- Contributed by
- People in story:
- F W Arbon (Petite); Johnny MacRae; Lt Hunt
- Location of story:
- Qattara Depression, Africa
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 June 2004
Early one morning there was a shout, "Get out of bed and move back to the El Alamein line!" The enemy had got through Marsa Matruh defences and were coming this way. We set off very slowly as the road was almost at a standstill. (I often wondered why the Luftwaffe never turned up on these occasions!)
Through the checkpoint
Finally, we arrived at the checkpoint on the El Alamein line. A way was cleared to get us through as the Battalion had been reduced to a composite company under Right Flank's Company Commander, Johnny MacRae. This was a company hurriedly formed from all the men who had managed to get back from the fighting around the Tobruk area. The South Africans at the checkpoint directed the Company to the south, near the Qattara Depression.
After a few days, light forces of the enemy started to appear and face up to us. We did some night work just to let them know that we could still have a go at them.
Like a frozen lake in the desert
The Qattara Depression was a long, flat saltmarsh - 200 miles long and 70 miles wide. It was covered in a sun-baked crust that would take light vehicles but narrow tyres, like the enemy had - track vehicles would all sink into it. Travelling over it would be a bit like going over a frozen lake. It was 440 feet below sea level, making it extremely hot: most days it was around 130 degrees with no trees for shade; there wasn't even a blade of grass.
On the third day, 19 July, around noon, we received an order to proceed south to the El Taqa Plateau. One of our carriers was trapped and we had to try to rescue the crew. We reverted to an infantry section and manoeuvred our truck to a sand dune near where they were trapped. I had a wee look over the sand dune to assess the situation before taking the section any further. I observed a plateau about 40 feet high with soft sand nearly up to the top and a little escarpment at the top of 4-5 feet. On the right was a soft sand track leading to the top.
The carrier was halted half way down the track and it looked as if it had been trying to get to the top of the plateau. It had then been hit by a small anti-tank gun and had reversed back down the track. I could see the officer, Lt Hunt, hanging over the left side of the carrier, but no sign of the crew by the vehicle. Up above though, sheltering under the low escarpment, was a sergeant with a section, but they couldn't move because the enemy was delivering concentrated fire from a Spandau machine gun.
I took my section across to get up to the low escarpment under a hail of fire; as we ran, the sand around us was jumping, like rain drops on water.
On reaching the top, I had a very careful, sly peep over. There was a loud bang and a thud on my helmet and when I looked at it, there was a long scar along the top! They must have fired an anti-tank weapon at me. I thought, 'Well, we can't go over the top - we'll all be killed.'
Behind the enemy
I then found there was another section round to my left with an Officer in charge. This section was behind the enemy and in a better position to take them on, being on a gentle slope with no escarpment and at the enemy's rear.
As my section sheltered under the escarpment I looked back and saw the Company Commander coming across the same tracks that we had made. I saw the sand jumping all around him and thought, 'Johnny, you have a charmed life coming through that lot!' He struggled up the sand toward me and ordered me and my men to go over the top. I refused the order and when he questioned that, I said, "If it means getting one man killed, yes, I refuse."
He threatened me with a Court Martial, to which I replied, "I'm collecting them, but at least I'll be alive, which I won't be if I go over the top." He left to go to the next section to my right and met the same response from the Sergeant in charge.
Spotting the enemy
I saw Johnny raise his head to look over the wee escarpment to find out where the enemy were. There was a loud report of an anti-tank gun firing, and Johnny was thrown a few yards down in the soft sand. I could tell he was dead; he had pushed his luck a bit too far. An uneasy silence fell over the men as they had seemed to class him as invincible, but he had forgotten Right Flank's primary motto: 'Keep your heid down!'
Back to reality
I sat there deep in thought when I was brought back to reality by a young Royal Artillery Officer touching me on the shoulder. "Do you think I could help you get rid of the Enemy post in front?" I thought, 'If there is any way of killimg them off, I'm all for it!' and automatically said, "Yes," (forgetting the maxim, 'Never volunteer!') and then asked, "If you are staying, it must be safe. How far back are your guns?" He replied, "About three miles." I suddenly thought, 'What have I let myself and the section in for?', but didn't want to let him know I wasn't too confident of his men hitting the target. In any case, in pulling out, men could easily have lost their lives.
He sat there, working out all the instructions and radioed them back by wireless, repeating them several times to make sure his men had them correct. He then turned to me and said, "Do you still want to stay here or do you want to take your men back 200 yards?" "No," I replied, "This is the lesser of two evils!"
He gave the order, "Fire!" I heard the report of the guns firing well back and then the whistling of the shells, descending on us like an express train. I'm sure my heart stopped beating!!
When the smoke cleared away, we found the gunners had scored a direct hit and all the enemy were dead. I thought sadly, "If Johnny had just a little bit more patience an hour ago, he would have been alive now."
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