Random bullet strikes down General Horrocks

A Sherman tank leaves a landing craft during an exercise on the North African coast, 6 June 1943.

A Sherman tank leaves a landing craft during an exercise on the North African coast, 6 June 1943.

A Bren gunner and rifleman take up defensive positions on the beach during combined operations training in the Gulf of Aqaba, 22 June 1943.

A Bren gunner and rifleman take up defensive positions on the beach during combined operations training in the Gulf of Aqaba, 22 June 1943.

The fighting was over in Tunisia and attention had quickly switched to the next move, the invasion of Sicily and then on into Italy itself. The most experienced troops and commanders that had been involved in the North African campaign had no experience of an amphibious assault. Even those that had been involved in Operation Torch had not faced sustained opposition on the beaches.

General Brian Horrocks was closely engaged in these preparations. He was one of the rising stars of the British Army, having led an audacious nighttime break through of the German lines in March, which had found him favour with Montgomery.

One new weapon about to be tested was an American smoke screen, which it was hoped would conceal the landing of troops. Hoorocks was to watch one of the first times it had been deployed on an exercise:

At the beginning of June I went to Bizerta to watch the 46th Infantry Division carry out a full-scale rehearsal of its assault on the Salerno beaches. While talking to the divisional commander in his headquarters I heard the air-raid warning sound.

Here was obviously a golden opportunity to see whether this U.S. smoke-screen was really effective or not, so we all went out into the street and watched it rolling steadily over the town. Suddenly out of the smoke emerged a low—flying German fighter with all guns blazing away into the blue — with no particular target at all.

A sledgehammer hit me in the stomach. I lost control of my legs and collapsed on to the ground, but even then I don’t think I realised that I had been hit. I discovered afterwards that the bullet entered the top of my chest — I must have been leaning forward at the time — and then, starting with my lungs it pierced almost every organ in my stomach and intestines, emerging at the bottom of my spine.

It was pure bad luck; no one else in the party was even scratched. Here was further proof of that old military adage “If your name is on a shell or bullet, there’s nothing in the world that you can do about it—-it will get you in the end.”

I retain only two memories of the next twenty-four hours. The first was when I was lying on the floor of divisional headquarters with a group of people standing round. Recognising the face of the divisional A.D.M.S. – the chief doctor – I asked him if I would be well enough to take the Corps to Salerno. He shook his head. Luckily for my peace of mind it never entered my head that at this time he thought I was going to die.

Some hours later I became aware of a strange face bending over me and an American voice saying delightedly: “General, you are not going to die. I didn’t think it was possible until I operated – but you are not” – and he kept on repeating “not” — “going to die.”

This turned out to be Colonel Carter, the head surgeon of an American field hospital on the outskirts of Bizerta to which I had been taken. I came to know Carter very well during the ensuing weeks and no man could have done more to save my life. He was one of the leading surgeons in Dallas, Texas, from where the whole hospital came.

I developed a great affection for these cheerful Texans who were so friendly to the “Limey” general who had suddenly appeared in their midst. There was no doubt in their minds, nor in mine after a few weeks of their company, about which was the best State in the U.S.A. and who was really fighting this war – Texas and the Texans.

Apparently the outside world also believed that my number was up, as the troops say, but luckily this never entered the heads of the two people most concerned, Colonel Carter and myself.

See Sir Brian Horrocks: A Full Life

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the old Roman amphitheatre at Carthage, Tunisia, with Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson after addressing British troops on 1 June 1943.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the old Roman amphitheatre at Carthage, Tunisia, with Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson after addressing British troops on 1 June 1943.

A Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane Mark IV fighter-bomber, equipped for anti-tank and ground attack roles, parked on an unidentified airfield, June 1943. The Hurricane Mark IVs utilised the Rolls Royce Merlin 20, 22 or 27 engine.

A Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane Mark IV fighter-bomber, equipped for anti-tank and ground attack roles, parked on an unidentified airfield, June 1943. The Hurricane Mark IVs utilised the Rolls Royce Merlin 20, 22 or 27 engine.

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