats and knew the names of the most famous of our regiments who had been up the blue from the very beginning. As far as we were concerned, the feeling was mutual with respect to the Afrika Korps. It was a tough and brutal war which could have gone either way. If the Germans had got beyond El Alamein, they could have opened the way to the oil fields of Iran and could then have gone on to link up with their forces in Southern Russia.
On the way back we still had to skirt the minefields and saw the destruction of tanks and vehicles and men of both sides. The desert was an awful place to live for over two years - the heat, flies and constant lack of water and food is something that those of us who survived will never forget, but more so those of our friends who died there. The one good thing about it was that it was ideal for battles as there were no civilians to be at risk, and from what we learnt when the war was finally won, no atrocities.
After a few days we were back on the coast to the rear and then A Squadron came under the command of the 50th Division, who were already training for the forthcoming invasion of Sicily. We had to learn close-up fighting and were now equipped with two Daimler armoured cars and two Daimler scout cars per troop. The troops were now trained to dismount lift mines and to go where our cars could not travel such as highly vegetated areas. The camouflage on the cars were now changed to green and brown shades from the yellows and pale browns we had on the desert. All the vehicles had to be waterproofed, as on the actual invasion we would be driving down ramps into water and then a short drive ashore.