James Ambrose Brown had left the front line in August when he fell ill and had spent time in Cairo and Alexandria convalescing. He was recalled to his South African unit and welcomed back on the 18th October with the words ‘You’re just in time for the bloodbath’. His diary, written just after the El Alamein battle, contains graphic descriptions of each day in the battle showing that this was an accurate prediction.
On the night of 27th-28th the his South Africans went forward to relieve a New Zealand unit which had suffered heavy losses. They occupied their positions in darkness and did not know what confronted them until daylight came:
I went to sleep in a shallow depression last night and woke this morning to find an agitated body on top of me. Shells were skimming just over the hollow. I was afraid to put my head up in case I lost it. The agitated stranger had the same idea.
In the morning light I saw that we were on the rear slope of a low ridge. On top of the ridge, stark in the grey light, stood two smashed and burnt-out Grants. Just over the crest stood a melancholy assembly of trackless armour, broken carriers and derelict trucks.
It looked like a mechanical graveyard. Near where I had slept was a trackless Bren carrier. It had gone over a mine. I looked inside. The driver’s legs, complete with stockings and desert boots were on the pedals. Hastily buried and partly covered dead lay nearby.
German machine-gunners in advanced positions raked our lines kicking up the dust. Shells plumped constantly on the ridge, throwing up fountains of sooty smoke and broken rock. Yet just behind I could already see cooking fires of gunners brewing up. I felt all the hollow-legged sensations of fear while I laid a telephone wire from the mortar and established an observation post in one of the derelict tanks.
From the observation hatch that gave a view from the sooty, twisted interior I watched the enemy lines. Men were clearly visible walking about and trucks came and went over the distant ridge. Frequently the men disappeared, and this was immediately followed by shellbursts where they had stood.
The tank was filled with a thousand buzzing flies and smelt vaguely of death. Occasionally a shot pinged against the armour. My peace of mind was not helped by a tactless signaller who informed me, between grips for breath after running and dodging, that a shell had come through the forward observation port of the tank the day before.
Our mortars did bloody execution this morning. Direct hits were obtained on artillery pieces placed with incredible courage or foolhardiness on the forward slopes of the enemy ridge. When I saw the enemy carrying away their wounded, I felt nauseated.
I have not much stomach for killing after the night of the twenty-third. Analysing this feeling of nausea, I know it is rooted in fear. I am afraid of being reduced to the same bloody shambles as the enemy who comes under our fire.
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).