South African dawn patrol snatches prisoners

A Grant tank in the Western Desert, 17 February 1942.

In North Africa the line between Rommels Afrika Korps and British forces had consolidated along the Gazala Line. It was a period of re-equipping and re-building in anticipation of a big push to be made within the next few months. The new American Grant tanks were now arriving along with fresh troops that had made the long journey around Africa and up the Suez canal.

For the infantry aggressive patrolling out in No Mans land was expected. Orders from Maj-Gen George Brink of the 1st South African Division were to ‘look for the enemy day and night and hit him wherever we can’. James Brown’s diary for the 24th February describes what that meant in practice:

What a filthy day. I woke to see a pall of flying sand hanging over the sea and the whole atmosphere grey and forbidding. As the wind freshened the pall above us darkened. The wind was oppressively hot.

Mike Webb turned up after all this time. As usual he gets his rumours at high level. He tells us that Rommel captured so much petrol that, with the lst Armoured Division’s losses, he was able to isolate Benghazi and push on till he hit us here the brass expect him to take it easy for a while. ‘We’ve got to get out there and hit them, sergeant’ Mike hissed aggressively, his eyes darting this way and that in excitement.

He had evidently heard about Barney Stilton’s patrol last night and was dying to emulate it. They were miles out, in a kind of valley. Stirton stumbled on a German position about a company strong, only a Sentry half-asleep. Barney yelled, ‘Share that with your friends’ and lobbed a grenade.

There was pandemonium. Shouts, screams the patrol’s tommy guns pouring in fire. Everywhere writhing Germans were lying in a muddle of kit, blankets and blood. Barney’s men grabbed four. Two were dressed, one was in vest and pants, the fourth was naked. The patrol hustled them rapidly over the broken ground, sounds of pursuit behind.

The German Sergeant Major urged the others to make a break for it. The patrol grabbed the man in shorts and held him – the other three did not make three paces before the tommy guns brought them down. Soon the barefoot man was crying out that his feet were cut. ‘Carry him’ said Barney.

When they threw him down he refused to get up. It was impossible to shoot him in cold blood. John Marlin took off his boots and gave them to the prisoner and walked stocking feet for nine miles, coming in after dawn through the Dukes minefield.

James Ambrose Brown wrote one of the outstanding accounts of the Desert war in his diary, Retreat to Victory: Springboks’ Diary in North Africa – Gazala to El Alamein, 1942 (South Africans at War).

An American sergeant instructor lecturing troops about the Grant tank, 17 February 1942.

The Commander in Chief, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, (farthest from the camera) and Major General Campbell, VC, standing on a Grant tank, watching as it fires at a practise target in the Western Desert, 17 February 1942.

Major General Campbell had won the V.C. on the 22th November 1941. This is one of the last pictures of him, he died on 26th February 1942 when his jeep overturned.

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