Taken prisoner out in the Desert

25-pdr field guns in action in the Western Desert, 22 March 1942.

When the wireless and the Press state that "our Light Columns harrassed the enemy flank", they are often referring to Indian patrols, which cover many hundreds of miles during their sorties. A day's activities during an Indian desert patrol. Picture shows:- The guns are cleaned and belts filled for another "show".

On the 9th June forty-six year old Brigadier Claude Vallentin had been out in the desert in his staff car reconnoitring Artillery positions. The situation in the desert at times was very confused, with no clear front line between the two armies. After a narrow exchange with a German tank he met up with a group of British soldiers who had become detached from their unit. After forming them up into columns he was now attempting to march them back to the British lines, as night fell:

We had not gone far before a carrier, closely followed by a fifteen hundredweight, came towards us. ’That’s all right’ I said to the D.C.L.I. [Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry] captain, ‘a patrol to check who we are’. They approached us at about fifteen miles per hour, the carrier with the familiar rocking motion fore and aft. When they were about a hundred yards away I shouted ’Halt, friend’ They did not halt but put on pace.

The carrier swung to my right, the fifteen hundredweight to my left, and then halted forty yards away. The ‘carrier’ was a German half-track with a machine gun in it pointing at us: the fifteen hundredweight was a British vehicle but with a machine gum mounted in front with two visored caps manning it; and previously concealed close behind the fifteen hundredweight was one of those German semi-armoured tracked vehicles with the silhouette of a tank, and mounting a forty-seven millirnetre gun which seemed to be pointing straight at my stomach.

As I realised this in a split second, a German non-commissioned officer with a tommy gun jumped out of the half-track shouting ‘Hands up’. ‘B-, they’re Bosch’ I said, and – there was not much time to think – ’it’s no good, pack in’.

It was a neat bit of work just as dark was falling, and, in the state most of us were in I honestly do not think that an attempt at fighting would have been any use. My first reaction was one of intense anger, my next – immediately afterwards – to turn round, tear off my rank badges and medal ribbons, and drop them with my field glasses and revolver in a hole I scuffled in the sand with my foot.

Remembering Frank Messervy’s experience on the 27th May [General Messervy had been taken prisoner but escaped after pretending to be a private soldier] I felt certain that provided I could conceal the fact that I was an officer – my cap was still in the car – I would get a chance of escaping that night.

Soon shouting and gestures from the German non-commissioned officer made us collect in a bunch to our right, and while doing so, I was able to whisper to one or two of our men, who started to commiserate with such remarks as ‘Bad luck, Sir ‘, not to call me Sir or to let on that I was an officer, and to remind them that Name, Rank, Number was all they should say.

We were then filed past a German who carried out a superficial examination of pay books by the light of an electric torch. This rather worried me, as of course I had not got a pay book, however I pulled my identity disc out of the front of my bush shirt and held it towards him. He glanced at it, and after peering into my face remarked ‘Ah – old manl’ I grunted and passed on, feeling that though I might have a few grey hairs and had not shaved that morning his remark was unnecessary to say the least of it. We then moved off in three’s at a fairly rapid walk …

See TNA WO 217/30 Private Diary of Brig. C.M. Vallentin, C.R.A. 5 Ind. Div.

Vallentin was to endure a very cold night sharing an overcoat with another man. Unfortunately despite concealing his true identity for some time he was not able to make good his escape.

Polish engineers of the Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade laying mines in the desert.

A British convoy going up to the forward areas in the Western Desert, 12 February 1942.

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