Chapter 7: Lord Trenchard Briefing. Our British Allies
Oct 16,1942 LG 91 (landing ground) We received a visit to our airfield at El Alamein, Egypt by Lord Trenchard ,the former head of the RAF. We were then at L.G.(Landing Ground 91, which was 10 kilometers from the front), the forward airdrome of the RAF.
Several days before the breakthrough at El Alamein he came and told us exactly how it would take place. He said that 600 cannons would fire for 24 hours, ceasing at midnight. That night the Gurkhas would cross the enemy lines and attack the German 88 MM Cannon positions. (Gurkhas are British troops from Nepal, the Himalayas, and India who are fearsome warriors of small stature).
The Gurkhas Attack
They would cut the throats of all in each tent except one soldier, leaving that one alive. One can only imagine the demoralization that results. Then they would steal the bolt from the Cannon and bury it in the desert. They would cut the ears off all that they killed. Upon their return their British Officers would pay them for each set of ears. (incidentally ,the Italian Soldiers were so demoralized by this kind of act, that when they heard that the Gurkhas were coming they would throw away their arms and retreat as fast as they could).
Those of us who were in contact with the Gurkas had nothing but the greatest respect for their bravery, and the British Army used them as "shock Troops" with great effect.
The following morning 3 or 4 AM, the British sappers would open a path through the minefield wide enough for 10 Sherman tanks abreast to pass through. Behind those 10 were hundreds more. If any tank were disabled it would be pushed aside.
These tanks would not stop for any reason until they had broken through the German Front line. The majority of the British 8th Army would then follow the tanks, nor would their advance stop for any reason. General Montgomery was determined that nothing would stop the break-through.
He knew that the RAF would provide close ground support for the Front line Army commanders, wherever it was needed. Our wing (239) consisted of our 66 Fighter squadron (from the 57th group with P-40s, A British squadron of Spitfires, an Australian Squadron of Hurricanes, and a South African Squadron of Hurricanes.)
Our squadron daily sent a flight of 4 planes to report to the front line commander for orders. Upon arrival there, a Piper Cub piloted by one of our pilots circling the front would relay the Commander's orders to us, pointing out the targets we were required to take out.(such as 88 MM gun pits, or Tiger Tanks, Supply depots, etc).
Lord Trenchard and General Montgomery
A briefing to the troops prior to an attack was unheard of in the U.S. Army and frankly we were amazed by Lord Trenchard's having preparing us in advance. We felt that we were a part of the attack even though we were not providing hand to hand help, and we had nothing but the greatest regard for General Montgomery, the British 8th Army and the RAF's Desert Air Force.
True to Lord Trenchard’s word, for 24 hours our eardrums were assaulted by the constant bombardment. We can only imagine what it sounded like at the front. . As history has recorded, the attack was so successful that shortly after the breach; half of our ground crew (A Flight) boarded trucks on Nov 6, 1942 and followed the 8th Army, without even knowing where our next airfield was going to be.
We traveled through 94 miles of battleground, strewn with blown-up and burnt-out tanks, armored cars and vehicles of all kind. We camped overnight and on Nov 7th we were instructed to occupy L.G.101 at El Daba .
66th The Exterminators
When we pulled into the airfield the 66th was assigned one side of the field. We set up our tents 100 yards apart, in accordance with instructions from the RAF, and before we slept that night, we dug slit trenches all around the tent. We did not tie the canvas sides of the tent down with pegs, so that in case of an air raid, we could simply roll off our cots through the tent -side and into our slit trenches.
Once the airfield was secure and set up, the airplanes were sent ahead to us, and then the other half of our ground crew (B Flight) got on the road to join up with us. Often until the end of the African Campaign, one half of our squadron would not join up with the other half, but would “leap-frog “ over them , staying on the road until a more forward airdrome was made available by the 8th Army.
In this manner, sometimes the entire squadron was not together for months at a time. Thus often the ground-crews were operating with half the personnel, requiring mechanics for example, to handle not only their own planes, but those of other crew-chiefs in their flight.
When the planes would arrive the following day, they would be parked alongside the tent of the ground crew assigned to it, and a camouflage netting spread over both, so that to an enemy aircraft it would not appear to be an airplane. Our RAF mentors explained this rationale with the cryptic remark “one bomb, one plane”!
A very unique way to run an air force, and the RAF and the Desert Air Force deserve a great deal of credit for devising this extremely efficient manner which successfully provided close Air support to the British 8th Army commanders at the front lines.
The 239 Wing frequently received heartfelt thanks from the Commanders of the British 8th Army at the Front Lines for the manner in which we worked so closely with them.
On our part, we were not ashamed to follow their instructions knowing full well that they had the wartime experience, and we did not. An example of this is that the British fighter planes and dive-bombers would fly one behind the other in flights of two. Thus the rear pilot could protect the back of the man ahead, while both of them “jinked” from side to side, all the while swiveling their heads in a circular manner, looking for enemy planes.
We soon learned that this procedure kept the pilots alive. It had been “engraved in Stone” since the first world war that fighter planes flew in “echelon”. (On an angle from each other much likes migrating Geese). However, they are vulnerable to attack while in that formation, because an enemy aircraft could make a “run“at the echelon and strike more than just one airplane.
Before moving on to Part 8, I would like to tell about an experience I and a friend had while visiting Alexandria one day.
We were surrounded by several British soldiers who were intent upon inflicting grievous bodily harm on us. They were obviously half-potted, and enraged by something, and thought we were in the RAF, because of the airplane insignias on the buttons of our uniforms. Fortunately we were able to convince them we were not in the RAF, by showing them our identification cards.
They apologized and explained that the 8th army suffered great losses trying to relieve the garrison at Tobruk recently. About 20,000 8th Army soldiers were encircled by the German Army, and the British Navy sent a rescuing fleet to Tobruk for that purpose. It seems the RAF was supposed to provide air cover for the landing, however they never showed up, and the loss was so great that the fleet aborted the attempted landing.
The magnitude of their loss can be measured by the fact that the heavy cruiser HMS Ajax (the flagship of the British Fleet) was severely damaged. Shortly afterwards the garrison at Tobruk surrendered because the 8th Army did not have the capacity to relieve them. As to why the RAF did not provide air cover as planned, we who are not privy to the facts leading to this disaster, cannot even speculate.
To us, at that moment in time and place, we could not conceive of anything more important to the RAF than to help relieve the garrison at Tobruk! Nevertheless, it is for others who have more knowledge of the facts behind the events of that time, to make the explanations. We who were there doing the fighting could only see the results of actions, and not the reasons for them!
As an American soldier fighting with the British 8th Army against our common enemy, I was privileged to learn something of the metal of our British Allies of which our compatriots in the United States had little knowledge. That is, we underestimated our cousins (the British)! We did not know the depth of their suffering, nor the torment they endured seeing the flower of the British Military killed in battle or taken prisoner in both hemispheres. Nevertheless, they came together as Englishmen (The Elite and the Commoner alike) and took the blows.
As we now know only through the passage of time, they stood steadfast against tyranny, and with our help, they persevered. We of the 57th Fighter Group, who were privileged to fight alongside the RAF in the 2nd World War in North Africa and Europe, are among the few Americans who saw the British fight with their backs to the wall, yet who held their flag (the Union jack) high ! We (the Desert Rats) of the 57th are proud to say we fought alongside them!
P.S. Immediately below is an explanation of “El Alamein “from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. It explains its location and details of the battle area, as well as how the British 8th Army broke through the German defenses and went on to victory in North Africa.
Alamein, El (ĕl ăləmān', älə–) or Al Alamayn (äl älămān') , town, N Egypt, on the Mediterranean Sea. It was the site of a decisive British victory in World War II (see North Africa, campaigns in). In preparation for an attack by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel from Libya (begun May 26, 1942) the British forces retreated into Egypt and by June 30 had set up a defense line extending 35 mi (56 km) from Alamein S to the Qattara Depression, a badland which could neither be crossed nor flanked. If this position had fallen, the British might have lost Alexandria and been forced to withdraw from North Africa. In August, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery took command of the 8th Army. The British offensive opened on Oct. 23 with tremendous air and artillery bombardments. Montgomery's forces cleared the German minefields and on Nov. 1 and 2 burst through the German lines near the sea and forced a swift Axis retreat out of Egypt, across Libya, and into E Tunisia. Egypt was definitely saved, and with the landing on Nov. 7 and 8 of American troops in Algeria the Axis soon suffered (May, 1943) total defeat in North Africa. For his victory Montgomery was made a viscount with the title Montgomery of Alamein.
So ends Chapter 7 of my wartime memoirs.