"Good Hunting" - 70 Years Ago Today
70 years ago this morning the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry were advancing against German Panzers and 88mm anti-tank guns at El Alamein in operation Lightfoot.
As a flavour of the battle here is a report of their second engagement.
By the 29 October the Regiment were back with the 9th Armoured Brigade in reserve. The battle was still very much alive although the positions had remained unchanged from the 24 October when the Regiment were withdrawn. The tanks with which the Regiment had been re-equipped were far from new, many of them were the patched up casualties of the battle....
For the next phase of the battle the 2nd NZ Division had been reinforced by 151 and 152 Infantry Brigades from 13 Corps and also the 23rd Armoured Brigade; the divisional task was to mount and execute, on their own, a single 'punch' to a depth of 6000 yards through the German front line, the resulting breach was then to be exploited by the reserve Corps. For this operation General Montgomery was prepared to accept 100% casualties. The Regiment, now under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel A. M. Gibb, along with the Warwickshire Yeomanry and the 3rd Hussars would spearhead this attack, the Regimental objective was little more than a point on the map just to the north of Tel el Aqqaqir. At 0145 hours on the 2nd November, B Squadron lead the Regiment across the start line in column, proceeded through the minefield and through the leading infantry of 151 and 152 Brigades who were defending the forward edge of the minefield. BY 0615 hours the squadrons had fanned out with B Squadron under the command of Major Gibbs in the centre; in the half light the crews of the leading tanks could just see fleeing enemy infantry as they tried to avoid the tank tracks.
The B Squadron advance had taken them into the middle of an encirclement of enemy 88mm anti-tank guns, to halt the advance would clearly have been fatal so Major Gibbs gave the order to charge. Many tanks were destroyed and many gun positions over-run and already the enemy were starting their counter-attack from the south west.
By full daylight the Regiment was slogging it out in a tank versus tank battle with B Squadron with its Crusaders, reduced to one tank that could still motor. On Orders Major Gibbs withdrew the Squadron with many of them sitting on the one tank whilst others walked. For his bravery, both during the advance and in the final withdraw, Major Gibbs was subsequently awarded the DSO.
At 1600 hours the Regiment was withdrawn from the battlefield and its four remaining serviceable tanks were sent over to the Warwickshire Yeomanry where they fought until the battle was finally won two days later. The Regiment had fifteen killed, twenty seven missing and twenty wounded. There can be no finer tribute to the Regiment's achievements than the words of Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein recorded in 1967. " I must mention the magnificent fight put up by th 9th Armoured Brigade - 3rd Hussars, Wiltshire Yeomanry, Warwickshire Yeomanry - If British armour owed any debt to the infantry of the 8th Army, the debt was paid on 2 November by the 9th Armoured Brigade in heroism and blood."
In his book "Royal Wilts" Lt.Col.P.W.Pitt records the battle more personally.
Soon after the tanks emerge from the barrage the Squadron finds itself approaching the Rahman Track. Then, as the silvered telephone posts which run along it become dimly visible and the daybreak sharpens their outlines, the trouble starts in earnest when they mount the crest of a very slight rise they are in the midst of it. Below then the Boche is dug in. His position is formidable. His strength is terrific. This is the real thing.
The Squadron Leader thinks quickly. He must in a situation like this. A few moments hesitation may spell disaster. Summing up his chances he glances from left to right along the horizon where the dawn has brought the rim of the desert into shadowy view. Flash, flash, flash . . in a great semi-circle the guns of the enemy wink viciously back at him as great balls of fire seem to leap out of the sand and hurtle towards the oncoming tanks. Some miss their mask and bounce on the sand, to die out gracefully like fireworks in the sky, others land with a sickening metallic clang on the Crusaders and explosions add dull thuds to the pandemonium of sounds that fills the shattered air. This is not the sort of resistance that can be brushed aside. Those shells are fired by the dreaded 88 millimetres
and guns of even heavier calibre. B Squadron has bumped right into the middle of the enemy’s main gun line
It is neck or nothing now. That gun line must be smashed at all costs. The forward Troop Leader has also summed up the situation and has slewed his troop to the left. The Squadron Leader quickens the pace of his own tank and takes the lead in the old fashioned cavalry style. His mind is made up. There is only one way to deal with this situation. He gives the order— Charge.’
He should, of course, have used the expression "Over-run". He is now commanding tanks, not horses, but the slip is natural enough, although there is a deal of difference between a cavalry charge and its mechanical counterpart. The former is full of romantic associations and a man can do great deeds when his blood is up in good company with a stout horse between his knees. But, normally, there is little romance about a mechanised operation. These men are cooped up in steel prisons which are packed tight with high explosives. Each tank carries enough petrol to burn down a house and the air is thick with missiles. Nostrils are filled with the reek of engines and fumes of oil. Throats are choked with dust. It is a cold-blooded business, this grinding into the night in a mass of metal. Everything in a tank, like everything in a battlefield, is hard, hot or harmful . . excepting human flesh! There is iron to bruise, steel to cut and fire to burn. But no romance,
Nevertheless, a dash of the old cavalry spirit infuses the men of B Squadron as the order to charge comes over the air. A Crusader has a fair turn of speed and the lust of the chase is added to their excitement, for the hunt is on. Chaos ensues, therefore, as the squadron breaks formation and races recklessly into the German gun-line. Every man is keyed up to the highest pitch and every tank is extended to its limit. Wherever a flash is seen in the sand, there lies a gun-pit, and after those flashes go the Crusaders. With all weapons blazing they thresh about and mill around, flat out in circles, to crush the Boche guns out of action. The pace is terrific. It cannot and does not last long, with both sides losing so heavily in the dust and smoke-laden din
Unbelievable things are happening if we could but see them. Already the enemy guns are badly mauled. That "nice little tank screen" is in reality very formidable. It is officially described, later on, as composed of twenty to twenty-five 88 millimetres, ”supported by a vast number of smaller guns.” Official reports are not given to exaggeration and understatement is usually one of their characteristics.
And guns are being literally over-run by tanks for the first time in history. Here, as just one example, is an impression of the sort of thing that is happening all round us.
A subaltern sees through his glasses that the crew of an ‘88 millimetre, “ upon which he has set his heart, are busily engaged in firing point blank at another B Squadron tank. So he stalks them from a flank.
The British tank is blazing back gamely but its guns are hopelessly inaccurate on the move and the shells fly wide of the gun emplacement. Its machine guns, too are giving a lot of trouble. The German 88 millimetre is also shooting wild. The subaltern holds his fire. So far he has been unobserved whilst the Germans battle with the enemy to their front. Then the Boches get a lucky hit. Flames spurt from the British tank. Its petrol is on fire. The crew leap out as the tank goes up in a bright flash of flame and is crowned with a great cloud of dove grey smoke. The German gunners rush for their machine guns, but, as they train them on the escaping British crew, the subaltern takes a hand. -This is his opportunity. He is close enough to the gun pit now to fire right down into it and he lets fly with his Besas at the Boches. There are four of them, and, for a few moments, they cling, as though magnetised, to their machine guns. Then, realising that they can’t possibly get back to their big gun, they flee in an access of terror. The Crusader races after them, its zipping bullets claiming first one and then another. The remaining two fling themselves on the ground and clutch cravenly at the sand. But their fate is seated. The charging metal passes over them as the huge tank slews round and makes once more towards the now deserted gun.
Up till now this Crusader has been charging blind at German gun-pits, but this 88 millimetre is dug in eight feet deep. It is a formidable obstacle. So as the tank approaches the edge it checks and hesitates, as though measuring its distance. Then it advances more gingerly. Its nose hangs for a moment over the side of the emplacement—reaching towards the great breech of the German anti-tank gun. A few more inches. As it dips, it thud-jangles upon the “ 88 millimetre. The engine races slightly. Metal grinds on metal. The stout steel from Krupp’s crumples like cardboard beneath the massive weight of the British tank. Slowly, slowly . . with great effort the tank struggles astride the wrecked gun. It grunts furiously and seems to look up towards the further side of the gun-pit. Then it gropes for a way out. It gets a purchase on the lip. Again it roars and snorts and makes a fearful noise. The earth gives. Cascades of dust fall into the pit. Gradually the tracks get a grip and the great beast seems to scramble up the side. Now it is out, a crumpled mass of steel behind it, where once was a deadly gun. The Crusader appears to shake itself after this encounter as though looking round with a snort. What’s the next job? It moves on once more towards the centre of the battle.
Meanwhile the Squadron Leader has lost control. It is every man for himself now, but he is worried about the petrol supply. His tanks have been running for fully twelve hours and they can’t have much fuel left. They won’t be able to keep this sort of thing up much longer. The Besas, too, are giving trouble. They keep jamming and, in the midst of all this hell, men have to keep getting out of the tanks and freeing them with ram-rods. This, and a thousand other dangers, add to the critical nature of the battle....
My father's tank brewed up and he had to cut his driver's arm off to get the driver out. He stayed to look after the wounded man rather than return to the British lines, sheltering beside the burning tank until he was picked up by the Germans to become a POW for the rest of the war. The driver and him met again at the 50th Anniversary Dinner in 1992.