IT WAS THE 23rd OF OCTOBER 1942.
The place, a 32 mile stretch of desert about 60 miles west of Alexandra to the soft sands of theQattara Depression in the south.
The desert to many newcomers seemed like a very hostile place, but not to those who had become well seasoned Desert Rats long before the start of hostilities in North Africa. We had learned to accept it for what it was, we didn't try to change or adapt it to suit our needs, but rather, lived with what it offered. We grew to know it's little whims and tricks. We made it our home.
We were awakened about 5 a.m. with - "Stand To!"
It was dark, as it usually is at this time of year in the desert. Many men wore their greatcoats, others threw a blanket over their shoulders to ward off the chilly air. One could hear the usual grumbling about the merit of 'standing to' every morning and night and this brought the shout "Put a sock in it!" Some chaps lit up a cigarette and this brought "Put out those fags!". Then came the usual advice, "Keep a sharp lookout for Jerry chaps, he might surprise us this morning."
When the sun started to rise, it signalled STAND DOWN and the start of the day's activities. Breakfast for some meant fat greasy bacon, porridge, bread and jam and for those not so lucky, it was the usual Bully Beef and Biscuits and of course the ever ready hot sweet strong Tea.
With the sun and the breakfast came the never ending scourage of the desert - the flies. They came in their millions, trying to get into the eyes, noses, ears and mouths of the men, anywhere they could find moisture.
The infantrymen made themselves as comfortable as they could in their narrow slit-trenches, which gave a certain amount of shade from the hot daytime sun, but was of little help with the fly situation. Rather the reverse and the cramped positions in the slit-trenches didn't help much either.
Activities were kept to a minimum and what there were was under cover. In the slit-trenches the men looked at their watches, checked and rechecked their weapons and equipment and kept an eye open in the direction of the enemy lines. They repeated this procedure over and over again.
During the afternoon, the desert changed it's character: it was time for it's little display. Today it was the 'sand devils', a type of twister which blew loose sand into the eyes, noses, mouths and even the ears of the men and got into cracks and crannies of everything not completely sealed.
Further back at the gun positions, the gunners were a little better off for being in gun pits, they had more room to move around, but even here it was check and recheck and keep under cover.
As usual in the desert, twilight fell very quickly. It was the time when the whole Desert Force seemed to come alive. The transport columns started to wind their way to the front from the rear over the various tracks, Sun, Moon, Star, Springbok, just to name a few, raising as they did, clouds of choking dust which completely blackened out the sky. Each evening they brought up fresh supplies of food, petrol, ammunition, odd items from the canteen, letters, replacements and for some an ever welcome hot evening meal.
Supplies unloaded, the men sat down to eat. Those with letters read them very, very slowly, absorbing each precious word. Then it was back to check and recheck, check and recheck and keep under cover. Some of the replacements were told they would not be needed and when asking the reason, were told they would find out soon enough.
By now, the dust had settled and the moon was exceptionally clear amongst millions of stars.
At the gun positions, final checks had been made, some men took off their jackets, others removed their shirts, for they knew that before the night was over, they would be wet with sweat as they were to be part of a very large Battery of 882 field guns which were to lay down a barrage of shells not seen since WW1, and those guns still able to fire in the morning, would have fired more than 600 rounds each.
At 9:30 p.m. the preliminary orders were given and at 9:39 p.m. the gunners were told to "take post".
Meanwhile in the forward areas, the infantrymen were waiting with bayonets fixed, ready for the order to advance. With them, men of the Royal Engineers, the Corps of Military Police and Royal Corps of Signals, all part of the Mine Clearing Squads.
At 9:40 p.m. the command "Fire" was given.
The whole area seemed to light up and explode into a ball of fire from the sea to the Qatarra Depression. The sky lit up like an elongated ball of flame as each round left the guns and another flash helped to keep that flame alive. Everyone except the gunners stood with their mouths wide open, wondering how anyone could remain alive through such a barrage.
As the guns were rumbling, the supply columns were making their way back to B Echelon and beyond and some were actually passing the guns when they opened up, scaring the daylight out of the drivers and passengers alike. Now the chaps who had been told they wouldn't be needed this evening knew the reason why. It was no longer a secret.
Suddenly, there was silence! Our guns had stopped firing. The combined efforts of the Army, Navy, and Air Forces had effectively kept the enemy from replying. And they were still silent.
At the gun positions, new commands had been given. The gunners knew that this time they had better be smack on target, as their infantry colleagues would be going forward under the next barrage of shells.
The Infantrymen now left their slit-trenches and were nervously waiting, everyone alone with his own thoughts. Many expressed out loud, "Thank God I'm not on the receiving end of this lot." They looked at their watches, for some, time seemed to stand still, for others it went far too quickly for they knew that when our Artillery opened up again, it would be time to move forward.
A few seconds before 10:00 p.m. at the gun positions the order "Fire" was given. The infantrymen and the Mine Clearing Squads moved forward. THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN WAS ON! Many made the sign of the Cross, far more said a silent prayer, for they knew they were about to meet the enemy for the first time and perhaps even in hand to hand combat.
The outcome is now history, unheard of by some, forgotten by others but remembered by many and rightfully so, for it is one of, if not the most important Battle of WWII which proved to the world, that up to then, the invincible fighting machine of the Axis Powers could be and was soundly beaten. Had the outcome been any different, I doubt whether you would be reading this now.