However, May 27th was not yet quite played out. When Captain Ames and Sergeant Morris, the sole survivors of ‘A’ Squadron had withdrawn, the remainder of the crews were taken prisoner with the exception of fifteen men gathered together by Huth.
“We then, he wrote, got the wounded into a wadi and did what we could for them. More German vehicles passed through our area and relieved us of our arms except for some Tommy guns which we managed to hide.
“The enemy, although they treated us very well. and in fact, gave me some bandages, seemed so intent on pushing on to el Adem and so certain that we could not escape that they did not bother much about us.
“Having collected what food and water and arms that we could, and got the wounded together, and having then burnt four of the tanks to prevent them falling into enemy hands, I ordered the remainder of the unwounded men to scatter out and hide until dusk.
“At dusk, we collected together and walked back to el Gubi, that is me and ten men. Of the other five two had been captured that afternoon whilst three were left behind to look after the wounded. After walking all night and passing through two enemy leaguers we covered about sixteen miles and were picked up at dawn on the 28th by some South African Armoured Cars.”
There is still one story belonging to this memorable day, that of the capture and escape of Major Phillips.
“As far as I know,” he wrote, “mine was the only tank moving in Regimental Headquarters, both the Colonel’s and the Intelligence Officer’s tanks having been knocked out. Even my tank was not moving well and we could only crawl along with the stuff pattering on the outside. When there were sounds as if a blacksmith with a very large hammer was hitting the outside we wondered how long we could keep it out.
Eventually, one of the tracks was knocked off and my driver was wounded so we had to dismount. We lay on the ground hoping the Germans would pass us by, but unfortunately whoever knocked us out had been watching because within a few minutes a lorry drove up and we were taken, prisoner.
“My wounded driver, after I had shouted to the Germans that he couldn’t stand up, put up his hands. He was well treated and actually freed when a short time afterwards a German field station was captured by us.
“I spent the rest of that day with a German field gun team on the back of a British lorry which was used for towing the gun. Incidentally, the gun was of Russian make and about 75-mm. calibre. It went into action several times that day. It was part of a column moving east and the column was engaged on numerous occasions by 25-pounders. Very interesting it is to see it from the other end.
“I made one or two tentative efforts to escape whenever the gun team dismounted to go into action but I was too well watched for any to be successful. I had hoped that the team would pack up after firing and forget that I was lying on the ground.
“That night was a disappointment to me as the German sentries round the leaguer were very wide awake. They appeared to call to each other every quarter of an hour something like it is a fine night. All’s well. Are you awake Number Two?’ Number Two would answer ‘Yes’, and pass the call on to Number Three and so on round the leaguer. I should add that it was a period of a full moon and to anyone who knows the Western Desert that means it was as light as day.
“The next day an attempt at a short interrogation took place. I was searched but not very thoroughly. I let them find my diary and a private letter in the breast pocket of my overalls and then I started producing toilet paper out of all my other pockets, rather like a conjurer, with the result that their LO. said ‘O.K.’, or words to that effect. He little realised that I still had my wallet and some paper on which I had been making notes about his formation.
“Another officer (R.A.S.C.) and myself were separated from the remainder of the prisoners and put in a lorry under the guard of a sentry with a Tommy gun. This lorry was one of a supply column moving west. The column had hardly started when it was attacked by R.A.F. Hurri-bombers who bombed and machine-gunned. scoring several direct hits. I managed to persuade our driver to edge out to a flank and drive on the outside of the column as opposed to the middle of it, pointing out that the bombs would be much more likely to fall in the centre than on the flanks of the column and that I had a marked objection to being hit by my own planes. However, there was more in it than fear of our bombers as we had decided there was a very good chance of driving off with the lorry as our guard seemed fairly confident of us.
Sure enough, we didn’t have long to wait. At a halt the sentry wandered off to talk to a friend, leaving his Tommy gun on the seat. Almost too good to be true the driver left his seat and went about 30 yards away to get a light. We both said, ‘Now!’ The R.A.S.C. officer jumped into the driver’s seat and tried to start the engine. There was an agonising moment when the self-starter purred but the engine did not start. A second time he pressed. This time success and the engine roared into life.
Meanwhile, I had been standing beside the lorry in a suggestive attitude, watching. As soon as I heard the engine firing I leapt aboard only to be greeted by the words, ‘I can’t get into gear!’ In his excitement, he had overrevved the engine. Naturally, there was a cry from our guard and driver who came rushing back. We had to pretend it was a joke, very much on us. I could have wept as we had a very good chance of escaping, being right on the flank of the column, and with any luck could have been well away before anything happened.
“The guard and driver didn’t appear to do much about it, hoping I think that no one had seen the incident which would have got them into hot water for leaving us alone. However, another man with a large pistol came and sat in the back of the lorry with us for the rest of the day. That night we were on the move most of the time and too well guarded to try anything.
“The next day we left our lorry and were herded with a lot of other prisoners onto another vehicle. I felt rather depressed as our chances didn’t look too good and we were getting further west along the German line of communication. Very much further would have meant that walking was out of the question, especially as I had only just left the hospital after a bout of fever and didn’t feel too strong.
“However we halted and stayed in the same place all day and had the doubtful pleasure of again being smartened up by the Hurri-bombers. They were very good and luckily did not come too close to our lorry.
“That evening the Italians appeared with a large column of prisoners and we were handed over to them. I was quite sorry to leave the Germans. They had treated me well, sharing their rations with me and giving me blankets at night. One knew with the Italians one would get little, as generally, they hadn’t enough themselves. However they produced a barrel of water and we, the officers, about twenty of us I suppose, had to arrange the distribution.
“While we were doing this the shelling started and an attack was launched against our captors. This caused great excitement especially as the Germans started retiring. No lorries were available and we were herded all together and ordered to march south along the edge of a minefield. You may be sure we marched slowly much to the annoyance of the Italians. An Italian armoured car which was escorting us fired a few bursts over our heads to try and speed things up. An N.C.O. next to me was hit. We all stopped and made a great fuss, telling the Italians exactly what we thought of them.
“In the confusion and the half-light, I potted a gap in the wire, nipped through and walked on with the column of prisoners on my left. The only trouble was that some well-meaning people shouted: ‘Oi! Come back, you’re in a minefield! It’s dangerous!’ I informed them in a loud whisper that I was prepared to risk the mines. Actually, it was an English minefield sown with anti-tank mines so I was fairly confident it would require more than my weight to detonate them. After walking a short way I came to some bushes and lay down and let the rest of the party go by. I felt horribly conspicuous as I was only about 15 yards from the wire and the bushes were only about 18 inches high.
“I covered myself with a blanket and hoped for the best. The attack petered out about this time and there was continuous traffic up and down the wire. It was bright moonlight now so I still could not move. I ate biscuits and dried apricots, which I had found in our mess lorry which had also been captured, to pass the time.
“About 1 or 2 a.m. the traffic ceased and I decided to start. Through the wire again I went and started moving east. I had to crawl on my hands and knees between six groups of German vehicles. They were not very close but the moon was brilliant.
“Eventually, I considered it safe to walk normally which I did until dawn. There is little cover in the desert. I knew I had not gone nearly far enough as I could hear German voices ordering vehicles to start up. Luckily I found a deep slit trench and decided to lie up there during the day and push on again the next night. I pulled my blanket over me and placed a steel helmet, which I had picked up, over my head, hoping that if anyone came along they would take me for a corpse. I think it worked, for shortly after I had made myself comfortable I heard a car drive up and then go away again. You can imagine my feelings.
“I had been lucky. I had my pockets full of dried apricots but I had found two full water bottles and a book by Conan Doyle in a burnt-out vehicle. With the aid of these, I managed to pass several hours of the morning, but as the sun got higher it became unbearably hot and I had to discard my blanket and my disguise of being a corpse.
“During the first part of the morning it sounded as if a battle was going on quite close to me but by about 2 p.m. the sounds died down. I peered out and saw several men moving east. They looked English so I hailed them and found they were, like myself, escaped prisoners and that they had not seen anyone for some time. They had escaped the previous evening when the lorry they were travelling in blew up in trying to move west through a minefield.
“We all moved east together until it got too hot and we decided to rest in the shade of a broken-down lorry until the cool of the evening. In the evening we pushed on again and saw some vehicles coming toward us. Thank goodness they turned out to be a South African armoured car patrol. I asked to be taken to the nearest Headquarters as I had some very useful information about the enemy and his morale. By coincidence, the first Headquarters we came to was my own Armoured Brigade where I spent the night, and the following day rejoined the Regiment”
- A short history of The 8th Hussars
- Middle East (Egypt and Libya) timeline
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – The Regiment
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – ‘B’ Echelon
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – Escape Stories
- Article: The Battle of Bir Hacheim, May 1942 – ‘C’ Squadron with 3 RTR