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- Alexander Dall
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- 03 December 2003
Quite properly, there have been many accounts of the experiences of the infantry and tank crews who bore the brunt of the long and brutal battles of Alamein. Not so much may be known of the work of the Signals operators during that desperate period.
Armoured Command Vehicles
Control of an armoured division at this time was provided by a group of six ACVs - Armoured Command Vehicles. ACV1 was described as 'G' - controlling the hour by hour direction of battle tactics. ACV2, Intelligence, listened in to German and Italian wireless traffic and interrogated prisoners. ACV3 was Artillery, -4 Engineers, -5 REME and -6 was Q.
General Briggs commanded the 1st Armoured, and either 'swanned around' in his Crusader or rode with us in ACV1. The permanent staff comprised the G1, a colonel, the G2, a brigadier, who liaised with 10 Corps and with flanking divisions, and the G3, a captain, who handled all the admin' and recorded all events for the divisional war diary. These staff officers - and those in the other ACVs - had all been trained in the control of their specialised aspects of the functioning of a Division.
To provide the communications in each ACV were four operators - two corporals and two signalmen.
A signalman's role
As a new arrival in July 1942, I was one of the latter. On one wireless set we were in touch on the forward 'net' to our brigades, special formations, liaison officers, our own protective HQ squadron, Tac HQ, etc - usually about 15 outstations in all. On the rear link we sent long 'sitreps' back to 10 Corps several times a day, as did the other divisions under its command. The G2 often spoke on this link.
From July until the end of November both sets were open 24 hours a day, so that the two shifts of operators each worked an 84-hour week actually on the sets, alternating between six- and four-hour spells throughout the 24 hours. In our 'spare' time there were meals to be prepared, laundry to be done, kit packed and unpacked, and, after the actual battle, long periods on the move, travelling on the roof. We were often lucky to get four or five hours' sleep in the 24.
During the long periods when the division was in action, our job was, firstly, to ensure that all the outstations on the net were always available. Then we had to keep a running precis of all the verbal messages in and out, plus copies of those in Morse (these were mostly in code). Since there were hundreds of sets transmitting, you could usually hear four or five Morse messages besides the one you were trying to 'translate', plus permanent atmospherics. It was therefore necessary to pick out the particular musical pitch of 'your' message, and concentrate on that, ignoring everything else. Not easy.
Tactical fighting occupied the daylight hours, with calm or desperate voices describing the situation the speakers were facing. Frequently the General headed towards the emergency: otherwise the G1 would give orders to cope with the problem. Liaison officers kept us in touch with progress or otherwise on our flanks, and observers gave coded references of strong points impeding advance, of 'brewed-up' tanks, of prisoners coming towards us, of areas of 'soft going' (dangerous for heavy tanks), of newly-discovered minefields, and so on.
A new generation
Unlike our forbears in World War One, when divisional headquarters was safely and comfortably located in a French chateau, we had to keep as close to the tank squadrons as possible to ensure good wireless contact, so we were within easy range of enemy artillery by day and Stukas by night. The only protection we had was camouflage, so the net, with its rolls of interwoven scrim, went over the big bus as soon as we halted.
All the armoured divisions had to wait for routes through the huge minefields to be cleared. This was done, heroically, by the sappers who used the very basic method of bayonet probing, plus the newly-invented hoover-like detectors, which gave a high-pitched note when passing over a buried metallic object. The swept channels - Sun, Moon and Star - were then marked by white ribbons on metal posts. Dim one-way lamps were hung at the entrances to each cleared route.
Our squadron passed through as part of 'Supercharge' - the second attempt to wrest the initiative. It was a hellish journey. Blundering tanks had trampled down much of the route-marking tape: as an emergency measure a couple of Bofors guns were mounted at the entrance, firing tracer shells to show direction. At one point I could hear our driver shouting to my mate in the passenger seat, "Ah havnae seen a bloody tracer for the last two minutes. Where the hell's the route?" This was not calculated to inspire confidence. The two of them were peering through narrow little slit visors, trying to make sense of the dark confusion ahead.
We passed through safely, but many didn't: a number of heaps of blackened metal - some still burning - lay on either side of the track.
Once, on the far side, our tanks were immediately engaged by those of 15th Panzer, and there began what became, up to that period of time, the biggest tank battle fought anywhere - at El Aqqaqir. It raged for five days and nights: on 5 November, 10 Corps issued a communique claiming to have knocked out 253 tanks and 222 guns.
In total, the Battle of Egypt cost the Axis 75,000 men killed, injured or captured, 500 tanks and over 1000 guns destroyed or captured. To achieve this, the Allies lost a total of 13,500 dead and injured, and had over 300 tanks knocked out. These are the cold statistics. What they meant in human terms is beyond computation.
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