Category: John Bierman and Colin Smith

What ever is the point of it allWhat ever is the point of it all

“In the middle of this twenty-first century some backpacker yet unborn may chance upon this place, recall vaguely that it was the scene of ‘a famous victory’ and wonder, like Old Kaspar after Blenheim, what was the point of it all. He should know that El Alamein was the place where at last—and even before Stalingrad—the most voraciously effective war-machine in history, and the gangster regime it served, was stopped in its tracks and then turned back.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Just say noJust say no

“For three days most men had slept very little, and now fatigue was beginning to take its toll. Major Flatow, the stocky Yorkshire Territorial who had named his tank ‘Attila’, had been told with the rest of his regiment to take the benzedrine pep-pills they had been issued. These amphetamines, whose pre-war use had been pioneered by long-haul pilots, were freely issued to the British army and navy though, acting on the advice of their medical officers, some units refused to take them. After the initial high, which could take effect about half an hour after ingestion, benzedrine users were often beset by hallucinations of the kind later generations would know as ‘bad trips’. Flatow’s was mild, if perplexing: why should a man on a bicycle be riding across the desert towards his Sherman? Other hallucinations were less benign. A lieutenant shot down several German soldiers with a tommy-gun when they tried to rush his tank leaguer after dark, only to learn that they were the crew of a knocked-out Sherman seeking the sanctuary of their own lines. Luckily, his aim was not as sharp as his heightened imagination. The same officer also spent several minutes trying to rouse a man lying in the path of his tank, before he realized he was talking to the dead. In the middle of heavy shell-fire a sergeant turned up alongside a tank in a jeep and calmly informed its crew that it was ‘only a scheme’ (an exercise) and they could go back. Meanwhile, their colonel saw a map in the sky, complete with grid lines.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Herr General’s final rideHerr General’s final ride

“[General} Stumme went missing and the Panzerarmee became a headless beast, able to snarl and lash out locally but without the guiding intelligence to co-ordinate its responses to the British. At first light on the 24th [of October, 1942], Stumme, having received precious few situation reports from his army, set out to find out what was happening. He was accompanied by his driver, Corporal Wolf, and Colonel Büchting, a signals officer who wanted to see how quickly he could restore the field-telephone system. Stumme decided against taking an escort and a wireless vehicle to keep in touch, saying that he intended to go only as far as the HQ of the 90th Light, just behind the front line on the coast. Finding divisional HQ no better informed than army headquarters, Stumme decided to get closer to the front. How could a man who had stepped into Rommel’s boots do otherwise? There are two versions of what happened next. One has it that Stumme’s car was hit by a strafing fighter, the other that, on a deserted stretch of road, he strayed too close to Morshead’s Australians and came under anti-tank and machine-gun fire. Whatever it was that hit them, Oberst Büchting received a mortal head wound and Wolf turned his vehicle so violently that he failed to notice that the valiant if corpulent Stumme had fallen out. It was some time before Wolf discovered that he had mislaid the boss. By then he was several kilometres from the scene of the attack. Initially, it was feared that the Australians might have sent out a patrol and captured Stumme, but his body, with no visible wounds, was eventually recovered the following day and the cause of his death established as a heart attack. Whether he suffered it before or after his car was hit was never established.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Face the other wayFace the other way

“Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burnt, and at once. We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.” Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery, upon taking command of the British Eighth Army, August 13, 1942 (quoted by John Bierman and Colin Smith in The Battle of Alamein)

Drop and give me fiftyDrop and give me fifty

“Montgomery had always shown indulgence towards his men’s need for what he liked to call ‘horizontal refreshment.’ When his battalion was serving in Egypt, he had made sure that the Alexandrian brothels were managed in a way that would leave the Warwicks in good health. But when he tried the same thing in France in November 1939, he nearly got the sack. Alarmed at the incidence of venereal disease in his division, he issued written orders that condoms should go on sale at NAAFI canteens and that the men should be urged to use the cleaner brothels in Lille. [General Lord] Gort was outraged by such candour and vowed to make Montgomery withdraw the order. Even granted the prevailing British hypocrisy on sexual matters in the 1930s, it was ludicrous for an army commander to become involved in such trivia, even more so when he was hopelessly wrong. Montgomery dug his heels in and refused to withdraw the offending order. In the end, Brooke, then Montgomery’s corps commander, intervened, persuading him that Gort meant business and would send him back to England if he didn’t back down.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Elizabeth Carver was her nameElizabeth Carver was her name

“In the summer of 1937, while on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea, Betty was bitten on the foot by some kind of insect. Blood-poisoning set in and she was admitted to a local hospital. At first Montgomery, busy with manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, failed to realize how sick she was. But as her condition worsened he was soon making regular 200-mile round trips to visit her. The septicaemia spread. Only the coming war would bring into general use the antibiotics which might have cured it. As a last resort the leg that had received the bite was amputated. Even this failed to save her. After almost two months of suffering, Betty Montgomery died in her husband’s arms on 19 October 1937. He had just read the 23rd Psalm to her. Montgomery was heartbroken. ‘I was utterly defeated. I began to search my mind for anything I had done wrong, that I should have been dealt such a shattering blow . . . my soul cried out in anguish against this apparent injustice. I seemed to be surrounded by utter darkness.’ ” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein (ellipsis in original)

We’ll have none of that in this armyWe’ll have none of that in this army

“In an order to Rommel dated 13 June 1942, Hitler referred to ‘numerous German political refugees with Free French forces’ who should be ‘immediately wiped out in battle’. Where they escaped being killed in battle they were to be shot out of hand ‘unless they have to be temporarily retained for the extraction of information’. Hitler forbade this order being passed on in writing, enabling Rommel to make an ambiguous response. ‘We know what to do with this, gentlemen,’ he reportedly told his staff, crumpling the message form on which the order arrived. Quite apart from ethical considerations, to shoot prisoners would have gone against Rommel’s practice of encouraging the enemy to surrender by cultivating a reputation for magnanimity.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Maybe they’ll give you a medalMaybe they’ll give you a medal

“While the opposing armies faced each other, motionless, along the Gazala line, a small and highly unconventional unit was in training under conditions of the tightest security at Mersa Matruh, 320 miles to the east. Its members wore German army uniforms, carried German weapons and German identification papers, drilled in German and gave and received orders in German. Even off duty they addressed each other only in German; yet all were members of the British army and, except for their two officers and two instructors, were Palestinian Jews of either German or Austrian origin. The unit to which these men belonged was styled the Special Interrogation Group (SIG), a formation whose very existence was so nebulous that it was sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Special Intelligence Group or the Special Investigation Group. Its progenitor and commander was Captain Herbert Cecil Buck, MC . . . . The SIG’s purpose was to raid behind the lines disguised as German troops. This was a triply dangerous business. To operate behind the lines was risky enough; to do so wearing the enemy’s uniform and in violation of the Geneva Conventions carried the risk of summary execution in the event of capture; to be so captured and identified as a Jew could only compound the offence. Among the very few British special forces officers who knew of the SIG’s existence it was known as Bertie Buck’s Suicide Squad.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Not everyone’s cup of teaNot everyone’s cup of tea

“In desert war—then and subsequently—the tank is the primary weapon, an armour-plated monster spewing fire and destruction as it plunges straight ahead to its objective. Or so it seems to the ‘poor bloody infantry’ as they deploy, naked and horribly exposed, across an unforgiving landscape of rock, grit and thorns. To the men inside the tanks, the advantages of speed, armour plate and fire-power seem not nearly so clear-cut. When the hatch is closed for action and the engine reaches its optimum heat, it becomes stiflingly hot and the combined stench of fear, fuel, sweat, cordite and machine oil can be overpowering. The outside world is visible only through slits in the armour, and what little can be seen is often obscured by swirling clouds of dust. The crew characteristically consists of a driver, a gunner, a radio operator and a commander. They cannot see each other’s faces and must communicate by intercom. The charge may be exhilarating but there is always the fear of being trapped inside a metal tomb if one’s machine is disabled by a thrown track or, even worse, hit by armour-piercing enemy fire, causing its ammunition to explode and its fuel tanks to ignite. This was known as ‘brewing up’, an experience never to be forgotten by those fortunate enough to survive it.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Early recyclingEarly recycling

“We all had dysentery and that was worse than the enemy fire. During daylight you couldn’t leave your hole to relieve yourself. Still, when the Germans dropped ‘surrender leaflets’ they made good toilet paper. Your tin hat came in handy, too. You could use it as a shovel, a cooking pot, a toilet and a wash basin. Two boots made a good pillow. We had two litres of water a man a day and little except bully beef to eat; we ate it at night when it was cold and not too greasy. But there was always plenty of tea—a great morale-booster, with Carnation milk and lots of sugar.” – Private John Youden, 2/13th Australian Infantry (quoted by John Bierman and Colin Smith in The Battle of Alamein)

Nothing a shot can’t clear upNothing a shot can’t clear up

“Among the Allied military, the better-smelling fleshpots of Cairo and Alexandria were not the exclusive preserve of headquarters staff. A field officer taking a well-earned break from the desert could share facilities with ‘the gabardene swine’ of GHQ, as many front-line soldiers called them, and, if so inclined, pick up one of the attractive Nicoles and Babettes—Frenchified daughters of the Greek, Armenian, Jewish or Coptic middle classes—who, for the price of a meal, a few drinks and a box of chocolates, were often willing to offer the lonely warrior an hour or two of sweet consolation. For Other Ranks, the attractions offered by Cairo were more basic. The rancid bars, live shows and urine-and-carbolic-reeking brothels of the Wagh el Birket red light district did a roaring trade, as did the official VD Centres that were set up by GHQ to ensure that pox and clap did not produce more casualties than enemy fire.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

That that, you FascistsThat that, you Fascists

“Rea Leakey, a Kenyan-born subaltern (and first cousin of the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey) commanding a light reconnaissance tank of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, joined with the Hussars in an attack on the Italians’ Beau Geste-style Fort Capuzzo. Once within range, Leakey found himself forced to fire his service revolver at the fort through the gaping port in his turret that should have been filled by a Vickers machine-gun. His gunner had to fire a rifle through the port that was intended for the other Vickers. Leakey’s tank had only recently arrived from England, and somewhere along the way someone had removed its armament, rendering it about as lethal as a tractor.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein