It's that time of year again when Wiltshire Yeomen remember
The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry was mobilised in 1939. The next five years were to prove a time of unparalleled change, adventure, and above all – courage – for the Regiment. Beginning as horsed cavalry, the regiment was deployed to the Middle East, serving in Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Wiltshire Yeomen found themselves tasked as both searchlight crews and lorried infantry, before converting in late 1941 to Tanks.
Special mention should be made of the part the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry played at the famous battle of El Alamein in October 1942. Under the command of the 9th Armoured Brigade, the regiment was equipped with a mixture of Sherman, Grant and Crusader tanks, and was tasked with supporting the 2nd New Zealand division in the initial assault on the German lines. Following heavy fighting, the regiment was reduced to just four serviceable tanks, and was withdrawn to reserve. Barely days later, with their tanks replaced or repaired, the Wiltshiremen were again in support of the New Zealanders as part of the final breakthrough, and during the bitter fighting that followed, the Regiment was again reduced to four serviceable tanks. In recognition of their gallant actions and the strong bonds that had been formed, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry - along with the Warwickshire Yeomanry and 3rd Hussars – was awarded the fern leaf insignia by the New Zealanders. This insignia is still displayed on the Squadron’s uniforms and vehicles today.
The opening of the battle saw four divisions (9th Australian, 51st Highland, 2nd New Zealand and 1st South African) in the assault on the north of the Axis positions. RWY was in support of 5th New Zealand Brigade (Brigadier Howard Kippenberger) and the aim was for infantry to secure the Miteiriya Ridge during darkness, with the armour to pass beyond them at first light to establish a screen. By now the regiment was equipped with a mix of M4 Sherman, Crusader and Grant (M3 Lee) tanks. On the morning of 24 October 1942, A and C squadrons were ahead of the infantry on the western slopes of the ridge. B squadron had been delayed in the Devil's gardens minefields and had lost numerous tanks. Throughout that day, A and C squadrons engaged German panzers on the plain below, and were in turn hit by anti-tank fire. Initially, the heavier Sherman tanks were not vulnerable to this, but when the German 88mm anti-tank guns joined in they took severe casualties. By midday, the two squadrons were reduced to one Sherman and three Grants and the commanding officer had been badly wounded and evacuated. The 10th Armoured Division was at this stage supposed to pass through and onwards to start the breakout, but seemed to be reluctant to do so.
At 6:00 p.m. the regiment was ordered to withdraw. It had lost almost all of its tanks and taken 42 casualties killed or wounded. In reserve, the regiment was issued with new tanks, a hasty mix of Shermans, Grants, and Crusaders (types II and III), mostly salvaged from the battlefield and rapidly repaired
On the night of 1st/2nd November 1942, the 8th Army attacked again in the north, with 2nd New Zealand Division in the lead. General Freyberg placed 151 Brigade on the right and 152 Brigade on the left. The aim was to attack directly westwards across the Rahman track, with the infantry leading the night assault and 9th Armoured Brigade (now commanded by Brigadier John Currie) again passing through to break the enemy gun line and allow X Corps to break out. The assault went to plan except that opposition on the left was heavier than expected which slowed the advance. As a result the advancing tanks were highlighted against the dawn sky in the east and began to be picked off by Axis anti-tank fire. The Regiment was in the centre of 9th Armoured Brigade, and the CO lost touch with both his artillery support and close anti-tank support. In the growing light, the B squadron commander (Major M.StJ.V.Gibbs) realised that he was in a ring of enemy anti-tank guns, ahead and to both flanks. He gave the order to 'Charge' and B squadron over-ran the anti-tank positions, losing some vehicles but destroying the enemy gun line.
Meanwhile 21st Panzer Division was counter-attacking A and C squadrons and at 4pm the Regiment (now down to four tanks) was withdrawn.
After the 9th Armoured Brigade's action, Brigadier Gentry of the 6th New Zealand Brigade went ahead to survey the scene. On seeing Brigadier Currie asleep on a stretcher, he approached him saying, 'Sorry to wake you John, but I'd like to know where your tanks are?' Currie waved his hand at a group of tanks around him, replying 'There they are.' Gentry was puzzled. 'I don't mean your headquarters tanks, I mean your armoured regiments. Where are they?' Currie waved his arm and again replied, 'There are my armoured regiments, Bill.