On the third day of the battle Henry Ritchie’s guns were amongst those able to move forward through gaps created in the minefields. It was hoped that this breakthrough would be the point at which British forces would be able to form up in strength and carry the attack forward. Getting through the minefields was just the first of the problems however as the mass of different units still found themselves under attack and the hoped for breakout took longer to materialise than they expected. They were to remain in this situation for the next few days. He describes the situation his troop of artillery encountered:
The whole area of the bridgehead was jam-packed with lorries, tanks and guns. It resembled a badly organised lorry and ordnance park. The congestion was horrendous. Our two troops of guns were only twenty yards apart and there must have been fifty guns within an area the size of a twenty acre field. It was any man’s country and it seemed as if every gun in the desert was in the bridgehead.
There was the continuous shrill clamour of the German Batteries, creating flurries of shells flinging up jagged spurts of sand and flame and tearing holes in the crust of the earth and plucking off our men.
Two Batteries of long nosed medium guns were adding to the intensity of thunderous discharges and another Twenty five pounder Regiment was close by on our left. We were in the eye of the storm.
Lorries were only ten feet apart and it seemed that ten well placed bombs could wipe out the whole Regiment. Sporadic whirlwind ‘dust devils’ gusted and raged as they spun through the lines of the clashing armies.
The area was littered with dead and wounded men. Headless and limbless bodies lay between our lorries. A man was screaming in the gun smoke, he may have been wounded or perhaps he was suffering from fatigue and nervous exhaustion, submerged in currents of chilling fear.
Our blood was up and for a solid hour our guns tore and rent at the enemy positions. We knew that our bridgehead must be the prime target for the enemy on the whole of the Alamein line.
We were not yet dug in, there were no slit trenches and we were set in the middle of the most juicy target since the rising of the curtain on the desert war. More than anything, we feared a dive bombing attack while we were so vulnerable and without the protection of slit trenches.
Another illustration of the necessity of holding on to what had been gained in the battle comes from from another VC citation:
For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on the 27th October, 1942, in the Western Desert.
Lieutenant-Colonel Turner led a Battalion of the Rifle Brigade at night for 4,000 yards through difficult country to their objective, where 40 German prisoners were captured. He then organised the captured position for all-round defence; in this position he and his Battalion were continuously attacked from 5.30a.m. to 7 p.m, unsupported and so isolated that replenishment of ammunition was impossible owing to the concentration and accuracy of the enemy fire.
During this time the Battalion was attacked by not less than 90 German tanks which advanced in successive waves. All of these were repulsed with a loss to the enemy of 35 tanks which were in flames, and not less than 20 more which had been immobilised.
Throughout the action Lieutenant-Colonel Turner never ceased to go to each part of the front as it was threatened. Wherever the fire was heaviest, there he was to be found. In one case, finding a solitary six-pounder gun in action (the others being casualties) and manned only by another officer and a Sergeant, he acted as loader and with these two destroyed 5 enemy tanks. While doing this he was wounded in the head, but he refused all aid until the last tank was destroyed.
His personal gallantry and complete disregard of danger as he moved about encouraging his Battalion to resist to the last, resulted in the infliction of a severe defeat on the enemy tanks. He set an example of leadership and bravery which inspired his whole Battalion and which will remain an inspiration to the Brigade.
In 2016 I received the following additional information, which I am very pleased to be able to add here:
Readers might like to know that my father, MAJOR TOM BIRD DCO, MC, who commanded ‘S’ Company, 2 RB’s anti-tank comapny that destroyed Rommel’s counter-attack at SNIPE, is still with us, aged 98 this August. He still recalls the names of the riflemen in his company so if you want to check whether your realtion was with him please ask me. He still sees Gen. Tom Pearson but all other RB veterans are now dead. Vic Turner’s VC was very much an award for the whole of 2RB which had rather saved Monty’s bacon, the Alamein battle having gone wrong thus far. Vic of course was wounded at the height of the action, my father later in the day; he struggled on but passed out later.
Vic’s late elder brother was a VC as well, and his younger brother won a DSO in WW2. The latter was known jokingly in Norfolk where they lived with their sister as ‘The Coward’, for ‘only’ winning a DSO. Tom Bird’s men thought he too should have got a VC (but they were biased) not least for this one moment of bravado – at around 11.30 am – that stopped the RB position being overun (described by RL Crimp in his ‘Diary of a Desert Rat’):
‘Several guns are now completely out of ammo. The situation’s so bad that two officers of ‘S’ Company [Bird and Bird’s platoon commander and friend Lieut. Jack Toms] try to effect a re-distribution of what remains by jeep. They travel slowly over the dunes (four-wheeled drive carrying them on), quite heedless of the M/G bullets slashing the air around them and panzers potting straight at them, collecting odd rounds from knocked-out guns or the guns of knocked-out crews, and taking them to guns that can still strike back. One bullet amongst the ammo on board and the lot would go sky-high.’
After Alamein my father became successivley ADC to FMs Auchinleck, Wavell and ‘Jumbo’ Wilson. He went back to his reigment in time for Arnhem but was blown up by a mortar and his fighting ended. He had seen three years contimuous action in the desert. After the war he became a distinguished architect. Nicky Bird