El Alamein – the Eighth Army launches ‘Supercharge’

Posed photograph of infantry sheltering from ‘enemy shellfire’ beside a knocked-out German PzKpfw III tank, 2 November 1942.

The remains of a knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank, blown up by sappers to prevent it being recovered by the enemy, 2 November 1942.

The Alamein battlefield was hotting up again as Montgomery launched Operation Supercharge – the new attack designed to make the final breakthrough. Henry Ritchie’s Artillery troop had moved up to new positions in the last two days but they were still under regular shellfire in the bridgehead area. When they were not shooting they spent most of their time in their slit trenches. He describes the situation on the battlefield at this time:

The whole area had become a cemetery of blazing tanks, corpses and wrecked anti-tank guns. In nearly two years of warfare I had never seen so much smoking wreckage littering the battlefield. Vehicles were mangled and twisted, water bottles, tin helmets and rifles were lying everywhere intermingled with the hastily dug graves of the unknown dead.

On the 2nd November 1942 they prepared for another early morning shoot. Ritchie had been in the field for two years and on the El Alamein battlefield for nine days, most of which had been spent under intermittent shell fire:

We had some biscuit burgoo and two spoonfuls of chopped up Canadian tinned bacon for breakfast which we ate quickly with a spoon as there was a barrage due to be put over at 07.45 hrs.

A couple of Messerschmits had dropped a few bombs behind us and about a dozen Sherman tanks, rolling on chattering tracks had just made their noisy and dusty way through our guns to support the attack. There was a certain roused air of confidence as it was predicted that this could be the day of the break out from the bridgehead. A few shells in the ritual of the dawn chorus were coming our way canvassing for death, but nothing much to worry about.

At half past seven everything was ready and the Troop stood to its guns. The first salvos went over, dead on time at a quarter to eight. Some enemy artillery began to take a bit of interest in us, just as they had done scores of times before. Just a few plusses and a minus.

I was standing at the trail of the gun and we were about half way through the shoot when there was a loud rushing, explosion and a searing blast of heat. In a blurred second of lightening fast reaction I put up my hands and arms to protect my eyes, when I felt as if I had been hit on my right arm and my right leg with a fourteen pound hammer. The next thing I knew was that I was on the ground and my mouth was full of sand and dirt. I tried to get up but couldn`t.

He was tended to by his colleagues and fortunate to be in a position where a Medical Officer was within reach.

El Alamein 1942: Wounded British soldiers wait on stretchers for attention at an Advanced Dressing Station. A Royal Army Medical Corps officer gives a drink to one of the wounded.

I suddenly became aware of a searing pain in my leg and, when I tried to move my arm, it hurt like the devil. Things became very thick and hazy and I felt locked in a spinning, blinding light. I vaguely remembered the M.O. arriving and filling a syringe. I felt a slight prick in my arm then I sank into a pool of blackness. When I woke up I was lying in a soft warm bed in the 6th General Hospital in Alexandria.

This was the end of Henry Ritchie’s time at the front line. After recovery he became a gunnery instructor in England for the remainder of the war. This episode also marks the end of his vivid memoir. See Henry R. Ritchie: The Fusing Of The Ploughshare, the Story of a Yeoman at War..

Close-up of the turret of a knocked-out Churchill III tank of ‘Kingforce’, 2 November 1942. The hole made by an 88mm shell which penetrated the turret front can be clearly seen.

A Priest 105mm self-propelled gun of 1st Armoured Division is prepared for action, 2 November 1942.

Matilda Scorpion flail tanks, 2 November 1942.

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