Blog by my late father Syd Smith from his memoir – he was captured at El Alamein 70 years ago on Saturday
The battle of El Alamein started on 23rd October 1942 at 9pm. It was dark and suddenly the sky was alight with the flashes of 1000 25 pounder artillery guns firing simultaneously. It was awe inspiring and at the same time terrifying. It continued far into the night and I couldn’t believe that anybody could survive such an onslaught. I felt sorry for those on the receiving end. To me it seemed such a nonsense that I had no desire to kill anyone and that most of the hoi polloi on both sides felt the same.
On the 27 October we had orders to move towards the front. Apparently, the German guns were preventing any progress by our tanks and it was our job to put them out of action. As we approached our starting point we went through the lines of tanks. The crew sat by the side of them and they wished us good luck.
When we reached the right position we were half an hour late. The artillery barrage which was supposed to support our attack had ceased. We were refused any more of their support.
We had orders to attack and attempt to destroy the big 88mm guns. We were also told that there was nobody in front of us but the enemy. Furthermore we were told to take no prisoners. On reaching our objective we were to dig in and our tanks would come to relieve us.
It was 9.30pm. It was very dark except for the flashes of gunfire. We fixed bayonets. I also had a wireless on my back but all I could hear was Egyptian music. We got the order to attack.
We moved off in single file. We saw a lorry on fire with figures circling around it. We moved in on them and discovered to our horror that what we thought were Germans turned out to have Scottish accents and in fact were squaddies of the 51st Highland Division. So much for the false information.
We pressed on. Machine guns firing lead bullets started up. They appeared to come straight towards us. Men began dropping around me. It was eerie because all you heard was a thud as a bullet hit and then a figure just seemed to fall over. Even so, 6 Italians and a German surrendered to us and we disarmed them and pointed to them to go back behind our lines. In fact we were ordered to shoot them but we refused.
The 88mm guns began to find their targets. All our wireless vehicles were knocked out as were our bren gun carriers. It was pure chaos and I couldn’t see myself surviving.
Eventually what was left of us were told to dig in. I and a colleague began desperately to do just that. I never shovelled as fast in my life but unfortunately we got down to about a foot but then hit solid rock. As there was so much flak coming towards us we lay on top off each other in the shallow slit trench. My bum was protruding over the top. About 20 yards to our left we saw an old gun emplacement and decided to run for that. My pal went first and reached it safely. Then I went but discovered on my arrival that I had left my rifle behind and had to go back to get it.
The gun emplacement, which was 50 feet deep with rocks piled around the top, was already occupied by 4 of our men. It was reasonably safe although shells were hitting the top and showering us with broken rocks. You could see the shells coming like a fireball. As dawn began to break we looked behind us and saw in the distance our tanks moving up. They laid a smoke screen and we thought that they were coming to relieve us but unfortunately they instead retreated behind it.
We discussed our position and decided that it was pretty hopeless and to bury any identification in the sand.
The enemy began to counter attack. Hell was let loose. We peered over the top of our hole and saw tiger tanks moving towards us. We saw no sense in firing rifles at them and if we emerged from our position we would have been mowed down.
Shells from the tanks were landing all around us and eventually a barrel from a tank was pointed down to us. The tank commander, in perfect English, ordered us out. He allowed us to pack up our wounded and began to escort us back. Captain Harrison made a run for it but was shot down.
I helped carry one of our wounded to an Italian first aid post. He was very kind to us. He showed us photographs of his family. He said Mussolini, Hitler no good and I responded Winston Churchill no good.
As we were escorted through the enemy lines ironically our artillery began firing and several of our fellow prisoners were killed. We also passed by the huge 88mm guns which were our original objective.
I didn’t feel that I had been a great help in the Battle of Alamein but so far I had survived and felt very lucky that I wasn’t one of the 14,000 who had been killed.