El Alamein 1942

76 years ago this October, the Second Battle of El Alamein took place in Egypt. It was one of the decisive battles of the Second World War which led to the eventual expulsion of German and Italian troops from Africa; freed the Middle Eastern oil fields from the threat of capture; cleared the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal for safe use in supplying India and the campaign in the Far East; and led to the surrender of Italy and the fall of Mussolini. Both the 10th Royal Hussars (PWO) and the 11th Hussars (PAO) played vital parts in the battle.

The Desert War, ranging across hundreds of miles of desert, scrub, rock and coastal plain, began in June 1940 when Italy declared war on France and Britain. Early fighting had seen stunning British victories (spearheaded by the 11th Hussars in their armoured cars), but the arrival of German troops – the famous Afrika Korps – under General Rommel in early 1941 had seen this change. By early 1942 British, Empire (Indian, Australian, New Zealand, South African) and Allied (French, Polish, Greek and Czech) forces had been pushed back to Egypt, where a defensive position was taken up running from the coast at El Alamein to an impassable area of desert called the Qattara Depression. This position was only 100 miles from Cairo. A breakthrough by Rommel would endanger the Suez Canal and the oil fields – vital to the British war effort.

A dogged and successful defensive action by the British Eighth Army (under General Auchinleck who as C-in-C Middle East had also taken over as field commander) held Rommel’s forces and through the summer of 1942 a series of attacks and counter-attacks took place before Auchinleck was replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery as GOC Eighth Army.

By late summer, reinforcements and new equipment (including 300 of the new American-built Sherman tank), together with naval and air forces interrupting Rommel’s fuel and ammunition supplies put Montgomery’s army into position for the major attack which was to lead to the end of the war in North Africa.

The 10th Hussars were part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade in the 1st Armoured Division. Equipped with two squadrons of Shermans and one of British-made Crusader tanks, their task was to follow an attack by an Australian Division and the 51st Highland Division on German troops holding positions across the coastal railway line. This involved passing through thick minefields and well-prepared German positions.

The attack began at 22.00 on the 24th October and the Tenth were in the forefront of the fighting from the beginning. Their Shermans soon got the better of the enemy, and the Regiment saw heavy fighting throughout the battle. It was not until 4th November that the battle was won and the German and Italian forces finally began to withdraw. The way was now clear and the pursuit  continued to the final expulsion of the German and Italian armies from Africa following the link-up with British, French and American forces coming west following the Torch landings in Algeria.

In the Battle of Alamein, the Tenth lost 3 officers and 15 men killed, and 6 officers (including the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel J P Archer-Shee, MC) and 31 other ranks wounded. One notable episode took place on 4th November, when Captain Grant Singer captured General von Thoma, temporarily commanding the Afrika Korps. Captain Singer was killed the following day, and von Thoma wrote a very kind letter to Singer’s widow (the letter is now on display in the Museum of The King’s Royal Hussars in Winchester).

The water colour of this event was painted by Major Henri le Grand, DSO, a Belgian officer attached to the Tenth. Major le Grand was a gunnery expert who helped make the 10th Hussars into one of the best gunnery regiments in the Eighth Army. He was killed in 1944, leading a squadron of the 23rd Hussars in Normandy (this regiment had been raised in 1940, partly from men of the 10th Hussars).

The 11th Hussars (who had recently returned from a well-earned rest in Persia) began the battle in the southern part of the line, assisting the 44th Home Counties Division. This division had the unenviable task of attracting German armour to prevent the enemy counter-attacking the thrust spearheaded by the 1st Armoured Division. The division was newly-arrived from the UK, and it was felt the experience of the Eleventh would help them in the forthcoming ordeal – and it did. The 44th were heavily opposed by the German 21st Panzer Division and two very good Italian infantry divisions, but they succeeded in their task and by the 26th October the Eleventh were able to go back in reserve to prepare for their next action.

On the 31st the Eleventh moved north with 7th Armoured Division, known as the ‘Desert Rats’, to take part in the climactic battle alongside the Tenth. Although their armoured cars were not involved in the massive tank battle taking place, the 11th Hussars were ready to lead the breakout which did not halt until 7th May 1943 when they were one of the first units to reach Tunis.

Although casualties in the Eleventh were light, the loss of Lieutenant J W Peacock left his Troop with very heavy hearts. Peacock had joined the regiment as a Trooper in 1937 and had been commissioned on the battlefield, having been decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for bravery.