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The Coleraine Battery - Egypt 

1939 - 1945


Introduction

The Early Years

The Move

Egypt

Western Desert

France and Belgium

Netherlands and Germany

Italy

Battery Administration

Battery Roll Call

Closing Notes

Home


The Benghazi Handicap  On September 13, 1940, 250,000 troops from the Italian Army made a 95km incursion into Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya. When the Battery were on their first operational task, the Suez Canal AA Defences, the British Army had successfully counter attacked the Italian Army. Due to political interference this operation was only a limited success. As the Italian Army retreated along the costal road to Libya in December 1940 Churchill ordered the Army to stop the route. He asked the Army to provide the manpower for the defence of Greece.

But on February 12th 1941, the German Africa Corps had disembarked in Tripoli and forced the British back to Tobruk. This coming and going process was nicknamed 'The Benghazi Handicap'. One Army would force the other back along the coast road. This extended the lines of communication and supply for the attackers. On the other hand, the retreating Army was compact and in defence. As soon as the attacking Army was overextended and out of supplies, it had to stop, and in most cases, retreat.

 The next illustration shows the time scale for the series of eight attacks and counter attacks that led to the defeat of the Axis powers on the Western Desert. The location and tasking of the Battery in relation to these major battle scenes will also be discussed in this section on the history of the Coleraine Battery.

 

Final Training  After leaving Port Tewfiq, the Battery moved to Beni Suef, near Cairo for October 23rd 1940. There, the Battery were fully equipped, trained and made ready for their part in Anti Aircraft Defence of the Suez Canal.  

AA Defence of the Suez Canal  On completion of their training in Beni Suef, the Battery was operationally deployed from November 7th 1940 until July '41 on Static AA Defence of the Suez Canal. X Troop were deployed at the Suez Oil Refinery. Y Troop were deployed along the canal on the western side from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Port Suez in the south. They also manned two guns on the eastern side of the canal at Port Fouad, opposite Port Said. Z Troop were deployed central to the canal in the Ismailiya area.

 

Christmas Day 1940

Suez Oil Refinery  Anti Aircraft Defence from  Dec 7th 1940 until Feb 25 1941

W Patterson

T Brogan

S Leslie

R Martin

T Henry

Suez Oil Refinery Christmas Day  1940

C Walsh  R McDonald  S Leslie  R McClelland  W Patterson  C Connell        T Gamble  Diamond  R McCook   R Hutchinson   S Archibald   S Nevin

 

Port Siad 1940

Port Siad 1940  

Sudanese Camel Corps  "When we operated along the Suez Canal we came into contact with the Sudanese Camel Corps. The Battery had a high opinion of the Sudanese Camel Corps. They were good soldiers, always well turned out in smart uniforms. All their orders were given out in English, although they did not speak English themselves. Even the camels responded to orders given in the English language. We got on well with the Sudanese Sergeant Major in charge of the Camel Corps operating in our area. He carried an English phrase book and constantly engaged us in conversations about our life style and home life

The primary task of the Camel Corps was to prevent hashish smuggling along the Red Sea coast. The Corps patrolled the Eastern Desert from our location at Port Suez and down south along the Red Sea coast line". Robin Martin (2004)

"The camels might have understood the orders in English, but that did not mean they obeyed them. They were huge white racing camels that did not behave very well in the mornings. It was always comical watching the handlers trying to catch the camels in the morning to mount up. The camels would take off at a gallop. On many occasions they would wreck the marquees in their haste to escape their handlers." Norman Irwin (2004) 

Sudanese Camel Corps  +    H Milford      C Walsh    T Shaw        1940   

Ibrahim Ahmed 1940

Egyptian Army Anti-Mine Defence  "The Germans never attacked Port Suez or any of our large depots. The only action they did take was to lay magnetic mines by aircraft. They only did this at night. Their purpose was to sink the Allied supply ships and make the canal impossible to use. Compared to our home river, The Bann, there was no tide in the Canal. If you threw a stick into the water, it would drift up the canal for a short time and then return again. There was no rise of fall in the water at any time we were there". Robin Martin (2004)

 

"The Egyptian army had a very important role to play in the defence of the canal. Pairs of Egyptian soldiers were posted along the full length of the canal, every half mile. They were tasked to record the splash of any magnetic mines being laid in the canal by German aircraft. On the ground or on a table, they were supplied with a plywood board. This was overlaid with drawing paper. In the centre a stick was nailed at their end.

Once they located the splash of a mine entering the canal, they plotted the direction of the splash, drew a line on the paper and recorded the time. When all the papers were collated, it would indicate where the mine had entered the water. When a mine did enter the water, it usually sank to the bottom of the canal and stuck in the mud.

The Royal Navy mine sweepers would then locate and explode these mines the next day. On one occasion we watched the minesweepers in action. After three passes over the area indicated by the Egyptian soldiers, the mine exploded. First the water rose high in the air. This was followed by the mud and dirt. The water boiled and finally, the fish started to float to the surface." Robin Martin (2004)

X Troop annoying a scorpion at the Suez Oil Refinery

R Martin  J Brogan  J Henry  R McClelland  W Patterson  C Walsh 

T Barr  R McDonald

 

 

Sergeant Norman Irwin's Story

 

When the Battery was at Bur Tewfiq we were ferried ashore by lighter and went to Cairo. We stayed there a couple of days and then we were operationally deployed on the Anti Aircraft Defence of the Suez Canal. We were using the Bofors Gun for this task. It was reported that when the foundations for the Gun Emplacements were being dug along the Suez Canal, Turkish Army uniforms from the First World War kept turning up. Many of the Battery swam across the Suez Canal during the day. There was little chance of any enemy action during the day. Most enemy activity occurred at night, as the enemy aircraft attacked our positions and attempted to parachute-drop mines into the Canal. 

After we were posted to the Suez Canal  the Greece incident occurred. This occurred half way through the route of the Italian Army back to Tripoli. Churchill ordered Wavell  to redeploy some of his forces. We had lost 15,000 men to the Germans in Greece and Crete. Instead of destroying the Italian Army, Wavell had to support the defeated British Army in Greece.

Brian Clarke's Troop from mid Ulster were responsible for the guns at the south entrance to the canal. At the south entrance to the canal there was an island with a gun on it. There were also a couple of guns on the east bank of the canal at Port Tewfiq and a couple on the west bank at Suez.  At the north entrance to the canal, the Battery manned the guns at Port Said and Port Fuad. The guns had been in position for quite a while.  They were basically denuded and in a state of  dangerous disrepair. For example, the wheels had been stripped off  and it was doubtful if the guns would be safe to use. The basic maintenance tool kit was not available. This made it impossible to remove the automatic loader for daily cleaning. The sand would interfere with the working mechanism therefore daily cleaning was always a minimum requirement.

I made a tool kit that was used to remove the automatic loader in order to clean my own gun. As soon as Brian Clarke discovered that I could strip the automatic loader and clean the gun, he changed my job. He organised it so that I was detached from my gun. I was accommodated in a Port Siad hotel. He also gave me a taxi and an Armenian driver so that I would have no problems in maintaining all the guns in his Troop.

No 7 (REME) Workshop  Tel el Kabir   After that episode I left the Battery. There was a shortage of qualified Engineers in the British Army serving in Egypt. They checked my pay book and noted that I was an engineer, so I was posted to the Port Workshops in Port Said. This was a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) location at Tel el Kabir. It was a huge location manned by 40,000 service personnel and 32,000 civilian labourers.

I was put in charge of No 7 Workshop. There we worked round the clock in twelve hour shifts. We did a six hour shift on Sundays in order to change from day to night shift. Our main task in the workshop was to ensure that all the equipment coming into the Desert campaign was ready for use. This included Jeeps, trucks and tanks. On many occasions this equipment had been sabotaged before it reached us. It was impossible to determine where or at what stage of the journey to Egypt the equipment had been sabotaged. There were four possibilities;

1.      At the factory of manufacture

2.      En route to the docks

3.      While on board the ship

4.      At the Egyptian docks

On one occasion, the spark plugs had been removed from a truck, the engine was filled with peat and then the spark plugs were replaced.

Workshop Security   The workforce was only searched on leaving the Camp, never on arrival. The Camp did not have a perimeter fence, just a token strand of wire to denote the Camp boundary. There were very few main roads into the Camp area. When the civilians finished work, they simply walked off into the desert from all points of the compass. At the end of the day, civilians were searched within each workshop before they made their way home. Part of my duty was to supervise the searching of the civilian workforce. The searches were carried out by a Sikh Regiment and supervised by a British Army Senior NCO. 

On one occasion an Arab store man was searched. He was dressed in Western clothes, including a Trilby hat. Nothing was found, but he was called back and the Sikh soldier lifted his Trilby. Balanced on the store man's head was a bar of army issue soap. On some occasions an army unit would put on a show of strength by encircling the camp area at closing time. All civilians were then searched for a second time before they were permitted to leave the camp area. Despite the initial searches within each workshop, these surprise searches left the open areas full of quickly discarded stolen equipment.

Italy  During a late shift, the Orderly Sergeant came looking for a volunteer to go to a Regiment stationed in the Western Desert. There were two takers, Harry 'Smudge' Smith and myself. We tossed a coin and I won.

At 2.30 in the morning I was in the Medical Officers hut for the required medical before transferring. The Orderly Sergeant shook the MO. He rolled over, opened one eye and looked at the Orderly Sergeant who told him why I was there. The MO put his hand out and I gave him my Pay Book. He then put his other hand out and the Orderly Sergeant put a pen in it. The MO rolled over another bit, opened the other eye and looked at me. He asked me if I wanted to go to the other unit. I replied that I did. He signed the Pay Book, handed back the Pay Book and pen, rolled over and went back to sleep.

I was transferred to the Army Ordnance Corps and then attached to the 201st Guards Brigade until the end of the war. My task was to organise the recovery of  damaged vehicles and equipment from the battle fields as the Brigade fought their way from Salerno to Monte Cassino. Salerno was difficult, the Axis defence was so strong we had to make the landing 2 miles further down the coast than planned. I was second off the landing craft. This was because I was in command of a Recovery Wagon. I had to position myself so that I could recover any damaged vehicles and allow the landing to go smoothly. We lost more men at Salerno than we did on D-Day.

I was pulled out of the line at Monte Cassino and sent down to Sorrento. There, we gave all our equipment to the Canadian Army, boarded the Capetown Castle and made our way home.

I did not realise that our 9th HAA Regiment was at Salerno until 50 years later when I met Walter Richardson from Tobermore. I was telling him how I had been deafened by heavy gun fire going over my head at Salerno. He informed me that his Battery had gone home and he had been posted to the 9th Londonderry Regiment. The 9th had been sent to Italy and provided covering fire at Salerno." (Norman Irwin 2004) 

The First Battery Death

****   Dodger McKeown  *****   Norman Walker   Cairo  1941 

 

The Burial of Gunner Alfred McKeown

In March 1941, the Battery suffered the first of it's eleven deaths for the war period. Alfred 'Dodger' McKeown was a passenger in a six-wheel gun tractor that was  undergoing road testing after maintenance. It was involved in a traffic accident near Cairo. The passenger side was hit side on by another truck driven by an Egyptian.  Dodger was buried in Ismailiya War Cemetery next the Suez Canal.

 

 

 

 


Introduction

The Early Years

The Move

Egypt

Western Desert

France and Belgium

Netherlands and Germany

Italy

Battery Administration

Battery Roll Call

Closing Notes

Home