El Alamein – collecting up the prisoners

Lt General Bernard Montgomery, GOC 8th Army, standing in front of his personal Grant tank, 5 November 1942. He had commanded the first major victory against the Germans and was about to become world famous.

El Alamein 1942: Some of the first prisoners to be brought in from the battle. They include Germans of the 90th Light Division and Italians captured by Australians and the Highland Division respectively.

Myles Hildyard had been his Divisional intelligence officer for the greater part of the battle of El Alamein. As a German speaker he found himself caught up in organising the mass of prisoners that fell into British hands as the breakout got under way.

His letters give an insight into the attitude of mind of someone who was not just in the ‘officer class’ but very much part of the aristocratic landed gentry – when he sees the Prime Minister in Egypt he refers to him not as ‘Churchill’ but as ‘Randolph’s father’.

We had no sooner got rid of the 1,500 prisoners than we had 1,500 more.

Among them was a squadron leader in the Italian Armoured Division Ariete who was delighted to help and I spent all yesterday with him. Among other things we collected 15 Italian drivers and went down to a cove by the sea where we found hundreds of big diesel lorries.

I gave them an hour to find a lorry each and bring it to me and they ran off in the best of spirits. Almost immediately however there were despairing cries and I found that they were all being arrested by English patrols. I spent my time rushing round freeing them, but got my 15 lorries in the end and drove them back to the prisoner-of-war camp.

We were a fine sight going down the road, headed by myself and Carlucci in my jeep, then 15 enormous lorries all driven by Italians in uniform, and one full of German prisoners we picked up, and no guard at all! The lorries were full of arms and ammunition, they could easily have shot me, I’m sure it never occurred to them.

Last night we had 22,000 prisoners. This morning we moved a bit and then halted by the sea. It would be wonderful, only unfortunately both yesterday and today there have been torrents of rain and clouds all day.

Even here we have had prisoners who have walked along the shore and one lot who had got off in a boat and been swamped. I gave the officer, a very nice boy, my clothes to wear while his dried, he had been all night out on the dunes in soaking clothes and was chattering. I also gave him Homer’s Odyssey in German which seemed suitable and he gave me his parole for the day so I kept him by me instead of under guard.

He had the Iron Cross first class from France. This afternoon we had bullets whistling past and some of us rushed out to look for snipers, but all we found was two signallers shooting at a bottle, now under close arrest.

My German is improving very much with use. The other good thing is that, very much to my surprise, I find I am not frightened, or not much. lt is obviously almost all a matter of getting used to noise. I hope we really have won.

Myles Hildyard: It Is Bliss Here: Letters Home 1939-45

Sherman tanks of ‘C’ Squadron, 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, 2nd Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, 5 November 1942.

Artillery firing at night during the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, 5 November 1942.

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