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The Battle of El Alamein: 70 years on

English: El Alamein 1942: British infantry adv...

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Battle of El Alamein, frequently cited as the turning point of the war in North Africa, began 70 years ago today. Whilst at the time it was no doubt a great morale boost for a victory-bereft British public, who had only seen defeat since 1939. History would suggest however that the Second World War was, for the most part, won and lost on the Eastern Front, given the vastly larger number of troops in action in that theatre. Given the perilous state of the country’s armed forces between 1940 and 1942, and given that for a large part of that time Britain was standing alone, a limited campaign in North Africa was probably all that the Army was capable of fighting at the time.

Alamein did once and for all prevent the Germans from breaking through to the Suez Canal, and the oilfields of the Middle East. My Grandad was in Iraq at the time, but ‘missed out’ on Alamein. Of course, it couldĀ  said that the Battle of Alam Halfa earlier in 1942 probably ended Rommel’s last chance of winning the war in North Africa. However, Alamein did also mark the rise of Montgomery in public consciousness as a senior commander who won battles.

On the subject of El Alamein, the guys at Philosophy Football have released a special El Alamein 70th anniversary t-shirt, with a Desert Rat artwork and in a nice sandy colour. Check out Philosophy Football’s website here.

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RSM Frederick Barlow

The Regimental Sergeant Major of a Battalion is the closest thing to god for the men in that unit. In a peculiar, British kind of way, the RSM has an almost holy position as the senior NCO. Responsible for discipline and morale, it is not unknown for the RSM to tick off junior officers.

Frederick Barlow, 33 and from Portsmouth, was the RSM of the 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade during the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. At the age of 33 and as the RSM he was probably a pre-war regular who had been promoted to be RSM of a war-raised Battalion. The Rifle Brigade was also a fine Regiment to join, one of the most prestigious Infantry units in the Army after the Guards.

The 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade were serving with the 7th Motor Brigade. the 7th Battalion were serving as mobile infantry in support of the tanks – a role that light infantry units of the Rifle Brigade and Kings Royal Rifle Corps in particular exceled at. The 7th Motor Brigade formed the infantry support for the Armoured units in the 1st Armoured Division.

The Second Battle of El Alamein came at a pivotal point. Montgomery had just taken over command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, was away in Italy.

When the battle began on 23 October 1942, the initial assault was made in the north. By 25 October the Eighth Army had made a thrust of several miles into the Axis positions. However the battle reached a standstill. In the coming days Montgomery succesfully fended off a counter-attack by the returned Rommel, and then ground the Axis forces down so badly that they had no option but to retreat.

Alamein was a significant victory. Perhaps it was a sideshow compared to the Eastern Front, but for a Britain that been under severe strain it was a much needed boost to morale. Winston Churchill described it thus:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning”

RSM Frederick Barlow was killed on 25 October 1942. Having looked at events surrounding Alamein, I suspect that he was killed during the heavy fighting when the 1st Armoured Division were attempting to break through the Axis defences. He is buried in Alamein War Cemetery Egypt.

Frederick Barlow’s medals are in the care of Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, and are currently on display at the D-Day Museum, Southsea.

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Captain Bernard Brown MC

Royal Army Medical Corps

Royal Army Medical Corps

Some roles give soldiers the potential to do very brave things. Its perhaps no coincidence that Medical Officers, more often than not, seem to win awards for courage under fire. One Army Medical Officer, from Portsmouth, won a Military Cross in North Africa, and eventually lost his life in North Italy only months before the end of the war.

Captain Bernard Brown was born in Southsea in 1912. Qualifying as a Bachelor of Medicine from Oxford University, in the Second World War he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Each Battalion sized unit in the Army has a Medical Officer, usually a qualified Doctor given the rank of Captain. Their role is to look after the mens health and provide first aid in action, often right up in the front line, before wounded can be passed back down the line to dressing stations and field hospitals.

Captain Brown was the Medical Officer of 6th Royal Tank Regiment in North Africa in 1942, in a period that included the Battle of Gazala and the first Battle ofr El Alamein, where Rommel’s last-ditch attack towards the Suez Canal was finally blunted. The citation for his Military Cross can be downloaded online from the National Archives website.

The Regiment was virtually in constant action. Shortly after they began fighting Brown’s armoured Scout Car broke down, so he simply used an unarmoured truck instead. He was never back at Headquarters, always close up behind the Tanks where he could watch the battle and go up to any needing medical assistance. At one point the unit was fighting next to a Royal Horse Artilley unit that was under heavy fire, and Brown went right up to the guns seven or eight times to bring out 20 wounded gunners. During the first Battle of El Alamein the Regiment took heavy casualties from anti-tank guns, and twice Brown went up through gaps in minefields, under enemy fire, to give first aid. His coolness and courage under fire, especially as a non-combatant, must have set an amazing example to the men in the Regiment.

Bernard Brown was awarded the Military Cross on 18 March 1943. Sadly, he did not survive the war. Whilst serving as Medical Officer with the 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment in North Italy he was killed, on 25 February 1945. He is buried in Forli Military Cemetery.

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