F W Arbon was with the Scots Guards in the desert south of the El Alamein position. They were patrolling the Qattara Depression, the lifeless salt plains below sea level where temperatures reached 130 degrees. The soft ground meant that only light vehicles could cross it. It was effective as a barrier against the Panzers outflanking the main El Alamein defence lines but the danger of German infiltration had to be guarded against.
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.’
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.
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!’
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.”
Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.