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A Jaunt in the Western Deserticon for Recommended story

by Wakefield Libraries & Information Services

Contributed by 
Wakefield Libraries & Information Services
People in story: 
Mr Henry Foster
Location of story: 
Western Desert
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 June 2005

Joining the 2nd. Battalion The West Yorkshire Regiment, early in January 1942 one Officer and 50 other ranks of the Regiment sailed from Liverpool. After a voyage of eight weeks, including two days shore leave at Cape Town we eventually arrived in Egypt. Our next stop was the Infantry Base Depot, on the shores of the Bitter Lakes, where for the next six weeks we were given light infantry training, which at the same time helped us to adapt to the hot dry climate.
During the time spent there I took and passed a Driving Course, Truck Drivers being in big demand. Then once more we were on the move, travelling by rail for three or four days to the Railhead at Halfaya Pass (Hell Fire Pass) in Libya, continuing our journey by truck we arrived at Tobruk, here we met up with the Regiment, who were part of the 9th. Infantry Brigade of the 5th. Indian Division. This draft of fifty was now split up and posted to various companies and platoons, I myself was placed in "D" Company, 16 Platoon, from then on I saw very little of the other 49 chaps I had travelled with.
We now learned that we were now part of the defence of Tobruk, so here we were in the centre of a huge mine-field and surrounded by masses of barbed wire. We were not the only ones with barbed wire strewn about, the Germans and Italians had the same idea. If desiring to leave your position, one had to follow a definite path, life now was totally different to that which we had been trained for, great-coats, battle-dress, respirators and gas-capes were all discarded, we lived and slept in the open, during the day it was really hot and during the night it was very, very cold. We each had one blanket, the main meal of the day was brought forward having been prepared somewhere to our rear. Dry rations consisted of biscuits, tinned cheese, fish, bully beef, which was anything but solid, with the intense heat it was quite liquified, plus two pints in your water bottle this you had to treat like gold, water being at a premium here in the desert. There was no water for your personal hygiene (washing clothes or your own person), the time however was taken up by weapon maintenance, improving our positions, working parties, or whatever other jobs could be dreamt up by the hierachy etc. It was now June 1942, on the 4th, we moved very quickly, each section now being allocated its own truck with an R.A.S.C. driver, we headed off into the desert, shortly passing the R.A.F. airstrips at El Adam, having past there, it was not long before we were passing burnt out vehicles and tanks, so this was the battle area. Late afternoon we made a halt and the Battalion was formed up like ships in convoy with about one hundred yards between each column and each truck.
We were than told that the Division would be in action the following morning 5th June, the objective was to close some gaps in the British line and to form several defensive boxes, the Italians being to our front it was expected that the opposition would be light with their Infantry and Artillery.
Food was brought up along with rations and water for the following day. Next morning we were to move off at 04.30 hours. This was one hour before day break, as we were all aboard trucks, each truck carried a small light at the rear, we were now in the hands of the C.O. moving along on a compass bearing the lights on the trucks assisting each truck driver to keep in line. As day-light broke as far as one could see, to our right there were literally hundreds of trucks all moving in the same direction carrying the rest of the 5th, Indian Division.
We the West Yorks were on the left flank and 16 Platoon were on the extreme left of the whole line, to our left was sand and more sand, miles of it, (has Lawrence of Arabia appeared, we would not have been surprised for this used to be his stamping ground). Very soon we were joined by seven or eight Tanks which took up position immediately to our front, everything was now moving forward at a steady pace, soon we came under shell fire, high explosive anti tank and air bursts, trucks were being hit and taking fire, the soilders who had been on board were picked up by another truck. Soon we were ordered off the trucks and were to advance on foot, each company now operating individually.
The few trucks that were still intact scarpered as fast as their wheels could move vanishing in a cloud of dust, leaving us with a few Tanks and Bren Carriers, doing there best.
At the same time we were now under fire from enemy tanks and armoured cars, we had not been informed about the tanks etc. Furthermore, we learned that our anti-tank platoon of six 2 pounder guns were knocked out before firing a shot, eight Bren Carriers and crews were lost soon afterwards, whilst the West Yorks were being engaged by forty tanks and seventeen armoured cars (15 Panzer Division, this I learned later reading the Regimental history). The Valentine Tanks supporting withdrew to the rear being out-gunned by the Panzers, this left us the infantry against the tanks, the rest of the Division were in a similar situation. Two forward comapnies of the West Yorks were overun by the tanks, nine officers were killed or captured and casualties were very heavy (Regimental History states - 22nd. Armoured Brigade with 100 tanks stood back out of range and stood back and watched the destruction of the West Yorks and several more Infantry Regiments by the German Tanks). 10th Indian Infantry Brigade was completely destroyed. 16 Platoon being on the extreme left flank of the action, took up position behind a small ridge, we had no trenching tools, picks or shovels, and being under continuous fire from a group of Armoured Cars supporting heavy machine guns, we could not inflict much damage to them,having only Bren Guns and Rifles, and there was no artillery support (there was supposed to be artillery support but none was forthcoming. Communications were bad, West Yorks having no wireless sets and as fast as the Signals Platoon laid telephone cables Tanks in the rear chewed them up so any link up was just none existant.
Shortly after mid-day "D" Companies 16 Platoon were ordered to withdraw as did the rest of the Battalion, leap frogging one platoon after another, tanks and trucks that had been knocked out were given the final treatment by grenade and fire, ensuring that they would be of no use to the enemy forces.
Late in the afternoon we passed through the artillery lines, the enemy in close pursuit, the darkness was closing in now when we reached fairly safe area and here we were served with a hot bully beef stew, once more we were under attack from artillery fire, our artillery was retalliating, we then received orders to dig in and be prepared for a tank attack. As dusk was settling we could make out the enemy tank in the distance. Then an other order was given to board whatever transport was available once more we were retiring, it seems that a number of the vehicles we had gone forward aboard on their journey back had wandered into a minefield. Unfortunately, this minefield was British and was creating a large number of casualties.
I was fortunate enough to climb aboard a 15 cwt vehicle being driven by an officer taking us in a southerly direction. It was now dark as we skirted the minefield and the Jerry tanks. We did not travel far, just out of range of the battle which was still being fought out between our artillery and the German armour. We, 26 of us, remained with the 15 cwt until day break. The battle moving away from us, then finding a way through the minefield, eventually we arrived in the Al-Adam area and found what remained of the Battalion at Sidi-Rezegh. The Battalion in a few short days was re-organised. I myself was transferred to HQ, Coy. Carrier Platoon. It was a while later I learnt that our casualties during the action amounted to 346 killed, wounded or missing. Soon after we suffered another loss, a party loading ammunition, when the whole lot blew up resulting in a great loss of life.
So now the big retreat to El-Alamein had begun. The Battalion moving eastward down the coast road, Tobruk fell, we moved to various positions on this road, dug in, laid mines, erected barbed wire, but were not called into action, sad to say that all around us the 8th Army was in full retreat. In retreat or not we ceased the advantage of being close to the Mediterranean Sea to frolic around in it whenever the opportunity presented itself, with utter disregard to the enemy.
The latter part of June the Battalion was back in Egypt, Mersa Matruh had been abandoned, the railway west of Matruh was choked with engines and rolling stock, we now moved to a position on the El-Fuka escarpment. This had been an R.A.F. fighter airstrip. The planes, however, had been long gone. At this time water and rations were in very short supply. Short stay, on the move again, this time by night, the information was two German columns had by-passed us, so taken advantage of the hours of darkness we had to pass through these German columns who had stopped for the night. This time things went in our favour. The Germans mistakenly thought that this column moving through was there own so we got away with it.
Eventually we arrived at what had been El-Alamein Railway Station. The place had been severely bombed, the track, engines and rolling stock were just a tangled heap of wreckage. From here, we were in a southerly direction, travelling some thirty miles to the edge of the Quattara Depression on the edge of the Salt Flats. It was at this place we were going to make a stand, literally thousands of miles were laid (unmarked). We dug in, miles of barbed wire erected, then after all this preparation it was cancelled, reason being the powers that could not supply us with water or other requirements. So once more we were on the move, it was impossible to go back to the coast road. The orders were to come out by the way of the (Barrel Track), there being no actual track, but every 2 miles a 50 gallon drum marked the way. The going was so bad that each truck made their own individual way (no 4 wheel drive vehicles in those days). One minute you would be going along at 30 miles per hour, then the vehicle stopped bogged down in soft sand axle deep, in some cases we had to push for miles. The heat was really intense 120 degrees during the day and in the haze we imagined other men and transport (mirages). Mirage or not, we gave them a wide birth, for we knew not whether they were friend or foe. Following the track for two days, eventually arriving on the main road to Cairo, Alexandra main road, where once more we were diverted this time to a tented camp area. Glory be - this was heaven, spending two hole weeks with fresh water, showers and a large tended N.A.A.F.I. plenty of beer, no parades, a soilders paradise. Enjoy it whilst you can for the day was approaching rapidly when it was back to what it was all about - WAR - "D" Coy. early in July were sent out on a Flying Column, assembling near Ruweisat Ridge, the Battalion strength was 250 strong, the Carrier Platoon received new Carriers full compliment of 14, the carrier I was in had no N.C.O. one Driver and one Gunner (Bren). No reinforcements were forthcoming for the Rifle Companies, each company now being down to 50 men.
The New Zealand Division along with the 5th Indian Division were ordered to attack, 161 Brigade joined with the Indian Div. 9. Brigade was down to two Battalions, they advanced 12,000 yards receiving heavy casualties, companies were now to between fifteen to twenty men. 16 Platoon, my old Platoon lost every man either killed or wounded except the Platoon Sgt Major. Once again my guardian angel looked after me, the fact that prior to this I was transferred to HQ. Coy. It was an absolute impossibility to dig in on the Rocky Ruweisat, so putting the rocks to a use we piled them up in front of us. the Germans attacked with Tanks, but did not really prees home the attack, for two days there was continuous shelling and dive bombing, when finally relieved, we were only 100 strong. Taken into reserve two or three miles to the rear, we were reinforced with 250 to 300 men, these were odds and sods of every description, moving back to Ruweisat Ridge, here the war became static, still being shelled and bombed day in and day out. Vehicles could not be moved during the hours of daylight, the slightest dust cloud brought down more shells.
All our essentials, water, rations, etc. were brought forward at night, but even then the German planes dropped flares along with bombs making everything very difficult. To make life more difficult, a plague of flies arrived, millions of them, they covered everything tea, food and oneself, everyone contracted desert sores, these pests were swarming everywhere, and the stench from the unburned corpses was, to say the least, most unpleasant. This was the story of our lives during the month of August. Later we learned that Montgomery was forming a new army to our rear, so we had to sit tight and attempt to hold these positions. Once more we were under attack, a German Regiment attacked the West Yorkshire, overunning to two forward Coys. But the line held. September came and still the Germans, September, 9th the West Yorks. were relieved by a completely new Division just recently arrived from England. 5. Div. was then disbanded, except for 9 Brigade. so now we moved back to camp quite near the pyramids at Mena. This was to be our farewell to the 8th Army.
Little did we know just what lay ahead. During the months of July and August 5th Indian Division suffered more than 5,000 casualties. The West Yorks were once again down to a strength of 250. Of the one Officer and 250 other ranks who joined the Battalion back in May, I discovered that there was only five of the other Ranks left.

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