El Alamein – the chase is on

von Thoma, Commander of the famed Afrika Corps, surrenders to Montgomery

General von Thoma, Commander of the famed Afrika Corps, surrenders to Montgomery at 8th Army TAC HQ. The victory at Alamein marked the turning point in Allied fortunes in the Second World War. He was taken prisoner by Captain Allen Grant Singer of the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’s Own) on 4th November. That evening, von Thoma dined with General Montgomery at his headquarters to discuss the battle. B.H. Liddell Hart later recorded Thoma’s reaction to Montgomery’s revelations over dinner: “I was staggered at the exactness of his knowledge… He seemed to know as much about our position as I did myself.”

crusader tank at speed

A Crusader II tank of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, 2nd Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, moving at speed, 5 November 1942.

tank near miss in desert

Battle Of Egypt: Thrill For British Tank Crew. Picture Shows: A near miss raises a column of sand near a British heavy tank, during the Eighth Army’s victorious advance.

Keith Douglas was now in the stream of British Armour breaking out from the bridgehead. His group of Crusader tanks were flying along at 30mph, flinging up huge clouds of dust and overrunning small groups of enemy all the time.

He found himself at the head of the whole 8th Army for a brief period of time, engaging enemy tanks at long distance – tanks which quickly turned tail. It was while he was stopped refuelling that he missed out on the brief ‘Battle of Galal station’ in which the remainder of his Squadron overcame a number of Italian tanks.

It was here that he went looting and he was soon kitted out in brand new German clothing – ‘everything apart from boots and socks’. He already had a Luger and a Beretta so went looking in the Italian tanks for a Beretta for a friend of his who had been wounded and evacuated:

I approached a brand-new-painted MI3, with no sign of any damage, from which the crew had apparently fled at the sight of their comrades’ discomfiture.

There was a promising cask and a sack on the outside of the tank, which we opened. But the cask only contained water, and the sack nothing but little round tins with a smelly Italian kind of bully beef in them.

So I climbed on to the turret – the small side doors which stood open on most of the other tanks were closed. I prepared to lower myself through he top. It was dark in the turret, and I leant over the manhole first, trying to accustom my eyes to the darkness and to see if there were any Birettas on the side shelves inside. A faint sweet smell came up to me which reminded me of the dead horse I once saw cut up for our instruction at the Equitation School.

Gradually the objects in the turret became visible: the crew of the tank – for, I believe, these tanks did not hold more than two – were, so to speak, distributed round the turret. At first it was diflicult to work out how the limbs were arranged. They lay in a clumsy embrace, their white faces whiter, as those of dead men in the desert always were, for the light powdering of dust on them.

One with a six-inch hole in his head, the whole skull smashed in behind the remains of an ear – the other covered with his own and his friend’s blood, held up by the blue steel mechanism of a machine-gun, his legs twisting among the dully gleaming gear levers. About them clung that impenetrable silence I have mentioned before, by which I think the dead compel our reverence.

I got a Biretta from another tank on the other side of the railway line.

Others had rather better luck in their searches:

In the evening we closed into night leaguer, facing westwards again. Tom was in high spirits; he and Ken Tinker had found an Italian hospital, and their tanks were loaded inside and out with crates of cherries, Macedonian cigarettes, cigars and wine; some straw-jacketed Italian Chianti wine, some champagne, and a bottle or two of brandy, even some Liebfraumilch.

We shared out the plunder with the immemorial glee of conquerors, and beneath

the old star-eaten blanket of the sky

lay down to dream of victory.

See Keith Douglas: Alamein to Zem Zem

An enemy tank disabled and burnt out during the advance.

Crusader tanks of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, 2nd Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, moving at speed across the desert, 5 November 1942.

Handley Page Halifax B Mark IIs of No. 462 Squadron RAAF parked on the perimeter track at Fayid, Egypt, before a night sortie against enemy columns retreating after the Battle of El Alamein.

Keith Douglas, poet and author of the classic memoir Alamein to Zem Zem.

Keith Douglas, poet and author of the memoir Alamein to Zem Zem.

For the British the Battle of el Alamein was a great and significant victory. As Winston Churchill wrote after the war “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”. The Second World War, Volume IV : The Hinge of Fate.

Keith Douglas is now celebrated as one of the finest poets of World War II – for more on his poetry see Tim Kendall’s War Poetry blog. In addition to his poems and letters Douglas wrote just this one slim volume of prose. It must rank as one of the most telling personal memoirs of a battle in the English language.

Douglas disobeyed orders in order to join his regiment at the front line a few days after the battle had begun. He was welcomed back because there had already been so many casualties amongst his fellow officers. He writes vividly of the experience of battle as a tank commander during the battle of el Alamein and the following pursuit of Rommel’s forces all the way to Zem Zem.

Highly charged, violent descriptive prose … conveys the humour, the pathos and the literal beauty of that dead world of tanks, sand, scrub and human corpses … Comparable in descriptive power and intelligence to the books of Remarque, Sassoon and Blunden which spoke in similar terms of 1914-1918.

Spectator Magazine


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Sam Deighton December 5, 2017 at 8:30 pm

My grandfather served at El Alamein as commander of a Crusader Mk III Cruiser tank. His crew had a saying, “If it looks like a rock, moves like a rock, and sounds like a rock, shoot it–it’s probably a German.” His tank somehow survived most of the second battle of El Alamein, despite being up with the Grants, but took a hit from a Panzer IV that crippled the engine and knocked out the 6-pdr’s breech and they had to bail out.

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