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Extracts of Alamein

From Chapter 25:-

The evening of October 26 saw another attempt to get Lumsden’s armour out in front of the infantry. The plan involved expanding a salient into Kidney Ridge by capturing two localities north and south of it, beyond a line now held by the 51st Highlanders at a location codenamed "Aberdeen" on the left and the Australian 9th Division, who were almost astride the coastal railway line, on the right.

The intention was to disrupt the Axis anti-tank screen and hold these two new strongpoints as "pivots of manoeuvre" for two armoured brigades. At 30 Corps headquarters some field-sports aficionado named the objectives "Woodcock" and "Snipe" and taking them was to be a task for the the infantry. It was an operation that – although relatively small scale - would prove to be crucial to the ultimate success of Montgomery’s grand plan.

The attack was to be made by the 7th Motor Brigade, which had been given plenty of the new six pounder anti-tank guns. Two veteran battalions were involved -- the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, also known as 60th Rifles, and the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade where Tom Bird, in his Hebron coat, was commanding the anti-tank company. ( The Rifle Brigade was not a brigade but a regiment. For the uninitiated the nomenclature of the British Army, until post-war contraction imposed a certain logic, was about as easy to decipher as pounds, shillings and pence or the rules of cricket.)

The assault was launched at night with artillery support by at least 30 guns, firing a half-hour barrage. Normally, mechanised infantry would dismount at least 500 yards from their objective and close in on foot. The 60th Rifles made a navigation error and found themselves among the Germans at "Woodcock" long before they thought they were close. Since it would have been suicidal to pause and dismount from their trucks and Bren gun carriers, Major Peter Blundeel in the leading vehicle told his driver to put his foot down and charge, hoping that the rest would follow. They did, and about 100 stunned German soldiers, together with six anti-tank guns, were captured, though not entirely without a fight. "It shows what can be done by surprise tactics --- especially if the surprise is equally divided between friend and foe," noted a knowing regimental history. Blundeel got a DSO.

At "Snipe," a few miles to the south, it was a very different story. The Rifle Brigade battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Turner, was having its own navigation problem: the 1st Armoured Division map they were using was found to differ by about a mile in its references from the 51st Highland Division map the artillery was firing on. Turner decided that the only solution was to follow the barrage, to "march on the backs of the falling shells," as he put it.

Victor Buller Turner was a short, stocky man with an avuncular moustache, a professional soldier from a family of professional soldiers, whose older brother had been awarded a posthumous VC at the battle of Loos in 1915. A deceptively mild-mannered bachelor, he was well liked by his young officers who tended to treat him like a respected if somewhat unworldly house master from one of the public schools they had so recently left. In 1942 it was more or less de riguer that Rifle Brigade officers should be old boys of one of the to five. Turner had been to Wellington, but in his own mess he was outnumbered by Old Etonians and Wykehamists. As officer casualties mounted, more "emergency commissions" were granted, but even then some of the more snobbish regiments tried to discriminate. Major Flatow, the North Country tank commander, was appalled to discover one Yeomanry adjutant plotting to establish a separate officers’ mess dining table for his regiment’s "temporary gentlemen."

Most of Turner’s soldiers were Londoners and conscripts, who had inevitably replaced casualties. But its character as a regular battalion was preserved by the number of pre-war professionals still serving as NCOs. These corporals and sergeants, old sweats in their late 20s speaking their own Cockney-Urdu- Arabic argot, were the battalion’s backbone. "We were like a family. We knew each other intimately," recalled Joseph Swann, the son of a West London baker who had enlisted in 1934 and by 1942 was a sergeant in charge of a troop of anti-tank guns. The battalion had been in the Middle East since before hostilities began and were battle wise. As their adjutant, Captain (later Colonel) Tim Marten would put it, "they had long experience of being under fire and getting away with it."

The battalion had spent the first three days of the battle escorting sappers into the minefields and trying to keep the lanes open and were as tired as everybody else. Most had long since learned the old soldier’s trick of catnapping whenever possible. Otherwise, they kept awake on sugary tea and adrenalin. Benzedrine was not issued to this battalion after its medical officer had conducted an experiment and decided it affected their marksmanship.

By 2 am, following the opening barrage, Turner had led his battalion about 2,000 yards from the start line to what he assumed was "Snipe" . He found a shallow, oval-shaped depression measuring about 1,000 yards by 400. It was, in fact, about half a mile from where the battalion was supposed to be and, as they were soon to discover, located between two Axis tank leaguers. "Here we are and here we damned well stay," Turner told Marten.

The edges of the depression were rarely more than three or four feet high but, fringed with scruffy tamarisk bushes and camel thorn, they provided ideal concealment for the 19 anti-tank guns and their crews that were deployed in all-round defence around the perimeter. In most cases there was no need to dig in. Approaching the position, the battalion had captured a score or so German sappers, who had put up little resistance. They too had obviously appreciated the merits of this dent in the desert, for Marten discovered a dugout near its northern perimeter in which he established battalion HQ.

It was about ten feet square, with what looked like old railway sleepers for a roof and not quite deep enough to stand upright. Once his two signallers with their radios were inside, the best place Marten could find to seat himself was on the steps. They had to watch where they put their feet. Previous tenants had used its darker corners as a latrine and even at night there were plenty of flies.

Meanwhile, some of the Bren gun carriers announced the battalion’s presence by attacking a mixed leaguer of German and Italian armour. Acting more like the leader of an armoured car squadron, their commander, Lieutenant Dick Flower, ventured about a mile west through a gap in a minefield, collecting 14 prisoners on the way, then surprised the tanks in the act of refuelling. The cavalry spirit displayed by Flower and his crews had a lot to do with their firepower which was considerably more than the regulation bren gun to be found in newly arrived divisions such as the 44th or 51st Highland. Over their two years of campaigning the riflemen had acquired an arsenal of entirely unauthorised Axis machine-guns and, best of all, the same Vickers K the SAS used which they had looted off RAF wrecks before the salvage teams could get to them. Opening fire from about 200 yards, they set one of the fuel bowsers and two others truck alight. In the ensuing firefight one of the carriers was wrecked, but Flower led the remainder back to the battalion, radioing a situation report to Marten at HQ as he did so.

Shortly afterwards Turner heard the sound of approaching panzers and against the rising moon, saw the silhouettes of about 20 tanks encircling their position. Heading the attack was one of Rommel’s Mark IV Specials with its long 75mm gun -- the latest thing in the Wehrmacht’s tank armoury. It was followed by an Italian Semovente self-propelled gun, a 75mm howitzer mounted on an M13 tank chassis, and more tanks. Whether they had blundered onto the British position or were in pursuit of Flower’s insolent band is unclear. Soon both sides were firing at the little they could see of each other.

One of the six-pounder gun commanders facing the Mark IV was Corporal Savill, a fish monger in later life. Droning and roaring through its gears the Mark IV, a monster spitting fire and apparently lacking all connection with human kind, waddled towards them. When a machine gun bullet removed most of one of Savill’s ears, leaving him too stunned to function, Rifleman Chard took over the gun.

Bird always considered Chard,who was slightly bucked teeth, to be one of the “quieter”members of his anti-tank company. He was surprised to learn later that he had a reputation for being something of a hell raiser on leave in Cairo. Now, crouched behind the shield of his gun, it looked liked Rifleman Chard might never get the opportunity to misbehave again. For a long time nothing happened, it was as if he was frozen in fear. When at last he fired the panzer was no more than thirty yards away.The monster groaned to a halt. As he reloaded, Chard became aware of some movement about the turret and at least one of its five-man crew dropped to the ground. Chard fired again. Then the Mark IV did something the diesel-fuelled German tanks (unlike the petrol driven British) rarely did. It burst into flames, lighting up the Semovente, about 200 yards away. That was also swiftly destroyed. At this point the rest of the Axis armour backed off.

At first light the battalion discovered that by an enormous fluke they had inserted themselves right into the belly of the 15th Panzer and Littorio Divisions . Sergeant Swann rubbed his eyes in disbelief. "It was like a massive car park, " he would recall. "There were vehicles all over the place. Hundreds of them. I remember a lot of them were ambulances, scooting off in all directions. We were right in his rear echelons."

Turner hardly had time to take stock of his position before his gunners started shooting. Only a small part of Bird’s company had been involved in the night fight. For most of them this was their first chance of finding out if their new six-pounders were as good as they were cracked up to be. Within a short time they had hit and disabled 14 tanks and also destroyed two self-propelled guns, several trucks, an 88mm gun and a staff car. The six-pounder was proving to be the British infantry’s best equaliser since the longbow.

Retaliation came soon in the form of heavy shelling. Men were caught in the open trying to reposition guns which in daylight were seen not to have a good field of fire, or whose recoil had dug them into soft sand. Among the casualties was Hugo Salmon, Tom Bird’s friend and second in command, who lost half of his handsome face and took several hours to die . The battalion’s medical officer had been stuck at the start line by heavy artillery fire and it was left to Rifleman Sidney Burnhope, a medical orderly, to take care of the wounded. .

Turner’s 300 riflemen were virtually cut off from the main British forces a mile to the east and in danger of being surrounded. At first, though, there seemed no great cause for alarm. They were in a natural fortress and had already inflicted considerable punishment, while relief in the form of 24 Armoured Brigade, was expected at moment. But when the 24th’s Shermans crested Kidney Ridge Turner’s battalion became victims of their own success. The armour had no more idea of the exact position of the British infantry than the riflemen had themselves. Nor were they close enough to comprehend that the largest concentration of Axis machines clustered below them were the wrecks created by Turner’s six-pounders. What they saw was a tempting target and immediately began to bombard it .

Unable to warn off the tanks because they were on different radio frequencies, Turner decided to send his intelligence officer Lieutenant Jack Wintour in a Bren gun carrier with an urgent message to stop this "friendly fire." Wintour reached the tanks intact and one squadron did cease fire. The other continued to shell the riflemen with some enthusiasm. Only because they were well dug in, and the Shermans’ ordinance was nowhere near as lethal as some of the Axis air bursts, did the battalion escape serious casualties. Eventually, the firing stopped and the British tanks began to advance onto their "pivot of manoeuvre."

At first this worked out quite well. Turner’s anti-tank guns picked off some of the panzers that had turned to face this new threat. The machine-gunners in the Shermans -- new to the desert and unburdened by notions of chivalry between opposing tank crews -- shot the survivors. But when 24 Brigade got onto Snipe itself, the high-turreted Shermans came under devastating anti-tank fire from the German 88s. Soon, seven British tanks were ablaze and as Turner’s riflemen risked their lives trying to rescue their crews it became apparent that Snipe was no place for any target that could not be concealed below its low natural parapet.

The Shermans accordingly withdrew east of Kidney Ridge, pursued by the taunts of the Germans who got onto their radio frequency and proceeded to demonstrate that they knew an alarming amount about their opponents. The 15th Panzers must have had an energetic propaganda team at divisional headquarters for Flatow’s radio began picking up a very Germanic rendering of English North Country voices, spreading alarm and despondency. "Aye," said one voice, " it’s the 45th, 41st and 47th regiments, they come from Lancashire and Yorkshire. We’d be much better off at home in our gardens with our wives...We can’t do anything against the German artillery...These 88mms are so accurate... I don’t know what we’re fighting for."

" It was all in that strain," Flatow would recall, "two soldiers talking to each other...Believe me, it was incredibly demoralising. I switched off my set so my crew couldn’t hear it -- as it was, they were rather windy."

Now Turner’s men were on their own: the "cavalry" were not coming to their rescue after all. Few isolated infantry battalions have ever been able to survive such a position. Almost certainly the Riflemen could not have done so had the Luftwaffe still been able to provide close support. But for the rest of the day, inspired by the grit of their NCOs and the unflagging leadership of Turner and Bird, the battalion took on all comers. Guns were knocked out and a couple just stopped working. Ammunition began to run low, not only the precious anti-tank shells but also .303 bullets for the rifles and Brens.

Rifleman Eddie "Muscles" Blacker, an athletic six-footer from West Ham who had lied about his age to enlist and was still two months short of his 18th birthday, was lying beneath the remains of the Mark IV that Chard had destroyed. He and his mate, another South Londoner, had crawled out to pick off enemy snipers and were getting through a lot of ammunition. Their opponents were also in among the wrecks, but because they had to shoot downwards to hit a target inside "Snipe" they were tempted to expose themselves by clambering onto tank turrets. It was a gunfight in a junk yard and Blacker, a good shot, killed with impunity. "They didn’t know where we were," he would recall. "It was ducks in a water barrel."

But by now the Axis artillery was taking a heavy toll. By midday there were only 13 of the battalion’s six-pounders left in action and the continuous churning up of soft sand by shells made it almost impossible to move them around. Officers and NCOs ran and often crawled between them, distributing ammunition. Flies swarmed in black clouds over the dead and tormented the wounded. On the western flank six of Flower’s parked Bren gun carriers were set alight, sending up columns of black smoke.

At about one o’clock nine Italian MI4/41 tanks, a refinement of the MI3 with its machine gun mounted in the hull, approached this flank supported by some Semovente self-propelled guns. The M14s were commanded by a Captain Preve and had been detached from the Littorio Division to become part of a mixed German-Italian group under a panzer colonel called Teege. Preve had chosen a good spot for his assault. Only one gun could be brought to bear on his tanks.

The commander of that gun was Sergeant Charles Vivian Calistan, an Anglo-Indian whose father had served as an NCO in India between the wars. Calistan was one of the battalion’s most popular regular NCOs. Small and nimble and an accomplished featherweight boxer, he had recently recovered from wounds received when he won a Military Medal near Bir Hacheim. Now he had been left alone on the six-pounder while two of his men tried to crawl back to him with some ammunition from a damaged gun. A third man’s nerve had gone and he was still near the gun, unwilling to leave cover or do anything else.

Turner had been touring his perimeter helping a short-handed gun crew or tending the wounded when he could, exhorting when he could not. Bird sometimes wished he could find a happier choice of words. . "Come on, you’re not dead yet,." he growled at the shaken occupants of a slit trench who had almost been buried alive by a near miss. Seeing that Calistan was in trouble, Turner ran over to him, joined by Calistan’s platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Jack Toms, a dreamy young man who loved fly fishing and had won an MC at Gazala. Battalion commanders and their subalterns did not normally man anti-tank guns, but they pitched in alongside Calistan.

Turner ordered him to hold fire until the oncoming Italian tanks were 600 yards away. Calm and cool as if on a training exercise, the sergeant knocked out six tanks, one by one. When he was down to his last three shells, Toms left cover and ran under machine gun fire to a jeep, 100 yards away, that had on board four boxes of six-pounder ammunition. He brought the jeep to within ten yards of the gun when the vehicle was hit by incoming incendiary rounds and burst into flames. "We managed to pull off the ammunition and bring it up to the gun," recalled Turner.

An Italian account of the action makes it plain that the British were "extremely well dug in and camouflaged.". Eyes level with rim of the bowl, Calistan had the advantage of seeing without being seen. All the enemy could do was shell and machine gun where he thought the gun was. Italians tanks caught fire easily, but had a disturbing habit of continuing to advance long after all aboard were dead or dying. Dominioni witnessed this phenomenon more than once. " Huge, self-propelled funeral pyres … shaken by explosions and emitting coloured flashes as the shells inside went off. "

Although six of Captain Preve’s MI4s were already stopped and some in flames the crews of the surviving three demonstrated a courage their poor equipment did not merit. They closed in, machine guns blazing while behind them the Semovente self-propelled guns tried to find the anti-tank crews with their 75mm shells. A splinter sliced through Turner’s helmet and penetrated his skull. He fell to his knees, blood pouring over his eyes and down his face. He wanted to carry on but Toms and Corporal Albert Francis persuaded him to lie down behind a camel thorn bush before they rushed back to Calistan. They found him crouched by his gun, his forehead pressed against the concertina rubber eyepiece of the six-pounder’s telescopic sight while he turned the wheels which controlled elevation and traverse. A burst of machine gun fire kicked up dust behind him but Calistan seemed unaware of it. His hand moved towards the firing lever and Toms knelt with a fresh round in his hands ready to slam it in the breech. Calistan started firing when the first MI4 was 300 yards away. He fired twice more and all three were flamers. "Hat trick!" yelled the colonel from behind his bush. In the lull that followed, Calistan put a dixie of water on the bonnet of Toms’ still smouldering jeep and brewed some tea. Turner was taken a mug . "As good a cup of tea as I’ve ever had," he always said when he re-told the story.

Officer casualties began to mount. Bird, almost inevitably, was among the next to be hit. Although the surest way to survive at Snipe was to remain in a hole in the ground as much as possible, he spent most of the morning touring the perimeter, supervising the guns. It had become a fashion among young officers, and not only in the Rifle Brigade, to disdain the uncomfortable steel helmet. Instead they wore the jaunty regimental caps known as Brodericks, preferably as far to the side of the head as possible. Bird was hit as he was lying on the ground talking to Lieutenants Toms and Flower. Toms’ right hand was mangled and he would eventually lose two fingers; Flower was hit in the legs; Bird in his unprotected head. It was not as serious a wound as Turner’s but it was bad enough. For a while Bird tried to carry on, but concussion and heat began to take their toll. Eventually, a space was found for him alongside Turner on the floor of the HQ dugout along with the signallers, their radios, Marten and the flies. Turner had by now become delirious and was under the impression he was defending a harbour against naval attack. Every now and then he would yell out, "Sink that destroyer!"

In the late afternoon they again came under friendly fire. This time it was from 2nd Armoured Brigade’s 105mm Priests, brand new American self-propelled guns which, like the Shermans, were in combat for the first time. Two of Sergeant Swann’s men were killed by one of their air bursts and it is unclear how many more casualties were inflicted. "During an unpleasant day this was the most unpleasant thing that happened," recalled the battalion’s report of the action.

By now, as the shadows lengthened, the NCOs were beginning to take over from the wounded officers. Among their own casualties was the recently betrothed Corporal Cope, happy recipient of Doreen Roots’ "I love you" telegram. His loader had been killed alongside him but Cope carried on working the gun until he was himself hit by shrapnel. He crawled away to find a replacement crew before waiting his turn for the attention of medical orderly Burnhope. By that time his gun was credited with two Mark IIIs, a Semovente, and an 88.

Every minute closer to dusk increased the riflemen’s chances of survival. In 1942 tanks had no kind of night vision aids and the enemy armour were normally reluctant to press conclusions in the dark. A determined infantry assault might have carried the position, but that was rarely the Axis way. At about 5pm, when at least two hours of good light remained, it was observed with some apprehension that about 70 enemy tanks, divided into two groups, were assembling to attack the British armour beyond Snipe. This was one of the counter-attacks for which 21st Panzer Division had been brought from the south. As in most tank operations inspired by Rommel it was executed in the way that had so often caught the slothful British on the wrong foot. But this time dash became slapdash.

At least one of the 21st’s newly-arrived panzer regiments had not been warned that between them and their objective lay this venomous nest of British anti-tank guns. They might have drawn their own conclusions from the large number of disabled Axis tanks about the place. Instead, some of them chose a route which placed their more vulnerable side armour within 200 yards of the hidden six-pounders. Those with the best field of fire were four surviving guns of an attached Royal Artillery battery under Lieutenant Alan Baer, a recent Oxford graduate and keen jazz musician . Until now his crews, dedicated gunners better trained on the six-pounder than the riflemen, had been manning the quietest sector. Now the tempo changed and within minutes they had stopped nine panzers, some of which were on fire.

As the enemy tanks turned head-on to face their tormentors they exposed their flanks to the armoured brigade’s Shermans and Priests. Despite this enfilade fire, one of the long-gunned Mark IV Specials got to within 100 yards of Baer’s battery, machine-gunning all the way until it was hit by the guns of Sergeants Binks and Cullen. Then Binks’ six-pounder was hit by a high explosive shell. By some fluke the sergeant was unscathed but one of his crew was decapitated and the other two mortally wounded. . This was battle as the men exchanging broadsides on Nelson’s ships-of-the-line must have known it, and it seemed there could only be one outcome.

At this point the panzers pulled back and once out of range of the six-pounders settled into hull-down positions in folds in the ground. Clearly they did not intend to let the British get away with their continued defiance . No doubt an experienced eye had noted the growing feebleness of the defenders’ fire and drawn the appropriate conclusions. Fifteen Panzer Mark 111s approached the north-west corner of Snipe, advancing hesitantly. They were not to know that at first only two working six-pounders could be brought to bear on them. One of these was commanded by Sergeant James Hine, who had taken over Cope’s gun when his own was destroyed. The other was not far from the battalion HQ dugout and was neutralised before it had fired a shot. Its crew fled for a nearby slit trench after three hull-down tanks, about 500 yards away, started to find them with their machine-guns . With the odds now at 15 to one, adjutant Marten began to burn the radio codes lest they fall into enemy hands.

In the south-east corner of the position Rifleman Chard’s gun was pointing the wrong way and he struggled to turn it around to face the latest threat. His platoon commander, Lieutenant Holt-Wilson, and a sergeant rushed overt to help him and together they managed it. Hine held his fire until the first tank was 200 yards away. Then Chard and the others began to support him. Between them they quickly disabled four panzers. But two others had bypassed Hine’s gun and were safely out of Chard’s line of fire. All that stood between them and battalion HQ was the abandoned six-pounder.

Inside the dugout, Marten and Jack Wintour the intelligence officer were soaking the last of the wireless telegraphy codebooks with petrol before putting a match to them. Watching the tanks closing in on the dugout was Sergeant Swann, increasingly a supernumerary since his crew had been hit and the number of working six-pounders reduced to about eight. Standing on a slight rise about 100 yards from the abandoned gun Swann yelled a warning to its sergeant commander to get back to it. a voice he did not recognise replied that the sergeant was hurt. Later Swann was furious to discover that this was untrue.

He ran down towards the abandoned six-pounder, hit the ground, crawled for a few yards when a machine gun seemed to be on him, then sprinted for the gun. There was a round in its breech and Swann took aim at the first tank, which was now about 100 yards away, a long-barelled Special with another directly behind it. Swann fired and the panzer stopped. Swann was vaguely aware of the turret hatch opening and two men leaping out to the rattle of rifle fire. At this point the six-pounder crew, shamed into it, began to leave their trench and run back towards their weapon .

Swann took his time with the second shot and aimed it, as he had been taught, at the weakly-armoured spot just below where its gun barrel met the turret. An incredulous and delighted Marten watched as the tank’s main member drooped towards the ground. Beside him Wintour was jumping up and down like a schoolboy shouting, "He’s got him! He’s got him!" From inside the tank came the sound of a man screaming. It went on and on.

These were almost the last shots fired at Snipe. Three Panzer Mark 111s remained close enough to machine-gun the battalion from a depression which shielded all but the tops of their turrets . At dusk, which fell at about 7.30 pm, the rest of the panzers withdrew and for a few minutes were "nicely silhouetted against the pale patch in the sky." The riflemen fired most of their remaining ammunition at them, more as a feu de joie than with any serious intent, but their luck held and one of the enemy was hit. They watched it being towed away.

For a while, even in the darkness, the heavy if blind machine-gunning of the panzers’ rearguard in their hull-down position continued. Then the shooting died down and gave way to an unspoken truce, during which both sides were allowed to collect their wounded, the Germans extracting some of theirs from the wreckage of tanks little more than 100 yards from British positions. This would eventually include the man trapped in the tank Swann had hit.

Meanwhile, German salvage teams moved in and began to tow away those machines that looked repairable. Marten, the most senior British officer left on his feet, did nothing to stop them. His priority was getting as many of the battalion’s wounded loaded into the remaining transport as possible. Their casualties totalled about 70 killed and wounded, including ten officers - about twenty-five per cent of Turner’s force. Bird’s anti-tank company, so much more exposed than the others, were the worst hit Most of the dead were buried on the spot, often in the slit trenches they had occupied.

Later that night the Rifle Brigade was given permission to withdraw and began to do so by companies around 10.30pm. They put their wounded in the middle, tommy gunners fore and aft, and headed north-east for about two-and-a-half miles. Before he left the scene with the wounded, Calistan "did something you may think rather stupid - I went back and kissed my gun." At the pace of their walking wounded they left the sandy places, wind-rippled into the patterns of low tide. Once they were on harder ground, with ankle-deep camel thorn and colonies of white shelled snails, they knew the ordeal was almost over.

"Attila’s" commander, Major Flatow, saw them come in. He had just pulled back into leaguer when " some weird swaying figures approached us; they were dressed in British uniforms but I was frightened of a trick and I asked the first wretched man for his AB 64 [pay book]. He nearly cried. ‘Lord sir, we’ve been out there for 24 hours and we’ve been shot at by both sides and we’re all in. Here take my rifle!"

It was a while before the defenders of Snipe, let alone the rest of the army, realised just how well they had done. Tom Bird certainly did not feel as if he had been involved in a great victory. "I had lost all my officers [one killed and the rest wounded] and all my guns."

But 8th Army HQ was in no doubt what the battalion had achieved and Montgomery was delighted. By their stubborn defence of Snipe, they had frustrated Rommel’s efforts to destroy Briggs’ 1st Armoured Division and in doing so had inflicted losses Rommel could ill afford on the 15th and 21st Panzer and the Littorio Divisions

When, some days later, officers from the battalion and others had the chance to revisit Snipe it was concluded that, by a conservative estimate, they alone had destroyed or disabled 33 Axis tanks, five self-propelled guns, a couple of artillery pieces, several trucks and a staff car. They had possibly damaged another 20 tanks which were recovered for repairs that might never have been completed. All this was quite apart from the loses inflicted on the enemy by the British armour.

Honours were heaped upon the battalion. Turner was awarded a Victoria Cross for "an example of leadership and bravery which inspired his whole battalion". Following his older brother’s posthumous award, this made his family* one of the very few to produce two holders of the Victoria Cross. (A very unusual family it was, too. On retirement, Turner went to live with his sister Jane and two surviving brothers on a country estate in Norfolk. None of them ever married. Turner died in 1972. Jane Turner lived to be 101. )

The Anglo-Indian Sergeant Calistan was put up for the VC, but to the disgust of some of his comrades he received the lesser Distinguished Conduct Medal. He eventually received a battlefield commission and held the rank of lieutenant when he was killed in Italy in 1944. Tom Bird got a DSO and a "cushy number" as one of Wavell’s ADCs in the Delhi, Towards the end of the war he was seriously hurt by a shell in Belgium, his fourth wound, which ended his active soldiering. Like Calistan, Sergeant Swann got a DCM. So did Rifleman Chard . Both men survived the war. Corporal Cope soon recovered from his wounds and was able to tell his Doreen that he had been promoted to sergeant with a Military Medal for gallantry -- one of seven MMs awarded, mostly to NCOs. Toms won a bar to his Military Cross and, having lost his trigger finger spent the rest of the war as an instructor.

Snipe was one of the turning points of this second Battle of El Alamein. Rommel became convinced that Montgomery was trying to break out from the salient around Kidney Ridge and squandered his precious armour trying to prevent it. It was a wrong move. By now Montgomery was too disillusioned with Lumsden’s 10 Corps to seriously entertain hopes of an armoured breakthrough. He had his eye on other developments.
The rest, as they say, is showbiz history, but surely a little more than that: an inscrutable fragment, perhaps, of universal social history. For "Lilli Marlene's" appeal was not restricted to the fighting men. It would become a wildfire favourite among civilian populations on both sides of the war ˆ even among the civilians of Nazi-occupied Europe ˆ and was to be translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.


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