Sir Carol Mather served with the Welsh Guards and the SAS in North Africa, and was also on General Montgomery’s staff at Alamein and in Northwest Europe.
One was the commando which was rather short as the commandoes broke up for various reasons, so that was really Tobruk and the northern part of the desert when I was with Jellico in Tobruk and then there was the winter battle of 41/42 Sidi Risaig when I had a ? patrol and we were attached to various organisations and I was with an armoured brigade and saw the battle absolutely first hand, was with brigade command the whole time, then we were chased off at Sidi Risaig. Then I stayed with them for a little bit and went up to Syria, reporting on the political situation. Then in May 42 I rejoined David Stirling who I’d known in the command (?) and did 3 separate raids with him, ending at Christmas 42. In the meantime the full element was being with Monty as his LO at Alamein, which was about 5 weeks. So I got to know that area very well. The difference between the battle raging in the north and the raids we were doing down south was quite marked because the north of the desert had been tremendously travelled over, churned, up, flies, dead bodies, it was pretty unpleasant really, although it wasn’t so bad in the winter because it wasn’t hot summer, but the south was pristine, untouched, in some places never been travelled over before and you only met the occasional camel train.
It must have been very exciting.
Oh yes. It was really like being at sea. You were navigating. There were few known objects, but that was marvellous because we weren’t attacked by the enemy because it was too far away. It was hot in the summer. Our difficulty there was travelling over sand dunes. We were very heavily laden going from A to B, we were continually getting stuck in the sand.
Could you have done without the jeeps?
No we couldn’t have done without them on that expedition. We used them first in that big fire fight at the aerodrome, then at Benghazi raid came afterwards and we used them there extensively and thereafter.
In your book, you mention that in the first raid, approaching the airfield you were passing dead bodies presumably from the previous autumn?
Yes, well it had gone ding dong backwards and forwards since? We were coming across burnt out British and German tanks and bodies too. There was something very special about the desert. It was very exhilarating really. There were no towns, no population so it was just you and the enemy, no refugees, no civilians, so it was a totally different experience to what most people think of as war, especially the First World War. The great thing was, I was then 21, 22 that sort of age, no children, not married, I was free as a breeze and it was the experience of a lifetime.
It must have been terribly thrilling being with a bunch of people you really liked going off undercover doing these really daring raids.
Each of Stirling’s raids was a Mission Impossible really; no-one would have taken on such things except him. As Monty said â€œBoy Stirling’s mad, but there’s room for mad people in war!
Mind you your plan in Tobruk a year earlier was fairly over-optimistic to put it mildly!
Yes, but he succeeded by surprise. The Germans simply couldn’t believe that anything like that could be done. Both the Germans and the Italians didn’t like going deep into to the desert.
Where do you think that came from? From Burton and Bagnold and Scott.
I think it did actually and living on an island, rather than on a large continent, I think it did have an effect.
As a boy did you read adventure stories? Scott, Burton, Ryder Haggard?
Oh yes, but also my father was involved with Shackleton. After he’d come back from his expedition in 1916 – he continued to serve with the Navy through the first world war, but after that my father helped him to get a job in an engineering firm in Glasgow and the 2 boys Eddie and Ray, Eddie ended up as a Labour minister but Ray we knew best of all and my sister was supposed to marry him at one time, but it didn’t quite come off! In my youth I was a bit of an explorer. I had joined to expeditions, one to Lapland and one to Newfoundland, then I went on one of my own to the Yukon and Alaska.
How old were you then?
I was at Cambridge; 19 or 20.
I was going to ask you about you family background.
The family business was an engineering firm in Manchester called Mather and Platt and my elder brother eventually became head of the company. There wasn’t room for 2 anyway and I was in the army, so I stayed in the army til 1962 and then I went into politics. We lived in Cheshire, near Manchester and the firm started off making cotton spinning equipment. My great grandfather founded the firm in 1840 sometime. Then they made big pumps for ships, heavy engineering it was. It was going great guns until 1960, and heavy engineering disappeared and plastics came in, so that was the decline of the family fortune really. I did a short apprenticeship there on the shop floor before I went to Cambridge, then war broke out after I’d been at Cambridge for 2 years.
Your family were very happy about you trekking off to the Yukon and places on your own?
Oh yes. My father went all over the place, on business really, but he went all over the world and was a member of the Royal Geographical Society and I joined it towards the end of the war. We sort of had it in the blood. My father was a great naturalist as well, so we were taught to observe thing s from a young age, birds and wildlife and so on.
Did you read about Bagnold in the 30’s?
No, no-one knew about that except the people who lived out there. I was very influenced by a young chap called Gino Watkins who was an Arctic explorer. This was the Cambridge University Exploration Society and they went off to Greenland and were ostensibly planning a ?? route, but mainly on the ice cap in Greenland. I was rather inspired by him and wanted to be an Arctic explorer, hence my joining the expeditions to Lapland and Newfoundland, in the sub arctic, and then war came and all that came to an end and I ended up in the desert.
You nearly went to Finland thought didn’t you?
I was really interested in your description of Stirling – falling asleep on the boat, a bit of a sloth.
Extraordinary figurebefore the war he wanted to climb Everest and went off to the Canadian Rockies to train. Then he joined the ski battalion in 1940, that’s when I first met him, but we never got to Finland and no-one has ever explained what our task really was. We thought we were going to help the Fins but in fact it appears that we were aiming for the Swedish ball baring steel mine at a place called Gallivarii in the middle of Sweden and that we were going to land in Norway and walk across it and then blow these mines up.
That would have been a hard task.
Yes, but in those days it was all good fun. No worries, no cares and no sense of danger because you’d never experienced it before. As the war went on, you became more jittery and more aware of what might happen.
That’s very apparent in your diary extracts; you start of quite gung ho then you say â€œI’m quite nervous here
Diaries were frowned upon as such and I kept a diary at the battle of Alamein and for the immediate landings in Normandy but otherwise I wrote up these accounts pretty soon after the events, if there was a lull or in hospital or on a boat going somewhere. I couldn’t have written the book without because I couldn’t have done it from memory and it gave a flavour of the times. It was very noticeable, some of the army regiments who’d been through the desert and Italy and whom, say, 40 or 50% were still going strong at the invasion of Normandy, they were much more cautious than for instance the Guards armoured division who were brand new and hadn’t experienced anything like this before. So there was a period of a year or 2, you didn’t know what danger was really and you thought you’d be a victim of anything until it happened. It was a very carefree existence really. Anyone with a bit of enterprise like Stirling and some of our companions, they had a wonderful time really.
I remember asking Lord Jellico if he got scared and he shrugged and said he didn’t think so, couldn’t remember feeling scared. Said he rather enjoyed the whole thing. There does seem to have been a very strong sense of camaraderie within the SAS or L detachment (?) a band of young people all together doing something thrilling and daring.
Yes there was. The thing was that the desert war got very stagnant. The main fighting line went backwards and forwards and there didn’t seem to be any major initiatives; no looking round the corner seeing what one could do, and that’s what Dave Stirling supplied really and therefore we were at the peak of events in the desert and we were winning the war, our war, and other people weren’t. If you look at a record of the number of planes that the SAS destroyed it was far greater than the number destroyed by the RAF at the time and that was just a window of opportunity that Stirling spotted. Of course, as time went on, the Germans became much more aware of what might happen and so airfields were more heavily guarded. Really the last proper raid on airfields was that mass attack then we had to give up driving within a mile or 2 and go in creepy crawly on foot and that was the only way we could do it.
You were mainly targeting soft skinned vehicles after that?
Yes, mainly on the coastal road.
It all played a good part.
Yes, a lot of these operations failed but it made the German High Command very jittery about their flanks. They had very long lines of communication, for example to Alamein. They were highly vulnerable all along their line of communications and with these unexpected raids taking place almost anywhere along that line, I think Rommel eventually decided to withdraw from the Alamein Line at a certain stage of the battle. Hitler refused permission for him to withdraw but I think it must have been in his mind that there were these attacks on his flanks. Quite apart from the aeroplane score, I think creating uncertainty in the mind of the enemy was an important factor.
As you say, a lot of things that happen in war can’t be judged in material terms. I was going to ask you about your time in the armoured brigade.were you conscious at the time that the Germans perhaps had better desert tactics?
Well, better tanks and better means of using them?
I think tactically there wasn’t much difference in mobile desert warfare. At the end of the day, darkness came, and each side would withdraw into a lager, into a close huddle and the supply vehicles came up. We used to have a leader light, a light on a pole, and the Germans had the same, so the B echelon could see where we were. At that stage we never would have dreamt of attacking at night; that wouldn’t have been playing the game. The main thing was that everyone was exhausted; all you wanted to do was have something to eat and get some sleep. Later on, the SAS did try and attack these targets behind the lines but it was a gentlemanly war from that point of view and the Germans always attacked from the west, so we had the sun in our eyes. What you were trying to do was seek out the German armour and they were doing the same, and then you had a battle between the 2 groups, only a brigade strong perhaps.
How many tanks to a brigade?
About 70 tanks in a regiment. It was a question of what size group you could control. So in a way, that was a war within a war and it lasted 2 or 3 years and Monty when he came looked upon this with great scorn and said this wasn’t proper warfare, we were just chasing each other round the desert, which was true actually, so when it came to the Battle of Alamein, he seemingly went back to WW1 tactics, with a massive infantry attack to make a hole in the Alamein line and then push the armour (?) through. But he insisted on overwhelming strength over the Germans and wanted to lay his detail well beyond the time that Churchill was insisting on until we’d got all the equipment out. So although we were still outgunned by the German tanks and the 88mm guns, these were just anti aircraft guns.
Did you hear any discussions at the time about bringing in the 3.7 British anti aircraft gun?
What we used to do was 25 pounders firing over open sights which was very effective. When we got the American Honey tank, it was very manoeuvrable but it had a pea shooter and this dogged us out throughout the war; this lack of fire power. Those people who knew about this, Rolls Royce kept pressing the government in the 30’s to do some research on the engines to propel heavy tanks, and were told to go away because there wasn’t a need for it. We were totally unprepared at the beginning of the war. It was only by great good fortune that we were able to get our Hurricanes and Spitfires up. The Germans had been preparing for a long time and were fully equipped and up to date. This didn’t continue for the whole war because in Normandy the Germans were using horses and wagons. We killed an awful lot of horses. Their programme ground down at a certain stage because they had to replace equipment and they were concentrating on rockets, the V1 and V2 and so on. So at one point we became fairly evenly matched, except we were still outgunned by the tanks. It was quite complicated to design an engine which could carry that weight of armour or artillery. At the beginning of the war we were using engines from the General Omnibus Company and then we tried aero engines, but they overheated; it really was a big problem. It needed years of research to fully equip for armed warfare, although in armoured warfare apart from the guns, we were second to none I think.
As you say, you were massively outgunned up to the first and second Alamein and yet it’s the quantity of materials coming in.
This German anti aircraft gun could be fired for ground use and then they adapted their tanks to take the 88mm guns.
The German tanks were so much bigger..
At the time of Sidi Risaig, both sides were using solid shot, not high explosive and so when I was with this armoured brigade we were at brigade HQ, 500 or 600 yards behind the fighting line and you could see the shells quite easily coming through the sky and you just had to get out of the way when they came by, or jump over them. When they hit the ground, they’d judder along.
So they were like an old fashioned cannonball really?
Still pretty effective though against an armoured vehicle.
The other thing was that wireless communications were pretty rudimentary. In tank warfare they were pretty good because the troop commander could speak to his tanks and the squadron commander could speak to the troop commanders and commanding officer
But the Germans had better wireless communication than us.
Oh yes. In the days with the SAS when we took on the jeeps, we had no wireless communication at all.
That time you describe being in a cave with Stephen Hastings, you must have felt pretty vulnerable with no communications at all?
Yes, we were there for a fortnight 30 miles south of the coast and south of the fighting line with no communications at all. At that point Stirling had one line back to HQ in the Middle East but we had no communication between the vehicles or the troops. It adds more complications though – we were in a way better off without it.
Yes, do you think if you’d had better communications, you would have had more interference from HQ; you’re more autonomous if you’re on your own?
Absolutely yes. We weren’t manoeuvring with a body; it wasn’t necessary to keep in touch with the various sub units. We knew what we were going to do in advance.
When you went off on raids, did you take ordinary rations with you?
We had a base, what we called a rendezvous behind the lines usually in caves..
This would have been on the edge of the Qattara Depression or something on an escarpment?
Yes. We had jeeps for ops, 3 tonners for the petrol, water, rations etc and then we’d make a dump, have them hidden in a cave or camouflaged, but when you’d used up the ammunition and were getting short of rations, in the case of the mass raid, everyone except Hastings, myself and the doctor and a few French, had to go back to Cairo to re-load, so you were limited in the amount of time you could stay out.
And you were limited by the amount of nights you could do without sleep too.
Yes, this was the problem with our kind of warfare, although we’d lie up in the day, the flies were so appalling you couldn’t sleep; they’d pester you all the time. This was in the northern part of the desert. At night we were always moving or operating, so when could you sleep?
So you probably had an hour in a 24 hour period?
Dozing, yes, and frequently when we were moving, people would fall asleep at the wheel. At night time we could follow in close column and we’d have a halt and people would fall asleep. Then you’d go on and suddenly realise you were several jeeps short and you’d go back and look for them. Navigation was very interesting. The simple way was direct reckoning with a prismatic compass and as we were travelling at night we could take a bearing on a star and as the heavens were moving round so you had to change your star every 15 minutes, take your bearings and find out which star to follow and the worst scenario was 15 minutes, but then we had the sun compass for travelling by day which was invented by Bagnauld. It was very simple, a bit like a sun dial with a rod sticking up and graduations round the side and you had to change the setting of that according to which direction you were going in. and time of year. Then you had a complicated card which converted the reading to where you were. But when we were in the deep desert we had proper navigators who would use a theodolite.
Maps were presumably useless.
They were blank! When we were in the deep south below the sand sea, there was a long, 400 foot flat topped mountain, only about 4 miles wide and impenetrable. There was one pass called 8 bells pass because there were 8 conical mountains round there. We had to find the pass but we didn’t know where it was and if you looked at the map, all you could see were scratchings. By going through this pass it saved us a terrific detour round the south, so we needed accurate navigation and that worked pretty well.
What about storms?
In the south we didn’t have sand storms because it hadn’t been churned up. I don’t remember a sand storm in the south. It was in the north where it had all been churned up. It was talcum powder dust with so many tanks having gone over it. The best travelling was over gravel planes. Some of it was quite soft and gave way and that’s where those sticks came in. But the other thing was crossing the sand sea; there were these big, mountainous dunes which ran from north to south and there was a prevailing west wind which formed ridges and so the western slope was fairly gradual but the eastern slope was steep. If you got the angle right, you could run up the slope but then you had to be careful the other side, not to roll. A few people got badly injured like that. It was possible but it was very hard work. In between these sand dunes there was what was known as Surreas (??), underlying gravel desert so if you were going north and south it was much easier because you were travelling on gravel, but if you were travelling east and west, it became more complicated.
These sand dunes, are they exactly like the sand dunes at say Western Super Mare?
Not Western Super Mare. It was like the dunes you see on TV film of the desert.
Could you pick up lumps of it?
No, it was all soft sand. If you put your hand down to about there, you felt lovely cool sand underneath. It was boiling on the surface. We had sand mats to get us unbogged which were canvas mats with a wooden strips in them which we’d unroll in front of the wheels, or steel sand channels which went under the front or rear wheels and then you had to get men to push; it was a bit of a nightmare in some parts. We were always over laden; one lorry would break down and would have to be abandoned and then its load would have to be dispersed between the others. It got worse and worse.
So you were always glad when you got out of the sand sea?
It really must have been like being on a sea, as you said.
It was yes.
Did you manage to shave?
No, you couldn’t because there wasn’t enough water. It was very obviously very precious. You couldn’t find it locally except in one or two places, because most of the wells had been destroyed in the north, but if you found a decent well, it was probably brackish. You had to carry all water with you. We had one water bottle day for all purposes.
It must have been quite difficult – you must have had to pace yourselves?
You got used to it actually. You didn’t want to drink much during the day if you could help
it. If you were on your feet, there’s an old army saying. â€˜Never drink on a march.’ If you were de-horsed as it were and had to walk some considerable distance, you never wanted to drink during the day. If you were near the sea, we each carried a little rubber tube with us and hopefully there was some petrol around to light a little fire, and you put that underneath your water full of sea water and when it boiled it would come round this coil and it would drip fresh water. This was a very painstaking way of doing it, but it was just enough to wet your tongue and so you could actually make fresh water in a rather laborious way.
Personal belongings kept to a minimum?
Oh yes, bedding role, lay on the sand, bottle of whisky possibly! With the SAS we had quite a generous rum ration actually, so most nights we were able to put it in a cup of tea or whatever, so that was quite generous as long as you had the jar of rum with you. When I say a bottle of whisky, I think in the latter stages when we were going on a major operation, we’d take a bottle of whisky, but only one.
I know pilots were given Benzedrine to keep them going. Did you have anything like that?
Some people because we had so many sleepless night s did buy Benzedrine tablets from the chemist and I suppose they were useful up to a point. One of our number once took a sleeping pill, Sandy Scratchley only to find he was immediately on an operation at night!
Did you use Benzedrine?
Once or twice but it wasn’t a culture.
That time in the cave with the doctor and Stephen Hastings, what did you do all day?
Talked about what we’d do when we got back to civilisation. We elaborated on an ideal day with every conceivable luxury and comfort including girls of course, and each day we improved on it. We had books so we could read. We were in a cave, out of direct sun, under mosquito nets.
It was nice and cool was it?
Yes. They were only shallow caves, but enough to hide the jeeps.
Did you see any Arabs?
When we went through the Qattara Depression we did. There were a couple of wells and
we were on reasonably friendly terms with them. When we got up into Syanacia (??), the hump, 200 or 300 feet high, there was much more vegetation and where the Italian columnists were. Where they wheat and there were a lot of Synussi Arabs round there. They were very friendly to us. The Italians had treated them vilely during colonial times, which were just before. We saw people with their arms cut off and such like. But when we got to Tripoli, the Tripolitanians were not friendly towards us.
Can you remember what your ideal day was?
There was a lovely hotel near the pyramids called the Meena Hotel. When we came across the Qattara Depression were aiming for the pyramids because that’s really where Cairo began. We started to indulge in our first day’s luxury, fell asleep and woke up 24 hours later!
Cairo must have been quite fun wasn’t it?
The Egyptians weren’t at war with the Axis powers. There were no blackouts and plenty of food. There was every kind of luxury really that one wanted. Alexandria was the better place really, but you could have a slap up meal in a restaurant. We had certain favourite places we’d stay, Shepherds in Cairo and Cecil in Alexandria. Hot baths and every thing we wanted. A very strong contrast with life in the desert.
When things got bad in the desert, you’d imagine life back in Cairo?
Well, more than a week in the fleshpots you’d had enough really and wanted to get back to where the action was.
Did you ever get ill in the desert?
The worst thing was desert sores. This was a skin deficiency and you put your hand in your pocket and took all the skin off the back of your hand. You wrapped bandages around or a handkerchief.
Was there any cream you could put on that?
No. Just wrapped a bandage round.
You never got sunstroke?
It’s quite surprising that with hardly any water.
When we arrived in the Middle East at the beginning of 41 we were equipped with pith helmets, what they called Wolseley helmets and then they went out of fashion and we wore caps. But later on we used these Arab Kaffirs which were rather better protection, but we used to get horribly burnt.
Monty – you knew him before the war? I got the impression from the book that you were quite fond of him?
Oh yes, very. He was a very good person to work for. He wasn’t the completely austere person that everyone’s been told. He had certain rules about his health because he was missing a lung from the first WW so he didn’t smoke and he didn’t drink, but he had a very good sense of humour and once he accepted you and trusted you, you had no more worries; of course if you did put a foot wrong, you were out and that was the end of it. He loved being with the young and he was very good at dealing with them. At our tactical HQ we were all in our 20’s. He was not good at getting on with his contemporaries so much
Why do you think that was?
..Except the people he’d chosen and he was very careful who he chose as his divisional commanders, corps commanders and all those people working closely with him. One of his expressions was â€œHe’s useless, quite useless! and that person would be pushed out..
Yes, but that was a bit more of a personality problem there.
I liked your anecdote about Freiberg.not much up top but incredibly vain!
Freiberg was a great fellow; looked like a pugilist – very tough. Monty was amazed, (think
this is what he’s saying), always led from the front
Which was Rommel’s creed too.
Yes, but Monty took great interest in officers careers, whether they were what he called a good egg or not, and he would give them a helping hand to get them on their way, so all the corps commanders in the desert and most of the divisional commanders, they were hand picked, he knew them and trusted them. He got on with General Alexander very well. He was senior in rank to Monty and in years service. Alex was very sensible in the fact that he knew that Monty was a bit of a military genius and so he left the whole thing up to him and protected his back; made sure he got supplies and so on.
Do you remember Alex coming to HQ
But he did pitch up half way through the battle of Alamein.
Yes he did. I can’t remember him actually arriving at our attack HQ. He was there in the background..they did meet actually, but he was very helpful. Although he was an extremely brave and successful WW1 soldier, he wasn’t a great one, when it came to Italy, for strategy and high command. He wasn’t the strong hand which Monty was. He rather left it to his subordinates. He got on very well with the allies and he was imposing to look at, but Monty always got on with him very well and Allenbrook as well. He was quite frightened of Allenbrook.
Everyone says that Alex was the only one he never had an argument with. Did you find Alex quite impressive?
I didn’t meet up with him that often, but he was an impressive figure; he was a very experienced soldier. As Allenbrook said in his diaries – he was a bit scornful of Alex, as he was about Monty too up to a point on occasions.he respected Monty, but his anxiety was Monty’s relationships with the allies.
Why do you think Monty did rub so many people up the wrong way?
As far as the Americans were concerned, he found that they had absolutely no experience at all, never ought in a war before and they had no realistic training, they weren’t geared for war and even the commanding officers were completely green. In the Normandy campaign when the number of American troops outnumbered the British Canadians, the command structure changed, so that Monty, instead of being in command of the whole land battle, as he was at the invasion, when we got to Brussels, Eisenhower took over as the so called land forces commander as well as commander in chief and Monty just had the 21st army group British Canadian with Patten having the American army group and the whole of Monty’s strategic plan then fell to bits and the trouble with Eisenhower was that he was a nice chap but he wasn’t a very strong character. His American army commanders would never agree with what Monty wanted to do and Eisenhower let them get on with it and the result was that instead of having a narrow punch round the top of ? (Arnhem?) there was advanced penny packets right down the front, and Monty knew this wasn’t the way to win the war. It was a daring move to cross the Rhine there where the Germans wouldn’t expect it. The Siegfried Line went down this way here, so it outflanked the Siegfried Line and there were about 3 separate rivers, but this led directly into the Ruhr and Eisenhower delayed for a crucial fortnight beyond the time when Monty planned this advance and it allowed the Germans to come back. I tried to explain to Anthony Beaver but he wasn’t really interested that the reason why Arnhem failed was this fatal delay of a fortnight. I was standing on the Neimegen Bridge talking to Vouchman (??) just after he captured it and he said â€œIf only you’d been here a fortnight earlier, all the German had gone, and this was from Arnhem too.
End of Number One
Carol Mather Number 2
Did you see much of Elmhurst or Conningham and the RAF chaps?
Monty had this very close link with the air force and it was â€˜we’ve got to win the air battle before we win the land battle.’ Monty had the air force very near him physically. They were hand in glove. There was jealousy between them actually. Elmhurst, he was a very nice fellow. Maori Conningham, he was a New Zealander who I thought was a very nice chap but there were difficulties as time went on. Tedder (?) was the air force C in C in Cairo. Tedder was always trying to undermine Monty in Eisenhower’s eyes; I don’t know what the trouble was but there was a lot of ill feeling between them at that stage of the war.
When you were LO to Monty you saw plenty of Elmhurst and Conningham?
Yes, they used to come and have dinner in our little mess quite frequently.
So you were having dinner with Monty most nights?
Every night, such as it was, and bully hooch.
The conversation was always quite easy was it?
Well you see that was when he liked to relax and he’d take a controversial subject, not a
military one, and get an argument going amongst his young staff. It could have been anything; sex, love, courage.this was his form of relaxation and when others came to dinner such as his chief of staff De Guingamp or Bill Williams or these air force fellows, he’d follow the same tactic. It was all very jolly and light hearted. Then, we had Von Teimar (???) to dinner just after he was captured; this was a great moment for Monty and Monty was telling him how he should have fought the war. Half way through the dinner, a dramatic message got through saying we’d captured a strong point and Von Teimar was greatly dismayed to think we’d already got there. He was a very nice fellow; very relaxed. We had an interpreter by then, Joe Ewart who took part in the surrender at Nuremburg. Von Teimar said to Monty â€œI hear you spend all your time in Cairo? and Monty said â€œNot a bit of it; I never go to Cairo. My ADC’s here, they spend all their time in Alexandria!!
Can you remember the barrage opening?
Oh yes. Monty didn’t want to stay up for it. He just went to sleep. He always went to bed at 9pm and it was due to start at 10pm or 11pm and he didn’t want to stay up for it. The plan had been made you see.
Do you think it could have been even more concentrated in the north?
The cover plan was that we were coming down south and everything pointed to that. The water pipeline was laid pointing down south and we had masses of dummy tanks down there so it couldn’t have been that really. I think the barrage in the north..it made an awful lot of noise. But that was a very important part of the deception plan, which worked very well. The troops in the north.again we had these dummy tanks and dummy camps. and they were withdrawn out for rest and training etcetera and then just before the battle, they moved up to their ?? positions. So it was a very successful deception plan. Down in the south with this water pipe line going down, obviously it was a false and it made progress like that and the Germans could then work out when they thought the attack was going to take place and we arranged that the completion looked as though it was going to be November sometime, not October. The Germans knew an attack was coming but they didn’t know exactly where and they didn’t know the date, and I think we fooled them very well. There was this enormous mined marsh which they’d erected behind their lines as well as in their lines several miles deep and getting through this was a problem. The idea was that the armour should go in much more quickly, once we’d made a way through but the cleared channels were so narrow that we had these traffic jams and then the tanks became sitting ducks for the German artillery. In those days it was men on their hands and knees with bayonets clearing the mines and clearing a channel about as wide as this room. We had one or 2 of those funny tanks – Scorpios – but they kept breaking down and they didn’t play a very big part and the British armour had already had a hell of a pasting in the desert and they knew that their place was in the open desert rather than this narrow congested channel. Lumsden reflected this feeling that.. Monty’s plan was to push the armour right through and accept the casualties. Lumsden was playing fast and loose and couldn’t be got hold of and nothing was happening. A lot of our infantry and in particular the Aussies, were saying â€œWhere’s our armour? We’re not being supported. Eventually it came to a show down and a meeting place was arranged between Monty and Lumsden and we’d just broken through and it was in the open desert. It was just a map reference on more or less a plain sheet of paper and I was supposed to be navigating Monty to this spot. He thought I was an experienced navigator having been with the SAS and I think I was doing it with a ???compass. So we got through our lines into the open desert and when we got to the spot I thought it was we stopped and there was no sign of Lumsden and Monty said â€œAre you absolutely sure this is the right spot? There was nothing to be seen anywhere, just desert. Then I was sent off in pursuit of Lumsden to bring him to Monty’s HQ and as I explained in my book, 50 years later I discovered that my brother was navigating Lumsden. How near I was.I was quite experienced..that was when Monty had his major row with Lumsden and 2 weeks later he was sacked.
The parting of the waves between Conningham and Monty..Monty came under criticism for the slowness of the retreat. I know weather played a great part. How did it seem from your point of view?
Monty’s view was â€˜Who is this chap Conningham and what does he know about desert warfare?’ We’d had 24 hours of continuous rain which had turned the desert into a bog. That was part of the trouble. I would have been wonderful to have cut off the Germans. Everyone had been taking casualties, and it was a really hard slog and with the weather everyone was getting bogged down.
To cut across Cyrenaica is a long way and you can only push people so hard.
Yes, looking at the map you’d think â€˜how easy – just drive across there.’ But our tank strength was pretty low by then and everyone’s got to have food and rest and the armoured corps which was commanded by Lumsden, Monty had called the corps de chasse, in fact this was the job of the corps de chasse. The simple plan was that the infantry would punch a hole in the Alamein line and the corps de chasse would go through and fan out and get behind the German lines and cut off anyone. The corps de chasse for one reason and another, it didn’t work, and this was partly because Lumsden knew they’d be sitting ducks in these narrow, cleared channels and partly because he was slow off the mark, no doubt about that. The main thing was to win the battle of Alamein and defeat the German, which he did. It would have been very satisfactory if we’d been able to cut them off completely as happened in Normandy at Falaise, where the whole ruddy German army seemed to have been destroyed.
Can you tell me about your MC?
I’ve never seen the citation, so I don’t know what it says. But this was Operation Market Garden through Holland, to capture Nijmegan, then on to Arnhem. There was a very narrow cobbled road with polders either side going to the north. It was agricultural; small fields so you could not get off that road, although there were one or 2 tracks crossing it and there were the 3 major canals. We were sent up to find out what was happening and at a place called, can’t remember, half way a long there, the Germans had come across one of these side tracks and there was a melee going on, on this road but everything was such close quarters that the tanks couldn’t use their guns. There were British tanks, German tanks, American airborne, allied infantry in the most frightful traffic jam in the middle of this road. There were 2 machine guns going but really it was too close quarters for tanks. I had to get through this lot in order to get to Nijmegan. I started off and I don’t know why, on my feet, to try to get through this thing. I could almost touch the Tiger tanks. Then I got my jeep forward and managed to get through somehow and then we got cut off and couldn’t get back. So 2 of Monty’s MO’s and me and we dosed down in some frightful hostelry somewhere and the next day we managed to get back through and I’ve no memory of it at all but Monty seemed to have been impressed by it and that’s how it happened.
During Alamein, as far as you remember, Monty remained in good spirits, his confidence high?
Yes, he obviously got very worried about our slowness in breaking out which took twice as long as expected and there was a crisis meeting at the attack HQ on the second night of the attack, when Freddie De Guingamp and the corps commanders, at night, and I was sleeping under the caravan, and I was fast asleep and didn’t know it was happening, but it was about the fact that we couldn’t punch a hole through the German lines and the trouble over getting the armour up. But the battle on the whole was going according to plan. On the 8th day, or thereabouts, he changed the route of attack. It had been mainly along the coast road and he decided to change it to the junction of the German and Italian forces and that was the major change he made and eventually it was successful but it was very costly in casualties particularly amongst the infantry. It was touch and go in a way but we were going to make it in the end because we had the preponderance of men and equipment. We had complete air superiority which was a huge advantage. In the old days in the desert, in daylight we had to keep tremendous dispersal between the vehicles; you’d never have vehicles bunched together, but with air superiority, that wasn’t so important. The RAF was looking after things during the day. When we got into Tripolitania, we as SF(?) patrol were supposed to be looking after it at night and the RAF during the day, so the dramatic change in the situation was air superiority and I think that Sterling’s hand in this contributed in no small way.
I know the battle plan was entirely Monty’s, but do you think that Alexander had any input into it at all?
No. I think that Alexander does claim that at one point in the battle he went to see Monty to suggest a change in tactics; I wasn’t aware of this at the time. Monty wrote up the battle, all the battles, immediately after the end of the war, so it was his idea of what happened and he set the agenda and I think in part it was his own story of what happened and it may not have been particularly accurate and they say that Alex came up and suggested something, and it may have been this particular move, but Monty was a past master in strategy and tactics and I don’t think Alexander could have taught him anything.
I was going to ask you about the capture. You could have stayed on Monty’s staff..
It had become slightly boring; we were just slogging along the road. There were one or two minor actions but the battle was over and the interest had gone. I had to get back to my unit, the SAS. They were on this major left hook round Tripolitania, between Marble Arch, more or less the front line and Tripoli, which was a 500 mile stretch, and we were operating on this 500 mile stretch. This was not lovely open desert; it was rugged country with deep wadi’s and heavily populated with Arab villages and Italian settlements, we were in completely different terrain, surrounded by hostile people and this is why this operation went wrong; a lot of us were either killed or put in the bag. David Sterling’s admin was along the lines of a wish and a promise. I had drawn the short straw which was the furthest point along this 5oo mile stretch near the Tripoli end. I said to David â€œWe’ve got petrol and food for a week. What are we going to do after that? He said â€œDon’t worry – there are a lot of Italian columnists there and they’ll have hams hanging from the ceiling; just take hams. But we ran out of water and had to drink puddle water. That side wasn’t frightfully good but that was the way he’d always operated and it surprised the enemy because they thought we couldn’t survive without food and water!