- Contributed by
- People in story:
- David Boe
- Location of story:
- Africa, The Mediterranean, Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 April 2005
It so happened that, like many others, I was in the Army when it started and was not demobilised until after it was finished. But it would be tedious to recount everything day by day, or even month by month — I will pick out the high spots that I found interesting and exciting.
In 1938, together with many of my friends in Nottingham I joined the Territorial Army. Quite a few chose the local search—light unit, part of the Sherwood Foresters and I went to the Drill Hall to do the same, but was intercepted by a jovial character, who turned out to be a Battery Sergeant—Major, who professed ignorance of such a lowly formation and said “But we’ve got some lovely guns here”. So I became a gunner and remained one through out the War. The regiment was The South Notts Hussars with two batteries, one with eighteen pounders and the other with 4.5 howitzers. It was in the 1st Cavalry Division — all horsed TA regiments — so we were Royal Horse Artillery — RHA.
During the first three months of the phoney war we were training in Yorkshire and nothing of any moment happened. And in December 1939 we set off for the Middle East, destined for Palestine as it then was. A three day train journey across France, onto an old style troopship at Marseilles and ten days through the Mediterranean took us to Haifa. Training continued in virtually peacetime conditions — weekend breaks from Saturday midday to Monday gave us time to sight—see in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other tourist spots. But when Italy declared war in June 1940 we were moved quite quickly to Egypt. Again peace reigned — Cairo was never bombed — until we joined the garrison at Mersa Matruh, where we had our baptism of fire, very gently, by lumbering Savoia bombers which did little damage. In December Wavell launched his attack on the Italian Army which had advanced cautiously from the Libyan frontier to Sidi Barrani. The garrison formed a small column to support the regular units, the 7th Armoured Division, Australian, New Zealand and Indian formations. I was an observation post assistant and so took part in the bombardment in the ‘Battle of the Camps’ which started the enemy’s headlong retreat right through Libya to El Ageila. My regiment was pulled out to go back to the Delta to re—fit with the new twenty-five pounders. Then came a few weeks trying to shoot down planes dropping mines into the Suez Canal. Very ineffective, we had only Boyes anti tank rifles mounted on wooden beams suspended over pits along the canal bank. Indicative of the extreme shortage at that stage of suitable equipment. Next we had a panic move back into the Western Desert because Rommel had landed in Tripoli with the first units of what became the Africa Corps and he had driven us back to the Egyptian border. We got as far as Halfaya (Hellfire) Pass as German tanks were reported near Tobruk. A staff officer ordered us “Drive like hell up onto the escarpment and take up anti-tank positions”. We did so but happily saw no tanks - continuing west we just managed to get inside the Tobruk perimeter as the enemy completed his ring around the fortress. So began the eight—month siege.
We were immediately in action to repulse the attempts of Rommel to capture the entire complex of port, town and defences. I found myself as an observer in one of the posts on the southern perimeter on the road to El Adem. These posts were part of the defensive lines laid out by the Italians and consisted of dugouts and ditches with a thing like a very tall lamp—post with a barrel on top in which one sat to get sightings over the flat desert, somewhat exposed and very hot in what later became the scorching summer sun. Up there I could see German tanks advancing supported by their infantry. I was able to direct gunfire onto them and saw some hits. But as they got closer I was forced to get down and shelter in the dugout. There followed a fearsome moment when we heard the tanks rumbling over the roof. But they could not force their way through the ditches and wire and were driven back by our own tanks counter—attacking. I then witnessed a scene common on any battlefield. A tall German officer was being brought in by an Australian infantryman at rifle point. He had his hands up but was shouting in perfect English I am an officer of the great German Reich — you will never win this war” This was too much for his escort who promptly shot him in the back.
This was one of the attacks to try to take Tobruk which failed and then Rommel bypassed the fortress, leaving small holding forces behind whilst he concentrated on occupying the frontier positions of Bardia, Sollum and Fort Capuzzo. The two armies rested during the hot summer months with only local skirmishing until the battle resumed in November.
In Tobruk we settled down to a routine which even included bathing parties to the beaches. The chief nuisance we suffered was fairly frequent raids by Stuka dive—bombers. But we suffered few casual ties once we became expert at diving into slit trenches when the warning was given. The Australians — ever resourceful — got some of the old Italian guns left behind after Wavell’s advance, into working order and formed the Bush Artillery, blasting away into no-mans-land without any direction. No doubt causing much puzzlement to the enemy.
Relief came for me in July when I was posted to the Officer Cadet Training Unit in Cairo. By destroyer to Alexandria was the only supply route for in and out traffic. These little ships had to operate by night as bombers were active in the bright summer sky and my party of four had to wait in transit for a suitable night. Then followed five months of very pleasant times. Living in the old Victorian barracks on the bank of the Nile we had complete freedom of movement in the city — shops, cinemas — Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland — and the fellow cadets from the Australian and New Zealand units provided much amusing company. Training was quite intense with specialised artillery work at the Royal Artillery base at Heliopoli out in the desert. Here we had much practice at shooting on the ranges. At this time of the War came two events which eventually decided the result — Hitler’s invasion of Russia and Pearl Harbour. When Churchill said thankfully “At last I knew we had won”. But of course this was not immediately obvious to us - indeed there was some gloomy prognostication on the lines of “What happens if the Japs join up with the Germans?“
We had a weeks leave at Christmas and I joined a small party to visit Luxor — Valley of the Kings, Tutenkahmon etc. — Then I was posted to one of the four regular RHA regiments in the Middle East I felt very honoured and supposed this was due to my good marks for shooting I had no great difficulty in being able to connect the guns way back behind me with the target out in front — the skill lay in imagining the line of fire and mastering the orders to be given, such as “Four degrees right — five hundred up” — all this is now done by computer.
I was still at OCTU when the fighting resumed seriously, when Auchinleck, appointed Commander in Chief Middle East, launched the offensive code—named ‘Crusader’. This began with what was called a multi—layered armoured melee around Sidi Rezegh and resulted eventually in the relief of Tobruk. We advanced successfully through Cyranaica until we got to the difficult ground at El Ageila. Then troops had to be withdrawn to meet the new Japanese threat in the Far East and Rommel had no trouble with his counter attack which drove us back once again until the lines stabilised at Gazala. It was there that I joined my new regiment and found myself a subaltern in I Battery (Bull’s Troop) which had a very long history including the Peninsular War and Waterloo. I very quickly discovered that this was quite different from my previous happy-go-lucky Territorial Army regiment. I was now in a highly professional unit lead by a brilliant soldier who demanded total dedication from all ranks. In particular he insisted on perfect wireless drill was essential so that the guns could always be in touch with the officers in the ops. Warfare in the open desert was mostly fluid with tanks, guns and infantry constantly on the move - the old fashioned land-line telephones could not be used.
The Eighth Army, as we now were, adopted a system of ‘boxes’ in which the infantry and gun lines were sited whilst the tanks used their mobility to hunt the enemy - not unlike the fixed squares and mobile cavalry at Waterloo. We saw no more serious fighting until May (1942) and until then we were busy with every kind of training. I had to learn how a column of guns on the move were halted and laid into line with surveyed precision ready to fire with the least possible delay. And other open desert practices, such as finding water, always in short supply, by ranging far and wide to locale wells, which were often quite far to the south. (In the main the war was confined to the coastal strip.) It was sometimes we found the enemy in occupation of a well, and vice—versa, in which case the later arrival held off and waited his turn. There was no hostility, but also no fraternisation!. Meanwhile minefields were being laid and wire barriers erected to strengthen the defences on both sides. Also on both sides, when the evening quiet spell held sway and the main meal of the day was eaten, the army wireless sets were tuned to Belgrade to hear Li Marlene.
But sooner or later one side or the other had to make a move. It was Rommel who, on 26 May, launched his offensive. During the night his two Panzer Divisions, with supporting units, did a right hook round Bir Hacheim and advanced towards our box at Knightsbridge. For several days loose fighting took place, in which my battery joined, until the enemy became confined in a large mass in the area known as the Cauldron. They could not advance further until they had taken the box at Bir Hacheim, being gallantly defended by the Free French. Subsequent analysis by the experts’ agree that here we wasted the opportunity to concentrate our tanks and deliver a decisive blow to this somewhat clumsy mass. But there was no commander who could organise this. There was dither and squabble about what to do and the minor units were left to hammer away in penny packets. I took turns in commanding a gun position and ‘swanning’ as an OP officer. I had several quite good shoots into this unmissable target of German armour. But then the French were forced to withdraw and the Panzers made a bee line for Tobruk.
Now bad trouble struck I Battery. The Knightsbridge box was evacuated and we were ordered to reinforce the box at the northern end of the Gazala line and help keep open the escape route along the coast road to the east. To get there we were to make a night march along an ancient route called the Trigh Capuzzo. We lined up and set off as darkness fell and all was quiet for the first hour or so. Then heavy fire broke out from guns on the left side of the track. Apparently tanks were in leaguer and must have heard our convoy approaching. They were able to turn their guns towards the noise and so set an almost perfect booby trap. Happily for me I was ‘arse end Charlie’ bringing up the rear to gather in any stragglers, and the back ten or so trucks had not entered the trap when they opened fire. The only thing to do was to stop, collect what vehicles we could, form a group, beat a hasty retreat back along the track. This we did but saw some of the unlucky ones ahead of us on fire. It was now pitch dark and although firing had stopped we heard shouting. I made the difficult decision that we should make our way back to Knightsbridge. This we did with no further bother. At first light the regimental Colonel held his post mortem — he was sympathetic and blamed the divisional staff for ordering our move. He told us he had heard from a unit to our north some vehicles and guns had been able to veer off to the north and were on the way back to us. The upshot was that we had lost five guns out of eight, several vehicles in addition to the gun towers and limbers and some fifty or so men. Most of these we heard later were prisoners of war. We got another gun from the available reserve and operated for the rest of the campaign as a four gun troop — normally we were a two troop, eight gun battery.
Then fresh orders sent us back to the frontier to join the main body of the division. And we were to keep away from the coast road and the Tobruk perimeter. It was just as well we did because the next day we got the black news that the garrison had surrendered and Rommel was in possession, with many tons of vital stores being built up for our own offensive. Auchinleck had now taken command of the whole Army and gave orders to retreat to the new defensive position being constructed at El Alamein. Later history discloses that he had hoped to form a defensive line at Mersa Matruh, but the open left flank made this unacceptable. At Alamein the Quatara Depression, impassable for any wheeled vehicle made this a much better proposition. Two night marches got us the welcome sight of new concrete and wire and Royal Engineers laying mines. And later we saw the famous photograph of the Commander in Chief waving in his beaten forces. But it was a gloomy time — morale had never been lower. We were lucky to have had our route up on the escarpment which runs almost parallel to the coast road because for part of our trip we could clearly hear the unmistakeable sound of heavy traffic on the road. This was later proved to have been one of the German Panzer divisions. Luckily the long journey on their own tracks had made these tanks unserviceable for some time. But Rommel was being pressed by Hitler to complete the conquest of Egypt so that Malta could be taken, and Mussolini had his white horse taken to Tripoli for his victory march into Cairo!
Having moved into the Alamein position my depleted battery was
given a task - to form a group with one of the infantry units and ‘raid’ an airfield from which Stukas were based. As we were preparing for this two random shells wounded badly both the infantry colonel and our Battery Commander. The latter was a sad loss - he never came back and his replacement, one of the Liberator Majors flown out to replace senior officers, many of whom had fallen, was only a fraction of his worth. And we were unable to force our way westwards and the raid was aborted. Other officers were wounded or became sick and for twenty four hours I became I Battery Commander ! A matter of no significance at all. I was still a humble 2nd Lieutenant.
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