In his greatest offensive in Libya, after he chased us from Benghasi, German Gen. Erwin Rommel attacked the Gazala line. It culminated five weeks later at El Alamein in one of the decisive battles of the war in the Middle East.
There were five battles of Alamein. The first was the one which Rommel was too weak to fight. The second began on July 12, 1942, and he was stopped with bloody losses.
The third was on July 21 and 22, when the strengthened Eighth Army made a full-dress attack. It was a ghastly fiasco.
The fourth, starting on Aug. 31, was Rommel's last offensive in Africa. He launched everything he had and was half destroyed.
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THE FIFTH was begun when we attacked; the result was abject capitulation of the enemy in Tunisia seven months later. Our armor and guns were then able to destroy 500 German tanks in two days.
Before and during the Gazala attack, I was driving a Valentine light tank in the "Jock" columns. Named after Gen. "Jock" Campbell, the columns were improvised in the heat of battle and retreat from Benghasi to harass the enemy.
There were more than 20 of these units, each small, fast, self-contained and hard-hitting. They consisted of one or two tanks, two armored cars and a few truckloads of chosen men.
Our orders were to wander around the desert and raid anything we saw that was vulnerable, i.e. supply convoys, communications, fuel and ammunition dumps.
We were operating close to the Qattara Depression south of Alamein and at that time, with equipment inferior to that of the Germans. Our British Valentine tanks were equipped with a 2-pound shell and the American Honeys had a 37 mm gun firing a 1.5-pound projectile.
By comparison, the German Mark III tank had a 50-mm gun firing a 4.5-pound shell and the Mark IV tank had a 75-mm gun firing a 15-pound armor-piercing tungsten nose-cap projectile.
The Germans had the advantage of a 1,000-yard approach vs. ours of less than 500 yards. It was like a man with a knife fighting a man with a sword.
Finally, when the fifth battle of Alamein started, we were equipped with machines that could stand on even terms. The new, big American Sherman tanks had a high-velocity 75-mm gun that was as good as that of the Mark IV special.
The Eighth Army now had men, machines, and commanders to make it what was later called "the finest fighting force ever produced in the British Army."
Neither Hannibal, when he was ravaging Italy, nor Marlborough at Blenheim, had an army so diverse yet so brilliantly efficient. The Eighth Army was a wonderful conglomeration of English, Scottish, Australian, Polish, New Zealand, South African, Indian, Greek and Free French troops.
THE CANADIAN Gen. McNaughton once said, " A good army is holistic." It is more than the sum of its parts, and this state is achieved by cooperation, coordination and confidence. The Eighth Army had achieved that state.
Its career did not end in Libya or Tunisia. It fought later in Sicily and Italy. But nothing its soldiers did later on could excel the African story.
They held the Middle East when France had fallen and Britain, almost unarmed, stood alone. They destroyed an army of 400,000 when they numbered only 40,000. They held before Alamein with nothing but their bodies and bayonets. The lesson is that idealism is the only realism.
I lost my tank a few days before the El Alamein great offensive to a Mark IV 75-mm gun. I was the last to abandon the burning tank.
We were picked up by armored cars and taken to the rear. Two days later, I was in Alexandria, where the burns on my right leg were treated. I rejoined the Eighth Army a few months later in Sicily.