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The last 24 hours before battle

A driver in the Royal Army Service Corps writes home to his mother from a slit trench in the Western Desert, 24 October 1942.
A Crusader tank with its ‘sunshield’ lorry camouflage erected, 26 October 1942.

As Montgomery waited to launch his attack at El Alamein the army was was discreetly brought forward to sit at the start line. Tanks were camouflaged as lorries. In some cases lorries had been parked in place in the desert for days, these were gradually exchanged for tanks under camouflage and the tank tracks were brushed over. Nothing would betray the huge build of forces to aerial observation.

Harold H Moon describes the measures taken to conceal the infantry during the last 24 hours before battle:

Over two months had passed now since we had arrived in Egypt, for it was now October, 22 and I was congratulating myself on the finest camping site so far, when we were moved to the coast with its refreshing sea breeze. That day, however, came the announcement that we all knew had to come, but which we had all been dreading. The whole battalion was put on parade, and before we were actually told, I knew what was to happen. The big attack was about to come off. I was right, our C.O., Colonel Roper-Caldbeck, gave us the news.

“Tomorrow night, October, 23, we go into action against the Afrika Korps.”

He painted a rosy picture to us, of how superior in tanks, aircraft and men we were, and how Rommel was believed to be short of petrol. We had a new Commander, a General Montgomery, who had been put in charge of the Eight Army, with General Alexander in command of all the armed forces in the desert. These two men were confident of victory, our C.O., said, and that was half the battle won. However, we were as inexperienced as Spitfire pilots in submarines. Ninety per cent of us had never been in action before.

The whole battalion was to enter the front line, the same part in which we had already had an uneventful stay, and the move was to take place under the cover of darkness. There we were to stay until the next evening, the 23rd, when Monty’s big offensive was to be launched.

Thus that evening found us in main defences, which before then, had been manned by one brigade. Shortly after midnight that sector of the front line contained our entire division. The enemy, however, did not know that. What was more, he was not to get to know, because every precaution had been taken to keep our presence a secret. Extra slit trenched had been dug for us and we were ordered to get into them, two men to each hole.

As another soldier and myself made our way to the dug-out detailed to us, I observed that each trench was covered with a sheet of corrugated iron, that had been camouflaged to look like the rest of the desert by sand having been strewn on it.

We jumped down in our hole and pulled the corrugated iron along over our heads. We had been told to stick down our holes for the next twenty hours and under no circumstances to show ourselves. This was in case enemy aircraft should come over in daylight on a reconnaissance flight and take picture that would reveal the fact that a whole division was now in a sector that normally contained only one brigade. Such information would give the game away, and Rommel would immediately realise that an attack was impending.

It was with a feeling of uncertainty, something like waiting in a dentist’s chair for one’s first tooth to be pulled, wondering if it would be as sore as most people said, that I said goodbye to the moon, stars and sky. As I sat there in the darkness, questions kept popping into my mind, which by brain answered in every ugly manner, as I though of the morrow. I couldn’t speak to my trench-mate as my mind was so full of disquieting thoughts. Sleep at last lent a soothing hand, and my fears of the morrow were bludgeoned by fatigue.

I awakened next morning, cramped and sore, to find, seeping through the little spaces where the corrugated iron did not meet flush with the sand, faint rays of light. Dawn was breaking. In a few hours the vicious heat would start and the agony of our confinement would really begin. We had our meals with us — in tins. Cold bacon, bully beef and biscuits were on the menu, and these things had to satisfy us until darkness fell. We were then to get a hot meal before going into action.

So the hours slowly passed, each one bringing nearer something, that I did not actually fear, but something that made me nervous and jumpy. I hoped I’d be all right during the battle, not from the injury point of view, but that I wouldn’t prove myself a coward.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

A 6-pdr anti-tank gun semi-armoured portee, camouflaged to look like an ordinary lorry, 27 October 1942.
Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard, with Lieutenant General Montgomery on a visit to the Western Desert, 20 October 1942.
Vertical aerial photograph showing Tobruk, Libya, illuminated by a photoflash bomb during a night raid by Vickers Wellingtons of No, 205 Group RAF. Between 7 September and 23 October 1942 the RAF dropped nearly 1,000 tons of bombs on Tobruk and shipping in its harbour.

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