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The Coleraine Battery - The Western Desert  

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


Area of Operation  This campaign was to be fought in Egypt and Libya on a section of land bordered to the east by the Suez Canal and to the north by the Mediterranean coastline. The coastline towns that the Coleraine Battery would be fighting near included Marsa Matruh, Bardia, Tobruk, Gazala, Derna, Benghazi and Mersa Brega. The map below shows the area of operation for the Battery during the Desert War from August 10th 1941 until October 23rd 1943.

 

1    Maktila

2    Nibeiwa

3    Sofafi

4    Sidi Barrani

5    Tummar

6    Bugbug

7    Sollum

8    Sidi Omar

9    Bardia

10  Capuzzo

11  Tobruk

12  Sidi Rezegh

13  Gazala

14  El Adem

15  Bir Hacheim

16  Sollum & Halfaya Pass

17  Mechili

18   Msus

19  Barce

20  Antelat

Operational Role  The operational role of the Battery  included the following tasks. 

·         Mobile Patrolling (Jock Columns)

·         AA and Ground Fire Support to Special Forces

·         AA Support to Field Guns

·         Railway Defence

·         Train Defence

·         Road Defence

·         Army HQ Protection

·         Airfield Defence

·         Harbour Defence

Below is a synopsis of  the Battery's movement for a 5-week period. This information was collated from Richard Doherty's excellent book on the history of the 9th (Londonderry) Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment RA, 'Wall of Steel' 1988. This illustrates the flexibility that the Battery was expected to display in the Western Desert.

Date

Deployment/Attachment

Location

July  21st '41

Reserve - Preparing for Mobile Desert Warfare

N Africa

Aug 10th '41

X and Z Troops with  2nd LAA Rgt 12th AA Brigade - Airfield Defence

LG 01 and LG 02 at Sidi Barrani

 

Y Troop with 2nd South African Brigade 

Gerwala

Aug 16th '41

Y Troop

Siwa Oasis

Aug  20/24th '41

Battery HQ and X Troop on the move/ 7th Indian Infantry Brigade

Siwa Oasis

Aug  20th '41

Z Troop

LG 05

Aug  24th '41

X Troop - LAA Defence - 6th Sikhs

Jarabub Oasis

Aug  21/26th '41

Y Troop along with South African Armoured Cars

Desert Patrol

Late Aug '41

Z Troop - 7th Indian Infantry Brigade

Jarabub Oasis

Because of the dynamic role the Battery played in the Desert War, it would be difficult to follow all three Troops as they moved through the desert on separate missions. Lance Bombardier Robert McDonald 1448745 has rescued me from this complex web by allowing me to refer to his diary. This little gold mine of information details every posting and operational tasking he had for WWII. The remainder of this story will, in the main, follow the fortunes of Lance Bombardier Robert McDonald and  X Troop 6  LAA Battery.

Tow Truck and Bofors Gun

Early on in the desert war, the Battery earned the nickname 'Hope's Greyhounds' (Doherty, p183 1988). While under the command of Major Hope, the Battery was constantly moving around the Western Desert at high speed. 

 

At other times the Battery slowed down when they took on difficult terrain in order to close in and surprise the enemy.  (Doherty p.184)

Mobile Patrolling (Jock Columns)  "Each Troop was designated to different areas of the desert, depending on the requirement for Light Anti Aircraft Defence.   As well as carrying out these static tasks, the Battery were also expected to 'up sticks' at short notice and carry out aggressive patrolling in the Western Desert.  Long before the SAS and the LRDG started off, Col. John Charles Campbell had started the fighting columns. The Battery base for these aggressive patrols was Siwa Oasis. Then the SAS came out and took over this area when they started operating with the LRDG. 

No way can you depend on airborne insertion in the desert. You still had to get out of the situation as well. The vehicle wheels had t be modified. Instead of having the ordinary road tyres, more suitable for the muddy roads of England, we used balloon tyres. The pressure was dropped from 30 psi to 25 - 20. That way the tyres spread out and gripped the sand. The first run we made was purgatory. We were constantly using the sand channels and a truck mounted winch to move the guns through the sand. It was tough going, we virtually carried the guns through some parts of the desert. We always thought that one hundred yards was a good distance to travel without digging into the sand.

The tactics developed by the SAS were ours, Hit and Run. Robbie Burns was good at it. I was with him twice. You hit and then ran into the desert for one hour. That was about 20 miles of difficult driving over sandy ground. After the hour you stopped, huddled up and camouflaged your position. If the enemy were going to pursue you or send out aircraft, you had one hour to make your escape." Spanky McGowan (2004)

Ambushing Convoys  "You scouted through the desert and found the Italian tracks. These tracks usually indicated the routes they were using to bring forward their stores, equipment and their patrolling routes. Once we had the area plotted out, we placed two guns on one side of the track with limited arcs of fire. Two or three guns were placed forward of these two guns, again with limited arcs of fire. 

When the Italian convoys approached, we would let them go past our camouflaged gun pits. As soon as the convoy entered the gun arcs, we blasted them, upped sticks and went hell for leather into the desert. We were caught out twice after this type of ambush. After all, everybody knew we were in the vicinity and we could only travel for twenty miles into the desert in any direction. The Italians would send up their twin winged Savoy 79's, S72's or 42's. All we could do was huddle together below our scrim nets, praying for the planes to pass overhead". Spanky McGowan (2004)

"Sometimes the Italian transporters would be supported by armoured troop carriers. These troop carriers were highly manoeuvrable. they had half tracks, a 20mm cannon and at least 8 troops sitting inside. These vehicles would criss-cross the transporters route. They would stop on the high ground and  observe, sometimes up to half a mile out from the road, checking the desert for our ambush positions. If we spotted these vehicles we left the convoy alone." Robin Martin (2004) 

 

Alan Thompson & Bobby McDonald & Italian Bi-Planes 1942

 

The Siege of Tobruk  On February 27th, 1941, X Troop was at El Tahag Camp near Ismalia. From March 24th, 1941 the Battery was in action at Burg el Arab, Bagush, Sidi Barani and Marsah Matruh.  This date was also the date of Rommel's advance and the siege of  Tobruk.  Private Bob McDonald was promoted to Lance/Bombardier on  March 27th 1941. X Troop taskings for the remainder of 1941 were as follows:

·         Kilo 73/5, the Suez Canal March 24th 1941 

·         Port Fouad April 25th 1941

·         Port Tewfiq May 5th 1941

 

·         Kilo 63/5 Suez Canal May 15th 1941

·         Moascan Airdrome May 29th 1941

·         Spinney Wood July 5th 1941

·         Spinney Wood (E) July 13th 1941

·         Moascar Transit Camp July 22nd 1941

·         Beni Suef  From July 23rd July until August 9th 1941

·         Barg El Arab August 10th 1941

·         Bagouche August 11th 1941

·         Sidi Barani August 12th until 20th 1941

·         Khalda August 21st 1941

·         Marsah Matruh August 22nd 1941

Marsa Matruh - Facing the Sea - 1941

 

·         After Marsah Matruh, the Battery moved for Siwa Oasis on  August, 23rd 1941

·         Siwa Oasis August 24th 1941. 

Siwa Oasis 

"Siwa Oasis was a marvellous area to be in. There were bubbles of fresh water coming up out of the ground. The bubbles were as big as footballs. The oasis had a stone wall around it. It was also surrounded by palm trees with enormous bunches of dates hanging from them. The dates were soft and as sweet as strawberries." Robin Martin (2004)

          

Support to Special Forces

"The SAS switched to mobile patrolling after their initial disastrous airborne assaults resulted in the loss of 70% of their troops. After that they came to us for a bit of training.  The Battery can be proud of that because we had already been doing mobile warfare for a year before the SAS started. We were moving round the desert by the use of the stars and a sun compass mounted on the front mud guard of the truck. The desert was like a sea, you needed the compass and a decent map to find your way around.

In the Mobile Warfare role, the SAS concentrated on long range patrols to attack German airfields, supply lines and transport. The Battery concentrated on hit and run tactics against supply transport as well as supporting the infantry.

When L Detachment were getting themselves organised for Mobile warfare, they took over a camp at El Hag on the Canal Zone. The New Zealanders were with us out in the desert. Blair Mayne stripped the New Zealanders camp of everything they could lift, tables, chairs.. the lot." Spanky McGowan (2004)

There was a relationship of types between L Detachment and the Battery because the respective Commanding Officers knew each other personally. Blair Mayne of L Detachment and the Officer Commanding  6 Battery, Jack Christie, were rugby players at the same time. Mayne was reading Law and finished his scholastic endeavours in April, 1938. In 1939 Blair Mayne was commissioned into 5 Light Anti Aircraft Battery at Newtonards and Jack Christie was commissioned into 6 Light Anti Aircraft Battery at Coleraine. On 4 April 1940 Blair Maine transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles and was then seconded into the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) in late spring 1940. (Ross, 2003)  In the same year Mayne went on to  volunteer for 11th (Scottish) Commando.  By 28 Sept 1942, L Detachment had been absorbed into the unit called 1 SAS Regiment. 

When Blair Maine and Jack Christie met up in the desert for the first time, the interaction went like this. Jack Christie was out on a Jock Column patrol when the came upon a camouflaged and tented area. Jack pulled back one of the tent flaps to have a look in and was greeted by Blair Maine, "Christie, what the F*** are you doing here. Clear off to F*** before you compromise us!" ...End of exchange.

"The Battery were often tasked to go out as independent Troops of  three or four guns, looking for anything to shoot up. Anything belonging to the Germans or Italians was a potential target. That included convoys and unguarded transporters. We would plan the attack so that we could strike hard and fast and then escape into the desert and go to ground, hoping that we were not followed. Sometimes, these tasks were carried out in conjunction with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the forerunners of the SAS, L Detachment. We did not travel together, but we had to be in the vicinity of their operations to cover them from counter attacks or strafing  from enemy planes." Robin Martin (2004) 

"One night we were in position on the Gazala Line, carrying out AA protection of the Polish Brigade Field Guns. At dusk, my gun and three others were given the order to get ready to move. Our guns were fitted out with extra long barrels, called Long Toms. We went out into the desert and travelled at a slow pace. After a couple of hours travel, we were ordered to dig in the guns, camouflage our positions, grab some sleep and not to move or make a sound, even at dawn. When dawn broke, we found ourselves positioned on some high ground overlooking a German airfield which was between two and three miles away"

"We lay there all day watching Stukas landing, refuelling and restocking with munitions from supply transport. These planes took off again as soon as they were replenished. We all speculated on their destination and our tasking. We thought that we were going to shell the place. Instead, we sat there all day, unable to move. On the second night there was a series of explosions on the landing strip. The LRDG had been in after dusk with L Detachment and set a series of bombs.  We sat in our hides for a second day, expecting the aircraft to take off in pursuit of the LRDG. Nothing happened that day. The LRDG and L Detachment had caused so much damage the Germans did not counter attack."

"On the third night we took off the camouflage and moved back to the Gazala Line. A three day operation without firing one shot. We were strafed about 3 times altogether when we were out on this type of operation. In all cases, the enemy action only lasted from five to ten minutes.

We never worked directly with the LRDG. All of their operations were secret. We would only be told to be in a certain place at a certain time and provide AA cover to them. When you are driving along it is difficult to see or hear the enemy planes coming in. We were always positioned to give them that cover. We would see them driving through the desert. To stop the sun reflecting, they had no wind screens in their Jeeps. They had their heads fully covered and used goggles to keep the sand out. " (Robin Martin 2004)

Operation Crusader and Force 'E'  When Operation Crusader was launched, the Battery was part of  a unit called  Force 'E' commanded by Brigadier Reid. Force  'E' (or Oasis Force) was a diversion to the main attack in Operation Crusader. Both operations were launched on November 18th 1941. According to a security unconscious BBC news item at the time, the Eighth Army had 'started a general offensive in the Western Desert, with the aim of destroying the German-Italian forces in Africa'. Stewart (2002) The Allie's main objectives were to lift the siege on Tobruk, retake Cyrenaica and then advance into Tripoli. The Oasis Force diversionary line of attack was based on an earlier plan that had been rejected because of the difficult terrain involved.

Operation Crusader was also the debut of the SAS. On the night of 16/17 November 1941 the SAS were tasked to attack Axis airfields in the Gagala-Timimi areas. This was a tragic operation. The parachute drop left the troops dispersed and separated from their munitions. Only a third of the troops reached the final rendezvous with the LRDG As a consequence of this failure, the SAS used the LRDG to insert and extract them in future operations. This marriage was a total success. When the Western Desert War was concluded, the SAS had accounted for over 400 Axis aircraft, tons of stores and had also restricted the free movement of the Axis forces at night.

Unit Commanders Force 'E' Aug 1941

Col Jenkins

Brig. Reid

****

Col  Ghroebblar

Allen

*****

Cornah

Col Short

He****

*****

 

An Indian Comrade 1942

The Battery and  4/11 Sikhs

The Diversion  When Operation Crusader started on 18/19 November 1941 the Battery were in the area of Jarabub. This was south of the main battle and to the west of Siwa Oasis. X Troop were out on the ground on a Brigade exercise on that date. Y and Z Troop, accompanied by elements of Battery HQ were responsible for providing AA protection to the mobile forces advancing on Jalo and Jikara forts.  Y and Z Troop, set off through the dreaded Sand Seas - believed by the Italians and British to be impassable - to the Italian held fort at Jalo. Here the Battery did a great job when the infantry were pinned down. One officer, Lt. Martin Jackson earned the Military Cross for directing fire of the Bofors Guns in a ground role against four Italian guns. There were other operations against the German supply routes and lines of communications between Agedabia and El al Augil.

Two days later,at noon on November 21st 1941, Gunner Paddy Toner, from Coleraine, was killed when the column was strafed by a German Bf 100 fighter. His truck had just taken a gun tractor in tow when the column was attacked by a group of Junkers, Fiat bombers and Bf 100's (Doherty p.183) Paddy was on board a Canadian 3 ton Chevvy, standing between two 40 Gallon drums of fuel when he was strafed.

During these operations, the British lifted the siege of Tobruk on December 4 1941 and the Germans retreated to El Aghelia.

For their deployment after the Siwa tasking, X Troop went to Landing Ground 125 on November 20th 1941. This was a RAF Landing Strip built up with supplies by the Long Range Desert Group. It was to be used as a refuelling base for the long range bombers of the Canal Zone.  X Troop stayed there until the first week in January 1942, carrying out AA Defence tasks. 

"After Siwa, the Battery split up. We went to LG 125, which was about fifty to sixty miles south of Benghazi. This was well beyond the front lines. One day the weather was good, not bad for a desert winter. This was just after Christmas. There was a vapour trail high in the sky. We knew that this was a German Recce plane. We had been caught out because the visibility was high and the planes we were guarding had not been camouflaged. The next day we were strafed by six JU 88's. They set fire to everything. The airstrip had been compromised and was not used again." Robin Martin (2004)

After the German air attack, X Troop moved to Saunmu for January 4th 1942. The Battery reformed again at Goff el Mataar on January 5th, 1942. By January 17 1941, the Battery broke up again,  BHQ, Y and Y Troop left E Force and  joined 22nd Guards Brigade who were stationed at Samhaudia, south of Agedabia (Doherty)  On January 21, 1942, the fourth stage of the Benghazi handicaps started when Rommel went on the offensive. 

Rommel's Counter Attack  "On that date, part of X Troop were operating as a Jock Column towards Bengazi and Tripoli. We were caught out by the Africa Corps. We happened to be the most Western advanced of the Allied Army. Their advance was like a mirage in the desert. They covered the whole desert on a broad front. We started running like hares. Lenny Butler was the Troop Commander and Johnny Hull was the Sergeant. I was the Bombardier of the gun and travelled in the 3 Ton Canadian Chevrolet, responsible for all the kit. Bob Elliot was giving me a hand at the time. Lenny Butler gave the signal to link up the guns, mount up and to move. 

I picked up Bob Elliot and threw him in beside the driver, Mousey Warke. The Chevvy was flying along at this time and I crouched on the running board. Two or three 75's landed near us and I got a few bits of shrapnel in the right hip. It was like a red hot poker in my side. I shouted to Mousey Warke, "Drive on! I'm hit! I'm hit!" 

A week later when we got ourselves sorted out and were having a beer. The two Battery comedians, Mousey Warke and Charlie McGonagle  had got together and came up with the story. "Did you hear about Spanky McGowan? We were in the thick of it and he shouts, Drive on, I've shit! I've shit!" Spanky McGowan (2004)

 

Willie Campbell Mousey Warke  Jock Adams Charlie McGonagle Sam Lake

Also at that time, X Troop were at Matar. They split into two patrols to operate in Sahabi  Areida. On that operation X Troop lost one Bofors gun and eight men south of Agedabia. These eight men were taken prisoner by the Italians. 

  

Rommel captured Benghazi by 29 January 1941. He then forced the Allied Armies back to Gazala. 

X Troop movement continued:

·         Saunmu February 23rd 1942

·         Machili February 20th 1942

·         Tinimi  February 29th 1942

·         Acroma March 2nd 1942

·         Tobruk March 5th 1942

·         Gazala with the Polish Brigade March 10th 1942

AA Support to Field Guns at Gazala  In February the Battery handed over to the South Africans and moved into a secondary line behind the Gazala Ridge, recommencing patrol duties with the Polish Brigade in forward areas.

"The Polish Brigade, to a man, thought we were heroes. Every time a German plane came to our locations to attack us, we leapt out of the foxholes and manned the Bofors. We figured out it was better to shoot at the attacking planes and put them off aim rather than let them use us for target practice." Sam Lake (2004)

Tom Gamble A Diamond

Robert McCook

Ron Hutchinson

S Archibald

Sam Nevin

 

"On one occasion my gun shot down a German Recce plane. It crash landed close to the gun. When the pilot got out of the plane one of the gunners asked, "Sergeant, will we shoot him?" I hoped he was joking. I replied, "We have done our job, the plane is finished, he's our prisoner now" Sam Nevin (2004)

On February 9th 1942 Sgt Bertie Dunlop was killed in action at Gazala. This was the third  fatality for the Battery during the war. The Battery was providing AA Defence for Polish field guns at the time. The field guns were dive bombed by Stukas. Sgt Dunlop was fatally wounded in this attack by bomb splinters to his right lung. 

"Bertie Dunlop was doing a great job, crown wheel repairs to a tow truck. Two or three times a day the Stukas caught us on the Gazala Ridge in 1942. They used to come in groups of nine, always peeling off to the left at the start of an attack. I was on my hands and knees and made a run with Mousey Warke to a small banking for cover.

Bertie Dunlop (KIA 1942)

"Bertie Dunlop came from below the tow truck and was walking to the nearest cover. The bombs went off and Bertie clutched at his side with both hands and the blood was coming through his fingers. There was little we could do for Bertie. The first aid was limited in this area and he died". Spanky McGowan (2004)

"We were returning from troop HQ with some stores when the Stukas started to dive bomb the Gun Lines. We jumped from the lorry and took cover. The guns were firing at this time and the bombs fell far away from the Lines. But Bertie said to Willie Maxwell, "Willie, I'm hit!" He then collapsed and died about two hours later. " Robin Martin (2004)

The remainder of the patrols regrouped and were able to break out. The troops from Jalo had joined up with the Guards Infantry Brigade back to the stand at Gazala Ridge. On May 26, Rommel attacked Gazala and then captured Tobruk on June 21st 1942. The Battery reformed on the left flank of the Gazala Ridge, and were taking the brunt of the German air assault. The Battery engaged the Stukas, forcing them to release their bombs before they finished their screaming dive. It was on the Gazala Ridge that the Battery experienced the German ploy of using a British fighter plane as a decoy when attacking the Ridge. 

Just back from twenty four hours on the Gazala Line - February 1942

Y Troop Bofors Gun and Crew  -  Cold Tired and Hungry

  Joe Bottemly     Johnny Teamby       Marcus Wilton    Dick Burges   (Sitting)   Sam Lake   

Harold Milford 

Willie Campbell, on the extreme right, along with Harry McWilliams were  wounded on February 10th 1942 whilst operating on the Gazala Line

Joe, Johnny and Dick were from English Regiments. They had been posted into the Battery while they were  in Egypt, just as Battery personnel were also posted to other units.

"The Stukas dive bombed us all the time on the Gazala Line. We always tried to put them off on their dive in. They were easy to hit after they dropped their bombs. It took them a long while to turn out of the dive. We dropped at least three in one day." Sam Lake 2004 (Aged 86)

On March 19th X Troop were on patrol until the 22nd. At this stage, L/Bdr Robert McDonald developed medical problems. He was moved to the 12th GA Advanced Dressing Station. On March 24th the Troop was in Tobruk.  L/Bdr  Robert McDonald had a perforated appendix at this point. He was moved to SS Llandovery Castle for March 27th,  then on to Alexandria 63 General Hospital, Cairo on the 29th. There he had the offending organ removed in a keyhole surgery operation. A South African surgeon performed this operation. Finally, he was moved to Almaza Base Depot (Royal Artillery) to recuperate.

X Troop tasking were as follows:

·         Marsa Matruh March 27th 1942

·         Fort Capuzzo May 3rd 1942

·         Bir Hamed Advanced rail head May 8th 1942

·         Mashifa May 26 1942 

·         Dummy Railhead May 28th 1942

·         Fort Capuzzo May 29th until June 18th 1942

Cappuzzo 1941

The Dummy Railhead  1942

The Dummy Railhead  "The Dummy Railhead was made up to look like a large rail yard. It had imitation rail lines, goods wagons and piles of empty ammo boxes. This was all done in Montgomery's time. Jasper Masculine was the main planner and designer of this deception. Even when you were up close to the dummy munitions, materials railheads, tanks and lorries, you would think they were real. That was the idea. The German Recce planes were expected to take photos of these dummy locations and consider the risk they created. 

At the same time the real tanks, trains and goods yards were well disguised and camouflaged. That way, the Germans would fail to spot them. 

This was an important tactic because it saved thousands of lives by preserving the real materials for the battle field. It also wasted German munitions and units on dealing with these objects". Robin Martin (2004)

 

Rommel's Continued Offensive  As the Allied Army retreat (strategic withdrawal) continued,  the Battery moved from one AA Defence to another, against heavy strafing all the time. 

The Desert War was not going too well  for the Allies at all. At this stage of the war, the allies had intelligence reports based on intercepted German signals. These indicated  that Rommel was planning a decisive winter campaign. Rommel's plan was to take Tobruk, which had a port of strategic importance. He then planned to move on Egypt and control the Suez Canal. With this control, the Allies would have had to take the long route around Africa. This would also have given the Germans control of the Mediterranean sea, access to the oil fields to the east in Haifa and finally, a link up with the German Army fighting in Eastern Europe

Road Defence Using the Breda Gun  The Bredas were transported by 3 Ton vehicles. This was an Italian 20mm single barrel pan fed weapon. Each clip had between 10 - 15 rounds. The expended shells were ejected from the front of the gun. 

For road security the vehicle was made to look like an ordinary covered vehicle. We very seldom patrolled the roads. At times the Battery were tasked to escort convoys along Hellfire Pass. These were usually 10 Ton supply vehicles. The procedure was for the escort was to have a Breda mounted 3 Tonner at the front, one in the middle and one at the rear of the convoy. Because of the noise of the convoy it was important to keep watching for enemy aircraft approaching.

Lorry Mounted Breda Gun

 

Railway Defence  "After the Gazala Lines we were relieved by the South African Division. They took over our 40mm Bofors Guns and we took their 20mm Italian Breda's for the Railway AA Defences. " Robin Martin (2004)

On Railway Defence with the 20mm Italian Breda Gun

 

From their taskings on the Gazala Ridge, the Battery moved back to Halfa Railhead on May 27th 1942 taking over AA Defence on the supply trains with the New Zealand Engineering Unit and providing AA Defence of those building the rail track.  It was on that day the battery captured the Feisler Storch plane. The German crew having been caught trying to blow up the railway.

 

"The New Zealanders were in charge of the building and maintenance of the railway which ran parallel to the coast road. Bulldozers were used to build up the railway banking, the sleepers were laid and then the rails were put in place. This process was fascinating to watch but the workers were always reminding us to look out for German planes. The track was very rough because there was no firm ground. Only pink clay and sand.

This railway took a lot of pressure off the transporters using the coast road and increased the Allied re-supply capability. The German planes would fire on the trains around Mersa Matruh. Before we started protecting the trains the New Zealand company had lost a couple of engines in German Air attacks.

When we were protecting the train, there were usually three Breda guns on each train. As with the road convoys, the Breda guns had three tactical locations. On the trains they were were positioned on three flatbed wagons. one to the front of the train, one central along with the engine and one at the rear. With the train movement and noise it was impossible to hear the plane coming. It was important to watch carefully for the plane coming in on an attacking run. The idea was to put the enemy pilot off aim by firing first. It was not just a matter of shooting the plane down, you had to spoil his aim, make him dodge. We were attacked mostly in the Marsa Matruh area.

Only one week after we left , the Germans ran through the Gazala Lines. There were insufficient heavy guns to defend these lines. To start with, the Germans dive bombed the lines with the Stukas, then overran the lines with their tanks. We did not have the heavy guns to knock these tanks out.

When Rommel overran the Gazala ridge, we were on AA Defence of the railway. We were told to bring everything back. Everything that was useful was lifted, put on the train and transported back to El Alamein. It took us three days to get back to El Alamein. Each time we came to an area of stores or ammunition, we either loaded up the train or destroyed the stores. If we came across any vehicles without drivers available, we put a hole in the petrol tank and threw a match into it.

Other units that left the Gazala Lines at the same time as we did, went on to Tobruk. When Rommel advanced on the Gazala lines, instead of by-passing Tobruk, he attacked. He captured the whole South African Division, the Polish Brigade and some Artillery. This included the 5th Light AA Battery." Robin Martin (2004)

After Capuzzo, X Troop was posted to Mashifa on June 19th 1942. When Tobruk fell to the Germans on June 20th,  X Troop was in Marsa Matruh.

 

The Allied Forces commander, General Claude Auchinleck, an Ulsterman, did not enjoy much success against the Germans at this stage of the war. When Tobruk fell to the German Army, it was with many losses in terms of men and equipment. The 8th Army had been driven back to El Alamein by the Germans for two main reasons. First, the superior generalship of Rommel, 'The Desert Fox'. Second, the superior tactics employed by the Germans. 

Despite the British tanks superior armour and fire power, the tanks kept losing the battles. It appears that the British tank commanders used their tanks like cavalry horses. The trouble was that charging tanks are inaccurate weapons. They were also easy targets for a static enemy who used their 80mm AA gun as an effective tank buster. (Stewart, 2002)

During WWII there were  limited and restricted modes of communication. So, how do you let your loved ones know you and your brother were well after a major battle?  Tom would send his wife a telegram whenever possible. 

 

What happened just before June 29th 1942 ?

On June 14th, the 8th Army had to withdraw from it's forward positions in Gazala.

On  the  June 20th 1942, Tobruk was captured by the Germans and the 8th Army retreated to El Alamein.

"Some of  5 Battery managed to escape from the Germans when Tobruk was captured. This included Jules Dorrian, Willie Hutchinson, Jerry Towser, J McGinn and Harold Montgomery.

These men  kept going until they reached the dockyards and met up with some Royal Navy personnel. They all helped each other to escape by building rafts and launched these out into the Mediterranean at dusk. The tide allowed the rafts to drift out of sight of land. A British submarine surfaced close to the rafts, gave the escapees some fresh water and then sent a signal to other Royal Navy units in the area. Patrols were dispatched out and successfully located the rafts. These survivors from the 5th Battery were posted to the 6th Battery." Robin Martin (2004)

"Harry Campbell was recuperating at the hospital in Tobuk when Rommel attacked. He made his way to the shoreline and swam out to sea. He was picked up by a British Royal Navy destroyer. The destroyer took him to the Navy Base in Alexandria and he was returned to the Battery again." Sammy Lake (2004)

After the fall of Tobruk, the three Troops were designated A, B and C. Lance Bombardier Robert McDonald's  'A'  Troop tasking was as follows:

·         Juka June 25th 1942

·         Hamam, 40 miles from Alexandria, June 28th 1942

·         Amriya July 1st 1942

·         Meena House Hotel July 4th 1942

 

 

Breda Gun Pit Overlooking Meena Camp 1942

'X' Troop outside Meena House Hotel Cairo, July 1942 

xxxxx

J Davidson

N Morrison

J Hale

W Patterson

W Haslam

R Simpson

T McDonald

R McDonald

J Haslam

G Johnston

S Leslie

M Gibson

 

J McCloy

G Murray

J Jackson

T Shaw

A Abraham

xxxxxxx

J Stirrock

W Hammond

C Walsh

 

J Brogan

T Henry

J Jones

R McClelland

W Dixon

D Christie

J Adams

S White

J Bills

 

 

Airfield AA Defence  The Battery was finally rushed to Heliopolis Airdrome. It was getting hammered by night raids, but this duty was a  rest for the Battery after eleven months in the desert. The full Battery carried out AA Defence of the Airdrome from July 30th until October 13th 1942

 

In August 1942 at Heliopolis, Cairo  X Troop was Renamed A Troop

WR Maxwell RM Balmer J McClelland J McCloy B Simms A Hunter J Culshaw T Gregory xxx C Taylor J Haslam W Simpson H Mc Marnis W Patterson J Thomson J Jones xxx J Hale J Montgomery W Haslam J Mc Grotty xxx R McClelland J Jackson H Gibson C Murray  S White

D Pringle B Simpson T Burman J Dorrien T Shaw J Dooley J Adams J Leslie J Stirrock L Ebsworth xxx R Simson J Hourigan J Taylor T Barr R McDonald TK Henry W Hammond J Brogan   C Walsh xxx J Davis F Walls

R Martin H Montgomery J Bills SK Leslie

 

 

In August 1942 at Heliopolis, Cairo  Y Troop was Renamed B Troop

 

Willie Heward  Bisto  W. Campbell  Taffy Thomas   Mousey Warke  McKenzie  ***  J Oliver  E. Piney  Bob McVeigh

Ben Lambert  V. Morrison  Jim Peden  W. Norris  S. Lake  Alan Elliot  *** Eddy Kelly  G. Batchelor  McDonald

*** J. Bottemly   Spanky McGowan  John Hamill  Johnny Hunter  W. McCaw  Capt. Pelham *** Bob McCook  S.  Nevin  Norman Walker  *** Sgt Wilson  Hopkinson

Marcus Wilton  J.Diamond  ***   Willie Watton  Frank Henry  J. Gilmore  J Hutchinson  Jack Sharer

***  ***  Ralph Edwards  Jackie Barnard  P Beavis  McCluskey

Montgomery Arrives in Egypt  After the retreat to El Alamein, Churchill sent his first choice out to take command of the Western Desert, he was killed. The second choice, who did make it on August 13th 1942,  was Lt-Gen Bernard Montgomery. He had orders to destroy the Germans at the earliest opportunity. With Montgomery in charge and despite him having the personality and bite of a weasel, morale was boosted. Up until then, things had gone well for Rommel. The last three months had seen triumph after triumph, causing the British Cairo HQ to fear the worst and they were burning mountains of confidential documents. This malaise was halted by Montgomery. It happened at a ridge called Alam Halfa, close to El Alamein.  On August 30th 1942, after a  seven-day battle, Montgomery stopped Rommel's advance.

The Battery Reorganises  On October 12th 1942, the Battery was reorganized into four troops.  Beside A,  B and C Troop, the new troop was designated D Troop. Doherty (1988) states that the reorganization came about because of the change in the operational configuration of the Bofors gun in the desert environment. The normal configuration for the Bofors was in a triangle placement with the fourth gun in the middle of the triangle. The smoke and dust from the outer placed guns obscured the sight picture for the middle gun. Instead of three troops with four guns each, the structure became four troops with three guns each.

After the long sit at Heliopolis Airdrome from July 30th 1942, A Troop was posted to Bagda on October 13th 1942. Two days later L/Bombardier Robert McDonald was attached to Regimental HQ 2 LAA Regiment.

The Battle of El Alamein  "Prior to the Battle of El Alamein the 51st Scottish Highland Division arrived. They posted signs everywhere, A Coy, B Coy and 51st HD. We called them the Highway Decorators. Everyone else knew the place like the back of their hands. Then on October 23rd 1942, the battle of El Alamein started at 2240hrs. The British offensive was launched with a 1000 gun barrage that lasted 15 minutes. Within 12 days the Axis retreated out of Egypt into Tunisia, on November 4th 1942. Tobruk was retaken by the Allies on November 12th 1942". Spanky McGowan (2004)

"When the battle started, I was lying in the sick bay as I had just started to show the symptoms of Malaria. The next morning I was surrounded by wounded and dying Allied and German soldiers. It was 1956 before the Malaria attacks stopped". Robin Martin (2004)

Army HQ Protection  Re-equipped again, the Battery returned to the Western Desert at Bahed Railway Station on November 11th, 1942.  D Troop guns, under the command of Lt.  Pelham,  were detached for special duty as AA Defence of  Montgomery's 8th Army HQ - Tac HQ - holding this position until Tripoli, when D Troop rejoined the Battery at the Benghazi Port Defences. 

Benghazi Harbour Defence   The remainder of the Battery covered the Railway Engineering Unit, clearing the line to Tobruk. The Battery were also involved in defending Derna Landing Ground and keeping the route open for General Leese who was going through to Benghazi. The Battery travelled for three days and nights to carry out this assignment. The Battery arrived at Benghazi the night after it had been retaken and was responsible for holding the AA Defence of the port from November 24th 1942 until February 3rd, 1943.

Monty and A Troop

In this photograph, Montgomery visited Sgt Bob Balmer's gun crew on November 29th 1942.  The Battery were on AA Defence duties at Benghazi harbour. Sgt. Bob Balmer, in the cap, went on to be the Caretaker of Coleraine Town Hall and the Mace Bearer on formal occasions.

l to Rt  RJ Simpson   B Balmer    J Hale     Monty    J Dorrian  W Patterson    

W Simpson    WE Simpson    John Jackson   W Simpson

 

"Near the end of the Western Desert  campaign, the battery was posted to Benghazi.  George, the Battery Mascot, was still with us at this stage. For most of the desert war, each gun had enjoyed independent fire such as shooting up enemy convoys. At Benghazi this changed, for the first time we experienced night time bombing by the German air force.  The AA tactic employed to counter these attacks was The Umbrella Barrage". Spanky McGowan (2004) 

George, The Battery Mascot and Patsy

"At Benghazi, the Allies were stockpiling and distributing stores and equipment in order to finish the Western Desert campaign. The Battery covered part of Benghazi harbour AA defences. Each gun pit had a series of  arcs to fire on, A B C D ..... Each arc also had it's own elevation. On receipt of a phone call, for example, 'Barrage "B"! On! On! Engage!' You would fire on those lines for a while then the order would be 'Barrage "H"! On! On! Engage!' 

We were firing blind. The barrage bearings were based on the Radar information. Another source of information was the type of aircraft available to the enemy. Each aircraft had a known direction to come from and a specific height to fly at in order to release their bombs. This information gave the guns their own individual arc to fire in for each attack. As well as an arc of fire, each gun had a different elevation. Although the guns were firing blind, they were all firing in the same direction but at different heights. This created the "Wall of Steel"  for the enemy aircraft to fly through." Robin Martin (2004)

"When the first Umbrella Barrage started, George howled like a Banshee and then ran from the guns. We never saw George again". Spanky McGowan (2004)

A Troop Tasking for this period is as follows:

·         Hamam Station Nov 2nd

·         El Alamein Nov 7th

·         El Daba Nov 11th

·         Fuka Nov 12th

·         Marsa Matruh  Nov 13

·         Simla Nov 14

·         Meshifa Nov 16

·         Capuzzo Nov 18

·         Tobruk  Nov 21

·         Markiba Nov 22

·         Barce Pass Nov 22

·         Tocra Pass Nov 22

·         Benghazi Nov 23

·         R HQ  January 1 1943

·         Derna Feb 22

·         Tobruk Feb 22

·         Simla Feb 23

·         Cairo Feb 26

On Feb 26 1943 Bombardier Robert McDonald was posted to the Middle East Signals School Depot at Maadi. He remained there until April 25 1943. Bombardier McDonald then went on to Regimental HQ where he was trained as a Regimental Signals Instructor from May 6th until June 6th 1943. He passed his Trade Test on June 22 1943.  With this qualification, he left the Battery for the remainder of the war. He was then posted to 17 AA Brigade HQ in Tobruk from August 5th 1943 until August 8th 1943.  

The Battery moves for the remainder of 1943 included:

·         To Bersis LG then back to Benghazi on February 16th

·         To Misurata LG on March 26th

·         To Sidi Omar on June 12th

·         To Tobruk Railhead on July 17th

·         To Gambut LG on August 8th

·         To Derna LG on August 11th

·         Finally, the Battery provided AA Defence for the Royal Navy supply ships.

The End of the Desert War  The Battery were posted to Practice Camp on October 23rd, 1943 and then went on to Amariya Camp for November 2nd 1943. 

With the Battery on board and a bow filled with cement,  the SS Almanzora sailed out on November 17th, 1943, calling at Fort Agustus on November 22nd.

"When we started this trip we were not too happy. No one told us where we were going. As soon as the ship turned West we were a bit more happy." Robin Martin (2004)

On this trip, Y Troop were under the command of the ship's Gunnery Officer. They manned the ship's 40mm Bofor Guns for the return to UK. The Battery arrived in Greenock on December 9th 1943. After a Mystery Train Tour to Lewes on December 19th, 1943,  leave started.

The next operational role for the Battery was in the planning stages. It was for D-Day + 10 in June 1944.  Gunner 'Blinkie' Gamble did not know it, but in September the Coleraine Battery (Hope's Greyhounds) would be racing again. This time to rescue the Airborne Division, trapped at Arnhem in Holland. Blinkie's brother, Sgt Jim Gamble of 1st Airborne Division was there, waiting to be rescued.


Introduction

The Early Years

The Move

Egypt

Western Desert

France and Belgium

Netherlands and Germany

Italy

Battery Administration

Battery Roll Call

Closing Notes

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