The Eighth Army prepares for battle

An infantry patrol setting out into no-man’s land in the Western Desert, 8 October 1942.

A soldier watches an approaching sandstorm from beside his jeep, October 1942.

All Commanders, from General down to junior leaders and all soldiers in the ranks, must possess determination, enthusiasm and stout hearts. In the end it is the initiative and fighting spirit of the junior leaders and the soldiers in the ranks, that wins the battle.

General Montgomery, Eighth Army Training Order, September 10th, 1942.

Men of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders firing rifles and a Bren gun during desert training, 3 October 1942.

In North Africa the British Eighth Army commander, Bernard Montgomery, was preparing for battle. He was determined to do so at the time of his choosing. He was also determined that all troops would be fully prepared for the offensive that was coming. This meant training not only for the fresh troops arriving in Egypt who needed to be acclimatised, but also preparing experienced troops for the business of penetrating the German minefields.

Montgomery was intent upon punching through the German and Italian lines that faced the British forces at El Alamein, although a considerable deception plan was in place to suggest that he might make a move around them. There were huge minefields, both British and German, separating the two armies. Clearing sufficient lanes to enable both infantry, tanks and artillery to get through them while maintaining some semblance of formation required careful planning and preparation.

Henry Ritchie was an old desert hand. After the success at Alam Halfa he was part of a re-invigorated army:

Towards the second half of October everything was being prepared for battle. The Regiment was ordered out of the line for a few days to mark out the course and run through the card that we should have to play in Montgomery’s hand.

For three consecutive nights the Regiment rehearsed finding its way through our own minefields and those of the enemy. During these long, carefully planned exercises the guns and vehicles were guided through narrow lanes marked with white tape and lit by storm lanterns burning inside masked, empty four gallon petrol cans. There were three main channels through the minefield and they were named ‘Boat’, ‘Bottle’ and ‘Hat’. Each petrol can had the symbol ofthe particular lane cut out of the tin and the lighted shape shone through towards us.

The Regiment was attached as artillery support to the l0th Armoured Division, which had a core of experienced, battle hardened, desert worthy fighting men. From the realistic rehearsals it was easy to work out that our role in the forthcoming battle would be to pass through our own minefields and those of the enemy with our guns as soon as a lane had been cleared and a bridgehead established. From the bridgehead we should lay more barrages for the army breakout to the west.

We were almost under a mystic spell and our minds were afloat as, over the next few days, we waited and watched as new squadrons of tanks, battalions of Infantry and more and more guns moved into position around us.

See Henry R. Ritchie: The Fusing Of The Ploughshare, the Story of a Yeoman at War..

A soldier of 50th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, shaving besides his Valentine tank, 10 October 1942. A photograph of his wife and new baby is propped up alongside.

A jeep and Sherman tanks of HQ 2nd Armoured Brigade, 10 October 1942. “The white line on the tank was being used as a guideline by the Camouflage Unit who were called away before completing the painting of the Brigade’s tanks.”

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