Antony Brett-James

BALL OF FIRE
The Fifth Indian Division
in the Second World War

 

CHAPTER IX

SURRENDER WITH HONOUR
MAY 1941

THE seizure of Triangle was a direct threat to the heart of the Italian defences by Toselli Fort. The enemy was now hemmed in on all sides. Nevertheless, General Mayne estimated that our final assault would cost us many hundreds of casualties. He pictured the Italians, firing from the comparative security of their dugouts, taking a heavy toll of our men as they toiled up the cliff face, and then hoisting white flags from each successive cave as it was overrun. It was a very nasty prospect. All that Mayne could hope to do was to draw the enemy's attention towards 29 Brigade and then assault with the South Africans and with Fletcher's battalions, while the Italians were looking, and getting busy, in the wrong direction.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the Italians capitulated. At half past seven on May 16 Mayne was on the point of setting out with his C.R.A., Brigadier van Straubenzee, on a six-hour climb to the joint headquarters of Fletcher and Pienaar, in order to make final plans for the decisive assault. News arrived that two Italian officers and an interpreter, envoys from the Duke of Aosta, had come into the headquarters of Skinner's Horse under a white flag, and were craving an interview. Mayne postponed his expedition and sent for the envoys. The latter, blindfolded and under escort, arrived in half an hour. The senior officer's name was Colonel Tramontano. His mission was to ask for an armistice in order that the Italians might be able, "in the cause of humanity"---those were his words---to evacuate. their many hundreds of casualties into our charge. Would General Mayne also allow the Italians access to water? When Mayne declined to be so magnanimous, he was asked whether he would receive a senior envoy to discuss, on behalf of the Duke of Aosta, terms for capitulation. Mayne agreed.

Why did the Duke of Aosta decide to capitulate at this stage,. when he should have been looking forward to the prospect of mauling us without risking many Italian lives? The answer was, as the Duke told General Mayne several days later, that on the night before he sent his envoy, a burst of our 6-inch howitzer fire had struck an Italian P.O.L. dump high upon the slopes of Amba Alagi, and the petrol and oil had flowed downhill into the Duke's last remaining source of fresh drinking water. That finished him. And it was indeed a fortunate burst that saved many British, South African and Indian lives.

And so General Volpini. the Italian plenipotentiary, was sent down to meet Colonel Dudley Russell, Mayne's G.S.O. 1, at three o'clock that afternoon, May 16. Russell, nicknamed "Pasha" on account of his bushy black moustache and his manner, was to be seen about the Division wearing a Sam Browne belt over his khaki shirt and shorts, a broad-brimmed hat on his head, with a chinstrap beneath his firm jaw, open-leather chaplis on his feet. His legs were distinguished by black stockings and white ankle-socks. Under his arm he carried a walking-stick. During the 1914-18 war he had been wounded in France while serving with the Royal West Kent Regiment, had transferred to the Indian Army, and gained the Military Cross in Allenby's final advance through Palestine. Between the wars his service had varied between four years as Recruiting Officer for Pathans on the North-West Frontier of India, a period at the Staff College at Camberley, and the post of Assistant Director of Intelligence at Peshawar. On the outbreak of war Russell was commanding the 6th Royal Battalion, Frontier Force Rifles.

Russell went to the rendezvous at the appointed time. Volpini never arrived : he had been murdered on the way by free-lance Abyssinians. Indeed, Russell found a battle going on between the Italians in their forward defences and certain undisciplined parties of Abyssinians who were seeking to storm the Italian positions in quest of loot and murder.

The armistice was to be observed from one o'clock that day until seven in the evening. Plans were still carried forward for a Divisional attack by the South African and Nine Brigades in the event of our terms being refused. Some hours later an urgent message arrived from the Italian headquarters:

"Rebels surround our positions and are impeding the passage of our envoys as shown by the death of Volpini. We beg you most earnestly to send your envoy with Colonel Tramontano. We ask you to agree to extension of armistice until 1200 hours tomorrow and to stop movement of your troops to south of Amba Alagi. We assure you we will only fire on rebels who are attempting to penetrate our positions. We are constantly expecting to hear from you."

This request was agreed to. Colonel Russell would go next morning from Medami Alem across Bald Hill to Amba Alagi, there to communicate the terms of surrender. During the whole of the next twenty-four hours, and despite the armistice, there was continuous rifle, machine-gun, and mortar fire and bomb-throwing between the Italian forward defence lines and the Abyssinian would-be looters. Nevertheless, on the morning of May 17 at six-thirty Russell, accompanied by Captain C. W. Ridley and Lieutenant C. H. P. Bellwood, the interpreter, with a suitably strong escort of gunners from 144 Field Regiment, made their way unscathed up Bald Hill to Amba Alagi. They arrived soon after midday. The Italians were pleased to see Russell and his companions, and insisted on Russell drinking half a glass of neat brandy after his climb. This he did, after some protest, as he thought it might help to create the right atmosphere. The British officers were then taken to the place where the negotiations were to take place; this had been carefully selected on a narrow path along the face of the precipice. Here Russell met the senior Italian general, General Trezzani, who insisted that Russell should have a glass, this time of neat whisky, before the talks began.

There were two tents a short distance apart, one for the British, one for the Italians. The latter frequently retired to their tent to use a telephone which, as Russell later discovered, was connected direct to the Duke of Aosta.

Two hours later a message was sent to the Italian commander saying that a reply to General Mayne's terms of surrender was expected by three o'clock. Three o'clock came and Po reply had been received. Accordingly, at four o'clock a message was sent from Divisional Headquarters to Russell, saying that an immediate report was to be sent by wireless, as the time limit granted to the Duke of Aosta for the acceptance of our terms had already been extended. Half an hour passed, and then Russell was able to announce that, after prolonged negotiating, our terms of surrender, with minor modifications, had been accepted by the Italians. It is not without interest to quote certain passages from Russell's report of his parley with General Claudio Trezzani, which led to the agreement over terms of surrender:

TREZZANI: We have read your proposals. I would now like, with your permission, to make some counter-proposals.

'I think that you do not care very much about the honour and glory of the victory of Amba Alagi. What you really want is to open the road between Addis Ababa and Asmara. This you must do, owing to your superior forces. I am going to ask you to save His Royal Highness the Duke of Aosta from humiliation. The terms 1 will now suggest will in no way affect your object and will in fact differ materially but little from your own.

We propose that we remain in Amba Alagi; we leave you with full use of the road; we will take no action whatsoever against you; you may send an agent here to act as liaison officer; we ask to be allowed to remove our wounded, and such Italians as are unwilling to remain here shall be disarmed and handed over to you; we have sufficient food here and shall not require assistance from you; in fact, our concentration camp will be Amba Alagi: we shall be your prisoners, but we shall avoid the actual act of surrender; we will keep only enough arms to protect His Royal Highness and his garrison against Abyssinians.

RUSSELL: We are prepared to protect you against the Abyssinians.

TREZZANI: But this will relieve you of this responsibility which you will find difficult vide the death of General Volpini.

RUSSELL: Yes, until such time as we take over the Amba Alagi position. General Volpini was killed under the very eyes of your defences through your failure to provide the requisite escort.

It is impossible for us to allow a nation, which is unfortunately at war with us, to hold a strong point on an important line of communication for the duration of the war.

TREZZANI: The Duke would guarantee that arms are not used against you.

RUSSELL: I am most desirous, on behalf of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, to save the Duke from any form of humiliation; but there seems to be no difference between a disarmed Italian force in this 'Island' and the Duke being kept as a guest of the Commander-in-Chief at Asmara.

TREZZANI: No, here in this 'Island' he would be free.

RUSSELL: He would be free in Asmara.

TREZZANI: If allowed to stay here the Duke will avoid the act of surrender.

RUSSELL: The distinction is so nice as not to be worth considering.

TREZZANI: Then why not accept it?

RUSSELL: He would be living in a prison.

TREZZANI: But he would be in charge of his soldiers.

RUSSELL: Disarmed soldiers.

TREZZANI: No, armed soldiers; that is, sufficient armed soldiers to protect us.

RUSSELL: We will protect you when we take over. The pride of His Royal Highness will have to take second place to our war effort.

TREZZANI: We understand that, but our request does not in any way thwart the British Government, since the road would be open and we guarantee not to use arms against you.

RUSSELL: I must disagree, because the prestige of the British Government depends on reconstruction in Abyssinia; that will suffer if the Italians---unfortunately fighting against us---are allowed to remain in the middle of the country.

TREZZANI: This would only last until the end of the war, and I do not think you will be able to do anything material in the way of reconstruction during the war.

RUSSELL: You can be assured His Royal Highness the Duke will be treated as his rank desires. I am sure the Duke will not want to take such action as will cause more casualties and suffering.

TREZZANI: If left here we will guard ourselves.

RUSSELL: We will ensure his safety, comfort and prestige, if he comes to Asmara. We must have complete control of these Amba Alagi defences.

TREZZANI: You will have practically complete control. Your movement, etc., would not be affected.

RUSSELL: While the war continues we cannot allow such an important personage as His Royal Highness to remain in Abyssinia.

TREZZANI: If you are prepared to be kind to His Royal Highness why not leave him here?

RUSSELL: There are other parts of Abyssinia in which war is still going on. Therefore His Royal Highness must be removed until the situation is cleared up.

TREZZANI: His Royal Highness will give his personal guarantee not to communicate with any other part of the country.

RUSSELL: I must disagree on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief, as the retention of such an important person in Abyssinia is bound to influence the people of the country.

TREZZANI: I do not think the Duke being left here would have much effect.

RUSSELL: I consider such a compromise more humiliating than facing facts.

His Royal Highness is a famous soldier and is, I am sure, ready to face facts. In face of our superior material the Italians have put up a fight they need never be ashamed of.

TREZZANI: But the Duke has in effect been a prisoner for some time, so there would be no further humiliation.

RUSSELL: The policy of the British Government is to restore peace and prosperity in Abyssinia. The retention of this small Italian garrison would be a disturbing factor.

TREZZANI: Yes, but the Abyssinians have revolted against Italy, so the presence of the Duke will not affect you in that way.

RUSSELL: There are still a number of Abyssinians sitting on the fence which delays the furtherance of the country's welfare. This would be further delayed by such a compromise.

TREZZANI: The chiefs have never helped the Italians with their administration; the Duke's presence would have no effect.

RUSSELL: We are anxious not to aggravate difficulties of administration, and I have therefore been instructed by the Commander-in-Chief to put the terms before you which you have already seen.

TREZZANI: It does not matter what your policy may be, the Abyssinian has no regard for either Italian or British. The presence of the Duke will make no difference.

RUSSELL: Thank you, but that is not in agreement with those now trying to administer and bring peace to the country.

TREZZANI: I apologize. I was not trying to give you advice, I was only stating facts which we have learnt after some years of experience (slight laughter). You may have different ideas, and I hope you will succeed where we have failed. The Abyssinian sides with the strong party.

RUSSELL: And that is why I insist on these terms, we want them to side more with us.

TREZZANI: All they want is to be independent and to steal.

RUSSELL: Right or wrong, our present policy entails the removal of the Italian forces from Amba Alagi. This is a necessary factor to the cessation of hostilities.

TREZZANI: I am sorry you will not understand our point of view. I am a soldier and no diplomat. I cannot agree with your arguments, and I do not see your point of view.

RUSSELL: To be quite straight, we are in a position to dictate terms. Fighting has been the soldier's argument.

TREZZANI: In effect you came here to make proposals, so I have made counterproposals. If you merely came here to state terms all this discussion might have been saved. We have asked for a discussion, not because we are unable to hold this place, but because, for the sake of humanity, we want to evacuate the wounded.

RUSSELL: In situations like this, as shown in the history of sieges, it is endurance that always brings one side or the other victory.

TREZZANI: If we had sufficient accommodation for our wounded we should be all right. Generally in a siege it is a case of shortage of water. We are not troubled by that, but we have not had sufficient time to make caves for our hospitals.

RUSSELL: In war we always want more time. We have already allowed many wounded, and those whom you did not want to accommodate within your defences, to be evacuated to the south. This will now stop.

General Trezzani then requested to withdraw and discuss the situation with His Royal Highness the Duke. While he was away luncheon was served in a friendly atmosphere.

Meanwhile it was arranged for Major Graham, with a small British escort, to go and look for General Volpini's body. The Italians had already tried to do this, but had failed on account of local marauders. This party went off and recovered the body, and also the bodies of three officers who had been killed with General Volpini.

The discussion was resumed at half past one, when General Trezzani put forward a number of requests, many of which, after a little discussion, were agreed to. The modifications were then written out in both English and Italian and were compared. The Italian copy, a typed one, was signed by Trezzani and Russell at half-past five on May 17, 1941. One copy was retained by each. Russell signed and pocketed the English copy, handwritten in pencil.

General Mayne has set on record the reasons why, after reference to the Kaid, he allowed the Italians the concession of 'Surrender with. Honour':

" 'Surrender with Honour' was an idea that had never occurred to me and nothing of the kind was included in the terms of surrender which I sent by hand of Colonel Russell to the Duke of Aosta. The suggestion originated with the Duke himself, and as soon as it was communicated to me I felt that I could make capital out of it---that it was I who would benefit much more than the Italians. This is why I thought of it that way.

"Amongst my terms of surrender, which Colonel Russell was to elaborate verbally, was a demand that the battlefield should be handed over 'clean'; all mines, booby traps and such like were to be clearly defined and their location shown to those troops of mine who were to take over the area; there was to be no sabotage or destruction of any kind of guns, equipment and stores; none were to be hidden and all were to be handed over intact to my representatives. All that was very easy to say and equally easy for the Italians to accept. But would they play up honestly? Obviously not, I thought. It would be nothing else than normal, underhand, war-time practice for them to spend the intervening hours between now and the march-out, hiding or sabotaging the breech-blocks of valuable guns and anything else that might be of use to us; and it would be only natural for an enemy conveniently to forget to show us some of the places where mines and booby traps had been laid, and many of our men would be blown up for the price of their 'forgetfulness.'

"But if I put the Duke of Aosta 'on his honour' it might, I thought, put things on an entirely different footing. He was, as I knew, an honourable man and, as a popular Prince, his word ought to be unbreakable law to every single soldier in his army. So, for the price of allowing the Italian troops to march out in military formation---handing over their arms a couple of miles away from the battlefield instead of on the battlefield itself---I should, as I hoped, get a clean and complete hand-over of valuable equipment and stores. And, more important still to my way of thinking, I should save the lives of men who might otherwise stroll over ground that looked harmless, but, in fact, concealed death-dealing contraptions of many kinds.

"As events proved, I was quite right. The Duke of Aosta was delighted with my concession and, as he told me, gave a rigid and unmistakable edict that the hand-over was to be complete and clean, making it quite clear that any breach of his orders would mean that he had broken his own word. So the Italians did play up. We got everything intact and no one, save Abyssinian patriots who broke all bounds in their search for loot and deserved their fate, suffered so much as a scratch from a hidden mine, although there were plenty of them about."

Russell and Ridley had to spend the night at Amba Alagi, owing to the break-down of their truck and to the firing that was going on on all sides. They slept in General Frusci's dugout, where he and his staff were drinking up the wine that remained in their mess. All the Italian officers were gay and pleased about the surrender. Their manner towards the two British representatives was most cordial. Gramophone records were played during the evening, and one record ended up with the Italian National Anthem. Everyone rose to his feet, and Russell and Ridley did the same. The Italians took this gesture kindly, and hunted through their records to find one of God Save the King, so that they might return the compliment.

General Mayne sent a message to the Duke of Aosta to say that a parade and an exchange of compliments would be held on May 19 at noon.

Meanwhile, all units of the Division had been informed that the Italians were to start evacuating their positions at six o'clock next morning, May 19, and that they would leave small parties of reliable men to await the arrival of our forces. No British troops would enter Amba Alagi before eight o'clock. The 18th passed as a day of grace for the Italians, granted in order that they might bury their dead. Our troops were busily engaged in preparations for the morrow's move and in drilling the guards of honour.

Next, morning Brigadier Marriott led his brigade across into enemy territory at Middle Hill, and took over the Amba Alagi position. Accompanied by his battalion commanders, his Brigade Major, Charles Nash, and other officers of his headquarters, Marriott crossed in front of the 3/2nd Punjab positions, walked along the narrow track that led to the impregnable Amba Alagi itself. No mines had been laid here, but the approaches were guarded by wire. At the back of the fortress stretched a large open space. The road---an earthy track---fell away in twists and turns to join the main road at the top of the Falaga Pass. Marriott and his party waited for a little while. Then, all of a sudden, a tall figure, obviously the Duke of Aosta, and a smaller staff officer emerged from half-way up the rock and walked towards the Brigadier, who was standing in advance of his companions. They saluted and shook hands.

No incidents occurred. In his diary Marriott noted at the time: "An amazing sight of abandoned material, filth, and the Italian garrison." He also expressed the feeling of all when he wrote: "What a relief that it is all over." The conditions under which the Italians had been living were dirty beyond words. Very little attention had been paid to sanitation, and the place seethed with flies.

The scene high upon Amba Alagi was memorable. The view across hill and valley seemed to be without end. And on every, side were precipitous drops into the valley. Everywhere was rock and still more rock; protective parapets had been built of smashed boulders; rocks overhung every narrow track. Bald Hill was honeycombed with caves and tunnels. Of battle debris there was abundance: sheets of corrugated iron, oil drums, splintered wood, smashed basket work, packing-case lids, boxes, splintered flakes of rock, buckled tin boxes, tents, smashed lorries lying in the ditch, planks, metalwork, hundreds more boxes with metal bands, casks. Our men came upon ration and ammunition stores, and even a huge stone bust of Mussolini. Down on the astounding hairpin bends of the Toselli Pass could be seen rows of abandoned vehicles, in their scores. Toselli Fort itself was now but a disordered mass of plaster and bricks, collapsed roofs, corrugated iron that had fallen in, and rubble.

At one place a knotted rope led down the rock face to an Italian cache. Kilometres of telephone wires straggled through the grass and across the rocks. In the caverns used for living quarters were rucksacks and topees, bed sheets and camp beds with gay spreads.

Officers were found sitting on wooden boxes, drinking wine from bottles placed on a packing-case table. One Italian sat on such a case while his hair was being cut.

Besides the Duke of Aosta, the following Italian officers of high rank were captured at Amba Alagi: his Chief of General Staff, General Borgini; General Trezzani; the Chief of the Air Forces, General Pietro Pinna; General Luigi Frusci, former Governor of Eritrea and Commander-in-Chief of the northern front; and General Alberto Cordova di Montezemmo, who until recently had commanded the only Italian field regiment. The balance of the garrison numbered 185 officers, 4,180 Italian troops, and 412 Colonials.

It appeared that General Frusci had fallen from favour, and had been made the scapegoat for the defeat of the Italian Army at Keren. Many of the Italian prisoners remarked on the effectiveness of our shelling. The enemy gunners were emphatic about this, but their connoisseurs were perhaps most concerned about a certain shell which had landed in their cellar and destroyed a vast quantity of Chianti wine. The majority of the captives appeared glad that the fighting was at an end; some of them went so far as openly, to express the hope that the British would win the war.

* * * * * * *

At 11.15 a.m. on May 19 the defeated remnant of the Italian Army marched out of Amba Alagi and filed eight abreast down the hill. As they passed, a guard of honour of one officer and twenty-five men drawn from each battalion of the Fifth Indian Division presented arms. General Mayne stood beside the road, a slim and impeccable figure in service dress, and took the salute. The pipe band of the 1st Transvaal Scottish played The Flowers of the Forest and other melodies as the Italians came by. In a group up the hillside, a little way behind the saluting base, were Brigadiers Pienaar, Marriott, van Straubenzee, Fletcher, and senior staff officers of the Division.

In his diary Marriott noted tersely: "A memorable and historic occasion. What a rabble they looked." This comment was indeed the truth. The Italian officers tried hard to maintain some semblance of dressing and soldierly bearing among their troops. But with men stumbling and even failing headlong---just in front of where General Mayne stood---under the weight of machine-guns, enormous cabin trunks and suitcases that some of them carried on their backs in addition to haversacks, they found it an impossible task. And the lament of The Flowers of the Forest ill suited the Italian marching and upset their step. The headgear was motley and contributed by its variety to the air of untidiness that prevailed among the marching Italian garrison; they wore peaked caps, forage caps, topees, broad-brimmed hats, or steel helmets. The officers, some of whom wore polo boots and spurs, and carried ice axes or swords, gave the Royalist or Fascist salute, according to their units. At the back of several companies walked a group of black mammies, and even a few gaily-dressed boys.

After the march-past the Italian Chief of Staff, General Borgini, was presented to Mayne. His companion, Trezzani, wept at the surrender. When the parade was at an end the Italian troops deposited their arms in neat piles in Medami Alem, and took yet another sorrowful look at the bleak background of hills that towered above---Amba, Little Alagi, Triangle, Elephant, Castle Hill, and the other peaks and ridges which they had failed to hold against our determined pressure and assaults. Then the Italians entered the prisoner-of-war cages.

On May 18 special permission had been obtained for Colonel Dods, Colonel Lynn, the A.D.M.S., and an interpreter to enter Toselli Fort in order to discuss with the Italians the best means of evacuating their sick, wounded and prisoners. On the day of the surrender ceremony no fewer than 1,500 prisoners were evacuated by lorry to Quiha. Those remaining in Medami Alem were sent away within two days. And only some 1,200 were retained to help our Sappers to repair road-blocks, to clear the battlefield of salvage, and to put as many as possible of the captured lorries in working order. Between the top of the Alagi Pass and a point three kilometres to the south, three hundred and fifty Italian vehicles were recovered. The abundant salvage to be cleared from the battlefield ranged from naval and heavy anti-aircraft guns to a vast quantity of assorted ammunition and equipment.

This was no easy task that faced the 'Q' staff of the Division, but it was accomplished with exemplary speed and success. In his detailed report composed soon after the battle, Colonel Dods recorded these facts:

"The sick and wounded were adequately dealt with, but the lorries with kits intermingled with cars full of generals and their entourage, and marching prisoners, caused a terrific congestion. . . . That a few prisoners got away on arrival at Asmara was due to inadequate escorts and to our lorries being properly spaced out. The majority of these escapees only wanted a few days with their families before resigning themselves to the fate which awaited them. And the civilian population naturally thronged the streets when each convoy arrived, in order to see if their relatives and friends were among the survivors from the battle. Most of these prisoners who did get away gave themselves up voluntarily---the remainder were apprehended in a general round-up before the Division left the country."

* * * * * * *

We must return for a moment to the closing scenes at Amba Alagi on May 19.

The Duke of Aosta was not present at the formal march-past and capitulation. From Mayne he had asked permission to remain for another day up in his cave headquarters with but two members of his personal staff. He had begged General Platt to get him away from his commander-in-chief and other generals, now that the fighting was at an end. The Duke, having lost his official status as Viceroy, was anxious to cut adrift from his military companions.

Amadeo Umberto Isabella Luigi Fillippo Mario Giuseppe Giovanni, Prince of Savoia-Aosta, Duke of Puglie and Aosta, nephew of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, was at this time in his early forties. He spoke perfect English and had had an English nurse. He fought through the 1914-18 war as a gunner, and a lowly one at that, for he scorned to follow the custom of his fellow Continental princes and take nominal command of an army. When peace came, the Duke began what he described to General Mayne as his 'republican days,' when he surrendered all claims to royal privileges, went into business in England, and travelled in Central and Fast Africa. Then he was, as he expressed it, enticed back by an offer of command of the Cavalry and Camel Corps in Tripolitania. He became a royal personage once again. Later, he took up what was to be his life's hobby, flying, and after instructing fighter pilots, he returned to Italy as head of the Italian Air Forces. Lastly, he had, in 1937, been asked by Mussolini to go to Abyssinia to succeed Marshal Graziani as Viceroy.

On May 18, the day before the surrender ceremony, Mayne took lunch with the Duke of Aosta in his headquarters. This was almost disappointing in its simplicity. Hewn out of rock as it was, the room was dark and dank, and devoid of all luxury.

"At lunch that day," records Mayne, "he was very discreet in what he said. He talked English perfectly and was at pains to translate into Italian, for the benefit of those of his generals and staff who were invited to meet me, anything of particular interest that passed between us. But after lunch he led me aside by myself and opened out a little. It was then that he asked to be separated from his generals.

"The Duke was keenly interested in the composition of the Division. He seemed to know a great deal about Indian troops, and told me that his men had not been fond of them at all, having expected to find them troops of very inferior quality. He talked much about England, and especially of London. Were the Hammam Baths in Jermyn Street still functioning ? Did I think we should ever get back to the days when one lunched at the Cavalry Club and then went down to watch the finals of the Inter-Regimental polo at Hurlingham? Had I met so-and-so lately, and how were they? What fun it was to meet his old friend John Graham again---he was my senior liaison officer---not having seen him since Graham was coaching polo teams in Rome some years before."

Brigadier Marriott, too, recalls the Duke's great charm, his dominant and delightful personality. He had already met the Duke in Cairo, before Italy entered the war. When Marriott toiled up to the Italian headquarters on Amba Alagi after the surrender and march-past, the Duke asked: "Have you had any food? Oh! but you must have lunch. " So they sat down in the cavern, and ate tinned foie gras, an Italian equivalent of bully beef, hearts of artichokes, and tinned peaches. The British officers were offered Chianti or whisky and soda. Later a bottle of the very best port was brought in. Marriott and his companions were scarcely used to such food and drink at so great an altitude. All the while the Duke's chief of staff sat at the table, looking miserable, and the A.D.C., the son of a postmaster from Southern Italy, did his best to help the general talk along and to see to the needs of his master's guests.

Next morning, the20th, Marriott again met the Duke by the little cemetery near his headquarters. Here were a score of white crosses, to mark the graves of Italian officers killed during the fighting upon Amba Alagi. The Duke, a very tall and slender figure in his breeches and leggings, knelt down in the cemetery and prayed for a few moments in the morning sunlight. He had been extremely affected by the murder of General Volpini, a close personal friend. Then, his last tribute paid, he rejoined Marriott, and together they walked down towards the main road. On the way the Duke questioned Marriott upon the procedure for inspecting the guard of honour that was waiting for him at the bottom. Three officers and fifty men from the 1st Worcestershires were drawn up in position. With General Mayne beside him he inspected this guard before driving away to Quiha with the Divisional Commander. Here he was met by the Kaid and taken further to Adi Ugri, and later to Khartoum.

Within a year he had died in Kenya from tuberculosis.

 

CHAPTER X

FROM PILLAR TO POST
JUNE-OCTOBER 1941

As June gave way to July, the Fifth Indian Division set sail from Eritrea. Only Marriott's 29 Brigade stayed a little longer, stretched out as the units were in Asmara, Quiha, Dessie, and Senafe. But all Divisional troops and the three brigades embarked one by one in the humid heat of Massawa. One by one they journeyed to the port on that remarkable railway that spirals down the mountainsides so that you can look out of the carriage window and see other sections of the line hundreds of feet below. On the broiling quayside a number of men collapsed from the intense heat. Up the Red Sea steamed the convoy of ships, and brought the men of the Division without mishap to Port Tewfik.

Three weeks were spent in the dusty base camps of the Suez Canal---Qassassin and Tahag---where the Division re-equipped and trained. Then came orders for a westward move to the Desert for a period of training in mobile desert warfare, combined with the task of preparing defence positions on the Alamein Line. The South African Division was already engaged in digging and wiring near the coast at El Alamein itself. To the Fifth Indian Division were allotted two positions: one "Fortress A," on the edge of the Qattara Depression in the south by Naqb Abu Dweiss; the other half-way to the coast, at what was known as "Fortress B." Up the famous Barrel Track drove the units, heading west from the Alexandria road not far from the Half Way House at Wadi Matruh, and crossing a soft and desolate late tract of desert---the area of fossilized forests in which the troops could pick up pieces of fossilized trees.

No formation had made this crossing before. Each brigade moved by battalions, each battalion moved in four parallel columns, driving in desert formation. A brigade column might well stretch to a length of fifteen miles, and by noon on the first day many of the vehicles had become stuck in soft sand. But next day the drivers had gained experience. By putting all the metal sand tracks and mats of each group into the rear lorry, and ensuring that this particular lorry had a four-wheel drive, progress was less uncertain.

Middle East

For several days senior officers made one reconnaissance after another, constantly coming to fresh decisions about the precise location and size of these defence positions. The plans were many and varied, but at length agreement was reached. The fortress was designed as a strong harbour in which soft vehicles could take shelter and from which powerful mobile columns that included tanks could sally forth to attack the enemy in the event of an attempted break-through towards the Nile Delta and Cairo. Little did the members of the Division think at this time that they would occupy these same positions and others even closer to Alexandria in the following year.

But on August 22 the digging of fortifications was interrupted quite suddenly. The Division was to move next morning. Rumour spread, as it always spreads, from mouth to mouth. Where? Why? The Division was hurried from the Desert to Iraq to reinforce the Eighth and Tenth Indian Divisions for operations against Persia, and to take its share in maintaining the internal security of Iraq, where the uprising of Rashid Ali and his followers was being quelled in Baghdad.

So once more the Division set off on its travels, this time towards the East and into Asia. A glimpse of Cairo, a night spent beside the Suez Canal at Ismailia, a long drive across the grim and picture-book Sinai Desert to Gaza. Many of the vehicles were new. So were their drivers. The engines needed running in and were prone to frequent overheating. Each day the men woke at half past four and drank their mug of tea by the light of cookers. As they motored across Sinai the sun sometimes shone down through a reddish mist, which suddenly melted away till the road ahead showed clear. And the drivers could not brake their trucks too harshly for fear of piercing the tarmac surface of that road. Palestine was green, hilly and inhabited, which were virtues in the eyes of the Division, and a man must have been pagan indeed who had not heard or read of this Holy Land. Over Jordan and high on the plateau of Transjordan came disillusion, at Mafrak, dreary; desolate, dusty and lashed by swirling, blinding, coating sandstorms. Even the interest of a nearby Roman amphitheatre, villa, and pillared temples could not make weight against the fury of the storm, and two days of Mafrak sufficed. Only the uniforms of the Frontier Force of Transjordan gave colour to the scene of flat desert, black Bedouin tents, a ramshackle village and the local mud-coloured fort.

Then the convoy struck eastwards across mile after mile of seemingly endless, featureless desert, a waste of brown and black boulders, of soft sand in which many a vehicle became bogged, even if it escaped the ravages of engine trouble. The rear trucks of each column were obliged to race and jolt along in order to keep up with those in the lead, and the workshops fitter who brought up the rear was a busy man during that prolonged and arduous crossing into Iraq beside the oil pipeline. Later the Division passed through towns once more, and drove along the black strip of road---Ramadi, Falluja, Habbaniya with its Royal Air Force station and the lake whose shores glitter with flakes of mica.

It was here that the news was brought that the disturbances of the Rashid Ali revolt had already been quelled by the Household Cavalry and other troops who had hurried to Baghdad. General Mayne, having seen his troops start from Egypt, had flown over to Baghdad to get himself in the picture of recent events. He was met by General Quinan, commanding the Tenth Army, with the news that the war with Persia was over suddenly and unexpectedly, and that, although he would put in a plea to retain Mayne's Division, it would probably have to return to the Desert at once.

But having travelled so far, the Division was sent further north to the oilfields of Kirkuk, in case of renewed trouble. No one was allowed to stop in Baghdad, for the Iraqis were still hostile. Our troops had been warned to sit smartly in the backs of their three-ton lorries, with their rifles across their knees, and not to react to acts of open hostility, such as the throwing of bricks or rotten eggs. But there were no acts of any consequence; only an occasional spit, and the throwing of a harmless grape or two by way of a gesture of defiance and disapproval.

The heat of Kirkuk had the touch of hell in its power, and was reflected from the steel structures and the oil drums. It mingled with the all-pervading smell of oil and the melting, sticky roads made of crude oil. Three weeks the Division remained in this place, sweltering in the heat, training, marching as though dazed to the river, and there bathing with a sense of sudden ecstasy in deep pools of gin-clear water that was far cooler than the air above. And a few fished, shot sand-grouse, and enjoyed the club of the local oil people, with its bathing pool that was better far than lying in sweat on your bed and longing for the dusk of evening.

But this vexatious episode ended just as suddenly as it had begun. And at the beginning of October, but a few days after the tail units reached Kirkuk, the Division was heading towards Egypt once again by the same route. It gained valuable experience of travel over immense and wearisome distances, and learned the mysteries of convoy discipline, 'vehicles to the mile,' and 'miles in the hour.' While Ten Brigade and Divisional Headquarters and troops drove to Mena outside Cairo in order to train in Desert warfare with tanks in support, Fletcher's Nine Brigade settled down at Kabrit on the shores of one of the Bitter Lakes, there to train for combined operations. Here for several weeks the men ran up hills, stumbled in the sand, climbed rope ladders, learned to row whalers and cutters, talked the jargon of bollards and bulkheads and other naval matters. For a short time the Divisional staff were engaged in planning a landing in Sicily, to take place in conjunction with the success of Operation 'Crusader' in the Desert, but this project was abandoned at an early stage. It was nearly two years before its time.

And then suddenly again the Division, less 29 Brigade, which had remained behind during the rapid trek to Kirkuk and was now commanded by Brigadier Denys Reid from the 3/5th Mahrattas, was ordered to Cyprus. At first the destination was unknown, and some were disappointed to learn on arrival among the orange groves of Haifa that they were to embark in destroyers for an island. But it was good to discover that the sun which shines on a destroyer cleaving its way through the sea is by no means the same sun that beats down on a three-tonner bumping across the Desert. The crossing to Famagusta, the eastern port of Cyprus, was cold, and the newly issued battledress very welcome.

It was on this journey that 161 Brigade joined the Fifth Indian Division. Brigadier J. A. Salomons, then in command of the 4/7th Rajputs, relates how at Port Said his officers' Mess had acquired a Nubian named Sambo to serve as dish-washer. He volunteered to accompany the battalion, and was issued with an extremely ill-fitting battledress. The captain of the destroyer had never before had contact with Indian troops, and he said to Salomons that he would like to walk round to see them before darkness fell. On deck there was no room for the men to lie down, so they had to stand or squat. In the dusk it was scarcely possible to distinguish anyone, but suddenly the naval captain came upon Sambo, who was grinning broadly. "I had no idea," he remarked, "that Indians had such negroid features." Salomons was at a momentary loss, for he did not know what would be said were it discovered that the Rajputs were taking an Egyptian subject without a passport. He mumbled something about Indians varying greatly from fair-skinned Pathans to very dark Tamils, and no more notice was taken of Sambo.

 

CHAPTER Xl

FROM GIARABUB TO GIALO
OCTOBER 1941-APRIL 1942

WHEN the remainder of the Division headed east to Baghdad and Kirkuk, Marriott stayed behind with 29 Brigade, and on September 8 moved from Tahag to Burg el Arab. With them as before were the 21st Field Ambulance, the 2nd Field Company, and 23rd Ordnance Workshops. The 144th Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Clements) was already there, but a week later left Marriott's command.

The Brigade Group, being the general reserve for G.H.Q., was warned that the enemy might attempt seaborne or parachute landings along the coast and the Western Desert pipeline during the last days of September. For a week 29 Brigade kept guard along the coastal stretch east of El Imayid, while the 2nd South African Division watched as far west as Daba. Then the Brigade, being relieved of its responsibilities by the South Africans and a battalion of the Libyan Arab Corps, on September 28 left for Giarabub, many miles distant to the south-west.

Giarabub, a tiny fly-ridden oasis with a Senussi mosque, strange hill formations, and water whose effect is like that of Epsom salts, lies at the extreme southern end of the Italian barbed-wire boundary running down from the coast at Sollum. Between Giarabub and Siwa, seventy miles to the east, a series of salt-water lakes continue from the Qattara Depression.

The plan was to send two parties: to Giarabub the 3/2nd Punjab and 6/13th F.F. Rifles under Lieutenant-Colonel F. A. M. B. Jenkins; and the second party, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. C. O. Knight, with his 1st Worcestershires, the Field Ambulance and the Workshops Company, to Siwa. Both groups were due to reach their destinations on October 4.

By the next evening 29 Brigade had taken over the two oases from Briggs' Seven Brigade, and "Oasis Group" came under the direct command of General Cunningham and the Eighth Army.

It was expected that enemy moves upon the Oasis area would take the form of attacks by airborne or parachute troops against water points, dumps and communications, or of sudden raids by armoured cars, light artillery and lorried infantry, or again, if the enemy made substantial advances in the coastal sector, of a full-scale attack in force. And the order was given: "Oasis Group will, in the event of attack, hold their positions to the last man and the last round."

In Giarabub the outer defence perimeter was held by the 3/2nd Punjab, whose task was to deal with any landings on the town aerodrome; the 6/13th on the inner line would repulse landings in the dump area and on the new airfield. Active patrolling was maintained to give warning of the enemy's approach. More locally, a close watch was kept on Arabs who tried to enter our defence areas. Then at the end of October Marriott's group provided transport, escorts, and an. unloading party for two convoys which arrived not far away to establish an R.A.F. landing ground and to make a fresh dump of stores.

On October 15 Brigadier Denys W. Reid, former commander of the 3/5th Mahrattas, was flown down from Mafrak---he was on his way back from Kirkuk---to take command of 29 Brigade; Marriott, a Guardsman himself, had been appointed to the 22nd Guards Motor Brigade near Baggush.

Brigadier Reid's career had taken him into tight corners and the less usual parts of the world where British soldiers served. In the First World War as a subaltern he fought with the Seaforth Highlanders in France and Flanders. He was wounded at Thiepval on the Somme in July of 1916, and again at Passchendaele in October 1917. His first Military Cross was awarded after a raid in January 1916, and the bar for a rearguard action across the Canal du Nord in March 1918. Reid won the D. S. O. for a strenuous attack in May of the same year, on Wytschaete Ridge, south of Ypres.

With the end of the war he discovered that, unknown to himself, an uncle had sent in his name to the India Office in answer to an appeal by the Indian Army for officers. He was accepted, and transferred to the Mahratta Light Infantry. With the first battalion of his regiment he served for seventeen years in various stations, including the North-West Frontier and Burma, spent over a year, in the Andaman Islands, and commanded the detachment that acted as escort to the British Trade Agent in Gyangste, Tibet. Throughout the inter-war years he served as a regimental officer, and neither held a staff appointment nor went to the Staff College.

Denys Reid was a man in every sense of the word. Blessed with a tall figure and magnificent physique, he was quite unafraid in any sort of action, under every type of fire, for all his claims to be "a fearful man." Often he was the despair of his staff as he moved calmly among his men in the forward areas. At once commanding in presence and forceful in speech, his was a colourful character, charming and outspoken. His characteristic pose was with his red-banded hat cocked on one side and his steely eyes grilling you. But in those eyes hovered a gay twinkle, as friendly and mischievous as his playful sense of humour. He delighted in pulling other people's legs, and revelled when his own leg was pulled. It is said that he was at his best during a "liar dice" session in the Brigade Mess. He would cover the dice with a huge hand and literally compel you to take a load of rubbish under the cup. If you hesitated, he would roar at you, and lesser spirits would quail and accept what he offered. But those who knew their Brigadier well would refuse time and time again. One officer, an Indian tea planter, would often say to Reid: "I don't care if you do command this Brigade. You don't command these liar dice, and you are a liar." Whereupon the Brigadier would roar with delight and slap the officer on the back.

For all his hatred of paper work and his admittedly terrible handwriting, Reid gave out his orders so that no man doubted what was required. And if his decisions were sometimes unorthodox, they were usually sound and even brilliant. In the early days he was frequently unpredictable in his sudden decisions, and could be most obstinate, but when he saw the results of his obstinacy he was quick to apologize and most contrite. He stood up to the worst conditions of weather, battle, physical and mental strain with exemplary fortitude and calm confidence, and was never seen to be flustered.

On the outbreak of war he was second-in-command to his battalion of Mahrattas. That he had been misjudged was shown by his rapid promotion and great success as commander of the 3/5th Mahrattas, of 29 Brigade, and, once he had escaped from an Italian prison camp, of the Tenth Indian Division. He was a born leader of men in battle, outspoken, dynamic, cheerful, a lovable character at once inspiring and entertaining, who aroused trust and admiration in all those who served alongside or under him.

In the forthcoming operations Oasis Group had as its primary task the protection of such of our air forces as would be operating from the Desert. It was hoped that it would be found possible to establish a series of landing grounds far to the south of the coast and well west of the boundary wire. From these landing grounds our aircraft would endeavour to disrupt and harass enemy columns moving in either direction along the coast south of Benghazi.

It would be the task of Oasis Group to establish, escort and protect such landing grounds and the Air Force staff who manned them.

Alternatively, or even in addition, Brigadier Reid was to plan to advance on Gialo with the maximum force he considered he could adequately maintain. The first object of such an advance was to draw off as much of the enemy's air strength as possible from operating against the Eighth Army's main advance along the coast.

In order to stimulate the deception that Reid's force was far stronger than in actual fact, transport activity was increased between Siwa and Giarabub, dummy camps were erected, and finally it was announced over the wireless that an Indian division was moving westwards from Giarabub towards Agedabia.

An armoured car company of Lieutenant-Colonel P. H. Grobelaar's 7th South African Reconnaissance Battalion, having carried out a disrupting task to the north-west of Giarabub, would operate under Reid's orders; while Colonel Prendergast's Long Range Desert Group was to assist Reid's force by watching enemy movements along the northern approaches to Gialo and keeping in touch with Grobelaar's armoured cars.

For the first fortnight of November, 29 Brigade at the Oases had little of importance to report, but then came plans for the long approach march over the sand to capture Gialo. As Reid himself was not allowed to make a reconnaissance, Colonel Jenkins and Major Kennedy Shaw, navigation officer of the L.R.D.G., were sent as far as Bu Etla from which it was known that good tracks led. the last eighteen miles to Gialo.

SURRENDER WITH HONOUR

PASSING THE GUARD OF HONOUR

GIALO

It was Reid's intention to attack from the north and west, and not by the obvious eastern approach from Giarabub. By the 15th he had received no definite orders, so when next day Major Towsey flew down from Eighth Army to act as liaison officer, Reid asked what his Brigade's task was to be. Towsey replied: "Oh! They all reckon you are going for Gialo." And so they went to Gialo,

The column, known as 'E' Force, moved off on the morning of November 18. It experienced no real difficulty either with the going or with the vehicles until the 21st, when two deep wadis with sheer sides had to be crossed. The force was deliberately split into three parts (Reid's idea was that if enemy aircraft appeared, it might seem that our strength was greater than in actual fact): an advance guard with a company of infantry from Jenkins' 3/2nd Punjab, a section of anti-tank guns, and the 6th South African Armoured Car Regiment, all under the command of Lieutenant- Colonel V. C. G. Short. Then followed, in Brigadier Reid's charge, the main body, with the 6th Light A.A. Regiment (Major Sidderfin). And in the wake came the maintenance column consisting of a hundred lorries and trucks, escorted by a squadron of the 7th South African Reconnaissance Battalion, and part of Major Allen's battery of 56 Anti-Tank Regiment. This third portion of the Gialo force was attacked six times that day by enemy planes, which bombed and strafed our vehicles, but to little effect, thanks largely to the gallant action of 6th Light A.A. Regiment.

Next day Colonel Short's column, with Leatherdale's company of the 3/2nd Punjab, drove across the Desert from Bu Etla to the north-west of Aughila, and approached from the south, on Reid's orders, in order to cut off the enemy's line of retreat. This was done successfully. The fort at Aughila was attacked. The Italians waited until Short's armoured cars had driven to within three hundred yards before opening fire. With their large Bredas they knocked out one car, and then hoisted a white flag. Forty-nine of the Bersaglieri, wearing huge cocks' feathers in their head-dresses, were captured.

Following on three hours later, the main column was led farther west than it should have been, owing to an error of seven degrees in the compass bearing that was followed. Appalling soft sand and scrub were encountered instead of good, firm 'going.' As a result, the head of the column did not reach Aughila until two o'clock that afternoon, and then only in a piecemeal condition.

Vehicles were being pushed, winched, or abandoned over a long stretch of the Desert route, so Reid wisely decided that any advance on Gialo was impossible before the 23rd. Moreover, larger stocks of petrol were needed than had been anticipated, because our transport, in particular the armoured cars, had so far used an average of half a gallon for every mile. Major Towsey, the liaison officer, and Captain Trout of the 3/2nd Punjab drove all that night back to Bu Etla, eighteen miles north of Gialo, and next morning fetched enough petrol to enable the force to continue on its way. The maintenance column had once again been bombed without respite from ten o'clock in the morning onwards, and in relays three enemy planes had kept up a constant patrol overhead.

Meanwhile Colonel Grobelaar's force, which included Pearson's company of the 3/2nd Punjab, had also been in trouble, meeting bad 'going,' being heavily bombed, and later engaged by Bredas when approaching the outpost village of Jikhera, three miles north-east of Gialo. But on the evening of November 23, Grobelaar, supported by Jackson's section of A.A. guns, successfully attacked this small oasis.

Reid had been unable to head for Gialo on November 23 as hoped, for the artillery only brought their last gun in after dark, and could not be ready in time. So on the afternoon of the 23rd Reid took his unit and company commanders forward to reconnoitre Gialo, then some thirteen miles away. They approached from the south-west, drove across firm, flat sand, then dismounted and stalked forward until they could look carefully at the oasis from two miles away. Before leaving Giarabub, Reid had been told by our lntelligence that the Italian garrison of Gialo numbered no more than fifty men of low morale. But now local villagers reported that there were more than ten times that number. Gialo, extending perhaps four miles in length and five across, comprised a large group of palm trees with scrub growing beneath. In the centre appeared the top of the fort. To the east and west the sand was undulating, and small clumps of huts, wells and pumpkin patches were visible.

Brigadier Reid decided upon a night approach march and a dawn attack from the south-west: the Italians afterwards confessed that they had considered this quite impossible. 'E' Force had little time to prepare, and none of the troops had ever done night driving on such a scale before. The little column assembled at midnight---three weak companies of Jenkins' 3/2nd Punjab, the company of armoured cars, eight 25-pounder guns, and a battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns.

Very early in the morning of the 24th they set out, moving through the night with fifteen yards between one vehicle and the next. They travelled eleven miles and came to the assembly area three thousand yards from the edge of Gialo oasis. Reid's headquarters remained here, dug themselves in, and camouflaged their vehicles. The infantry climbed out of their lorries and deployed for the attack. To reach their objective---the fort---meant a very exposed approach march through heavily bushed sand mounds and belts of palm trees.

Short and his armoured cars, with Leatherdale's Dogra company, created a diversion over by Gialo aerodrome and towards El Libba. They came under heavy fire from Italian Breda guns, but destroyed an enemy plane on the ground. One squadron of the 7th South African Reconnaissance Battalion, under Captain Flint; demonstrated noisily along the western flank of Gialo, and was fired upon.

The leading companies of the 3/2nd Punjab had in the meantime set off across the soft sand and met no opposition for a mile and a half, when the men made a temporary halt to regain their breath before the final assault. The going had been hard and exhausting. It took an hour to make contact with the enemy. Ahead rose a series of large mounds fifteen feet or so in height, covered with evergreen bushes. Towards the first of these mounds walked the leading platoon on the left. When they came to within 150 yards they were received with intense fire from six Italian machine-guns and Bredas. The Punjabis dropped to the ground as though dead, but not one man had been hit, as was found when the platoon was later extricated. They were for the time being pinned to ground, and spent two most uncomfortable and indecisive hours. Each pimple seemed to be defended with Bredas and machine-guns, and our artillery could not destroy them, because nothing less than a direct hit would achieve this in the soft sand. And to judge distance and so find the range was in itself a problem.

By midday it was obvious that unless each individual mound could be dealt with by mortars, anti-tank guns or field artillery, any further advance would be most costly. No progress was being made. Force headquarters had been bombed and ground-strafed in unpleasant fashion by four German Messerschmitt fighters. Just in time came a pair of our Hurricanes to drive off the enemy aircraft and shoot down one of them. At length Brigadier Reid decided, after making a further reconnaissance, to send the Punjabis in to attack from the west at half-past seven that evening, after a short artillery concentration.

Accordingly, two companies under Major W. V. S. Leatherdale and Captain F. N. Betts walked forward soon after sunset. The advance was silent and determined. The bushy pimples, so heavily guarded by fire power, were this time captured one by one at the point of the bayonet. Throughout their attack our infantry were supported by a squadron of Short's armoured cars, which shone their lights and demonstrated vigorously from the eastern flanks and approaches to Gialo, and by our medium machine-guns, although these were in turn fired on with tracer and explosive bullets.

In the meantime the company on the left, having made a long detour, charged the fort with great dash and courage, and took it. Only this was not the fort after all, but only part of the Arab village. The real fort must be taken before nightfall. Soon the Punjabis spotted it, attacked with grenades, Tommy guns and the bayonet, and took the mud-walled fort to the shouts of their warcry, "Ali, Ali." The men found a dozen Italians dead or wounded within the walls, and a further twenty were taken prisoner. The success signal was fired. Silence fell.

At once Brigadier Reid and Jenkins jumped into a truck and were driven by Trout at full speed to the fort. They flashed their headlamps all the way across the mile and more of sand, to give warning of their approach and to prevent the Punjabi company from firing in error at their own commanders. Reid was met by Major Leatherdale and a score of dejected Italian prisoners. He looked round the fort and interviewed these prisoners, one of whom spoke French. This Italian volunteered to lead the Brigadier to a nearby building, the Presidio, where the enemy commandant was thought to be. So Reid, with Jenkins and three other officers, walked down and there found two sentries standing outside the gates of this white-painted Presidio with its crenellated walls. A pistol was held to their heads, the sentries opened the gates with unusual haste, and there inside in the darkness the British party heard a sound like the hum in a theatre during the interval. This noise turned out to be about fifteen Italian officers and seventy soldiers, who meekly handed over their weapons and lined themselves against the wall outside. The officers had been on the point of sitting down to a good dinner. Reid summoned an escort from the fort. Not that the Italians gave any trouble. They seemed to regard our five officers as sufficient guard. When an escort did arrive the Italian officers were locked up in their own mess, while the men were placed in the large court-room, on the walls of which hung two immense portraits, one of King Victor Emmanuel, the other of Benito Mussolini.

That night our patrols combed the oasis, many more prisoners were brought in, and by morning the court-room held more than a hundred captives. King Victor Emmanuel still hung on the wall, but Mussolini lay on the floor with a boot through his face.

When daylight came the whole area of the fort and Presidio was in our hands. At eight o'clock Betts' Sikh company cleared the western oasis, attacked and captured several Breda and machine-gun nests, and rounded up another forty Italians. In the El Libba area to the east Colonel Short's South African armoured cars were engaged on the flank, and when the cars became stuck in the very soft sand there, Short collected a dozen of his men---most of them mechanics---and led a successful bayonet charge. They cleared up the last pocket of resistance.

All day prisoners came in, and by late afternoon, when the enemy resistance finally ceased, the total number of Italians captured was 670. And Reid's armoury was the richer for twenty-five large Bredas and a wide selection of other weapons.

* * * * * * *

We must rapidly summarize the activities of 'E' Force during the next three months. Its first task was to co-operate with Marriott's 22nd Guards Brigade in getting across the enemy's line of withdrawal near Antelat in the country south of Benghazi. Contact was not made until Christmas Eve, and touch was also gained with the 1st Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General Frank Messervy. Reid had columns out each day harassing the enemy on the coastal road towards El Agheila, and this district was the scene of many little actions in which his columns, made up of armoured cars, platoons of the 3/2nd Punjab and one or two guns, attempted to stem the stronger patrols and larger columns of the enemy. Early in January the 7th Support Group, led by Brigadier Jock Campbell, arrived in the same area and started operating columns alongside Reid. This only lasted a fortnight, after which Campbell's troops went back to Egypt, and Reid was ordered to return to disband his force in the Delta.

But then the Germans struck back, and for the next month Reid's little columns were engaged side by side with the Fourth Indian Division in the withdrawal of our forces step by step, counter-attack by counter-attack. During this period 'E' Force operated under the 1st Armoured Division, and on its southern flank, in the withdrawal by way of Msus to Cherrubba. From there it was suddenly ordered into the jebel to join the Fourth Indian Division, under whom it fought in the withdrawal to the Gazala line. In February Reid took command of Tobruk, with 29 Brigade reunited after ten weeks. The Worcestershires and 6/13th F.F. Rifles rejoined, and the Brigade stayed in Tobruk until the end of March. Then, having handed over to the 2nd South African Division, 29 Brigade moved back through Capuzzo to what were known as "The Kennels" by El Hamra. Here Reid and his men worked on the defences and trained and improved their standard of navigation and Desert craft till it reached the highest standard. Nothing of great importance occurred until the coming of the Fifth Indian Division to the Western Desert from Cyprus.

But first we may see how the Division spent its time on that beautiful and historic island.


Chapter Twelve

Table of Contents