- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Harry Wood, Bud Eadon, Sergeant Robson MM, Bombadier Kitchen, Teddy George, Wilky, Scroggs, Jock Reynolds, King Farouke, Barbara Hutton, Rommel
- Location of story:
- Port Tewfik, Cairo, Egypt,Heliopolis, Almaza, Sweetwater Canal, Mera
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 May 2005
El Alhmein Barrage
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Harry Wood, and has been added to the site with the author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
MEMOIRS OF A GUNNER
The next morning we docked at Port Tewfik, a month after leaving the Clyde, and news came through on the ship’s radio, Tobruck had fallen and British troops were fighting a desperate rearguard action. All anti-tank gunners were to report with full kit for disembarkation, they were needed urgently, that was the next message and they were the first off the ship. Trains with their wooden seats, no windows and concrete floors were lined up alongside, and we were soon threading our way through the dockyard and eventually the hot, dusty desert between Port Tewfik and Cairo.
It was noon when we arrived at Cairo station. There was no transport to take us to the R A Depot at Heliopolis, since lorries were scarce. Trucks were provided for your kitbags, but with about 90lb full equipment plus rifle, we had to march at temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The march started off well, but soon became a disorganised rabble; a month on a ship had left its mark as regards marching ability. Many collapsed with exhaustion, to be picked up later by the baggage trucks, and as we neared the gates of the camp, I remember carrying a fellow’s rifle and supporting him into the camp where we collapsed in the welcome shade of a tent, where other soldiers were offering us welcome drinks of water. Soldiers wandered over from other parts of the huge camp, anxious for news of home, the bombings etc., and I was surprised to find among them my next door neighbour, Bud Eadon, who was on regimental police duties at this camp, Almaza.
The next couple of days were like a page from a Kipling novel. Natives performed for the fatigues in the camp, sleeping on the outside of the wire at dusk, clamouring for return at dawn the next day. A char-wallagh brought tea round early in the morning. The duties were light as the camp boasted showers, several canteens, an open-air cinema, sports facilities etc. I could understand the feelings of many who wanted to become a base-wallagh.
Battered units from the front were now drifting into the camp, some with trucks hit by shrapnel, twenty five pounders looking the worse for wear and soldiers dirty, weary and somehow, a look of disbelief on their faces.
We were soon paraded into sections one morning; gunners, drivers, signallers, specialists etc., and marched off to join one of these battered units.
Mine was the 74th Field Regiment from the Gunners 50th Division, but of a regimental strength of 600, only 101 had made it back here without guns or vehicles, and they were now re-forming two batteries of 200 men each. It was originally a TA unit from South Shields, having served in France and now taken quite a hammering at Gazala. My number one was a Sergeant Robson MM, a Bombadier Kitchen as gun layer, and the squad driver Teddy George.
Wilky, the boxer on the boat, Scroggs a miner and Jock Reynolds, a cheerful little Scotsman from the Gorbals of Glasgow, made the remainder of the team.
Equipment was now beginning to arrive, so our time was taken up with painting signs, cleaning and general maintenance. I was very impressed by the unit; these were real professionals, they seemed to have their priorities right, irksome trifling tasks were ignored and everyone mucked in. The senior NCO’s were brilliant.
Before we left Almaza, volunteers were required to give a pint of blood, only a trickle stepped forward, but when it was announced that a bottle of ice cold Guinness was a reward, the lads couldn’t wait to pile onto the truck that was to take them to the nearest military hospital.
News from the front was getting worse; already guns and tanks had been trained on King Farouke’s palace as he had expressed a willingness to welcome the Axis Troops to Egypt. We spent one night on the banks of the Sweetwater Canal in a run-down native quarter guarding a bridge. The authorities feared parachutists dropping in the area, and all bridges were guarded. Evening time came and chaos reigned as we prevented laden camel trains and bullock carts from crossing the bridge on their way to market.
There was no sleep that night, and weren’t we all glad to return to camp the next day, the emergency being over?
Two weeks had passed and we moved out now to a camp at Mera, by the Great Pyramids. David, one of our artist signallers, was outraged that a Mexican style hacienda had been allowed by King Farouke and his government to be built by the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton, close by these ancient monuments.
Most of us were suffering the ‘trots’, some lads taking their blankets and sleeping beside the toilet. The toilet was a collection of wooden seats placed over a huge hole in the ground, and this was to be the scene of an unusual accident the following week. All our new guns had to be calibrated. This meant taking them into the desert and firing on fired lines with different charges so that each gun could have its instrument adjusted, for example one round from each gun fired at the same range should land at the same spot.
Many charges were left over from these shots, and it was a slow job breaking open the bags of cordite and making a trail of this macaroni like substance, and burning it. The Quartermaster had about one hundredweight (approx. 50 kg) of the stuff and unknown to anyone, dropped the lot in the shit-pit. That night, Wilky was caught short and he lit a fag on the toilet, and the tab end was dropped down the pit. The whole camp came awake as a roar of flames, and the bang shook the ground. Wilky was badly burned and taken to hospital, but he was tough, we knew he would survive.
There were plenty of off duty hours, when we caught a single-deck tram to Cairo. This was like fairyland after blacked out Britain. The place came alive at night, excellent clubs run by volunteers from the Civil Service, cinemas in the open air, all shops open, bars, strip joints masquerading as clubs and that strange smell of the East probably caused by all the outdoor cooking. The locals just about tolerated us, but the traders realised we were their meal tickets and many an Egyptian trader can thank the British army for his future.
It was late July now; training and manoeuvre were the order of the day yet in six weeks we had become a good unit again. The enemy was now only about 30 miles from Alexandria and the slight lull meant we were simply waiting for enough supplies to make a big push for the Nile Delta and Suez Canal. Another day of training, we made our way up the desert road and then halted at an RASC depot, where extra water and petrol were taken aboard.
“This is it,” said an anxious Sergeant Robson, “we are going back up the ‘Blue’ (soldiers term for the desert battleground)."
We travelled ‘open order’ with spaces between vehicles and alongside each troop of four guns, we had a BOFOR anti-aircraft gun manned by a crew from the Northumberland Hussars. Gunfire could now be heard in the distance as we moved steadily forward. Suddenly the ack-ack opened up, the gun tower (quad) stopped and I found myself the only one left in the truck. The vehicle had no windscreen and the driver had scrambled out through there, the doors were already open to the desert heat, so I ran after the others, I suppose in panic really. German Stukas were above, but we were not the objects of their attention and shamefacedly, we went back to our truck. Obviously morale at the time was pretty low. That night, we dug gun pits and slit trenches, the orders being relayed to us that this was a last ditch effort and there was to be NO RETREAT.
It was quiet that night, a tank battle raging ahead as Rommel threw everything in for a breakthrough to Alexandria. Nothing behind us could stop him and the issue of solid steel shot for tank penetration gave us the picture. We hadn’t fired a round yet but the quiet night on guard was relieved when I heard movement in front of the guns just before dawn. An NCO on the next gun told me to challenge them. Like a fool I stood up in full view and shouted “Halt, who goes there?”
To my surprise the six men put their hands up and came forward. They were a patrol of the Queen's Regiment that had lost their way back from a night patrol, and were relieved to find our lines again, but I learned a valuable lesson: to stay under cover when making a challenge, this wasn’t a barracks back in Blighty. We moved nearer the front the following day and started shelling the enemy. The ground was very rocky; digging in was impossible, only the scooping out of a few inches of sand was possible. Still we all felt better slamming the shells into the breech and keeping busy. Tank transporters were bringing back damaged tanks from the battle ahead and ambulances trundled backwards and forwards with the wounded.
In the afternoon we had a Stuka raid and as the ferry planes peeled off from out of the sun, the ack-ack opened up from all angles. I glanced up from a prime position; clearly saw the swastikas on the wings and the bombs released directly above my head. Praying came easy just then, but in my inexperience, I didn’t realise that bombs released in a dive will land about 100 yards away. The target was vehicles and Bren carriers nearby, and as stones and shrapnel dropped like rain, it was evident the raid had been a success.
We couldn’t help the injured as the guns had started firing again, and this was always top priority no matter what happened. Sergeant Robson was now showing signs of extreme nervousness, a pity really because we had a good gun area and I knew that he knew his gun drill back to front, but the screaming of the Stukas had unnerved him. Who knows what memories they brought back?
Two more days and we had licked them. The German push was halted and the remnants of the panzer divisions moved back to a more stable position.
The Alamein line was created and both sides sought to build up their strength.
This battle was the most crucial one in the history of the Middle East. If the axis had broken through, nothing could have stopped Rommel from moving right across to the Balkans and threatening Russia on another front. Neither side was in a position to mount a large offensive. ‘Supplies’, that was the keyword. Who would be ready first for the next offensive? Rommel or Montgomery?
We knew little of the Royal Navy’s role in blocking the supply ships of Axis, or escorting troops and supplies around the Cape to the Middle East. The Air
Force was crucial; we desperately needed fighters to give us some form of protection. The army had never enjoyed any kind of air superiority since the war started, would our new Commander change matters?
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