Thursday, 28 July 2011

Book - The South Notts Hussars The Western Desert 1940-1942 Pen and Sword,

AFTER a 700-mile dash across the desert, past columns of retreating British soldiers heading in the opposite direction, the trucks and guns of the South Notts Hussars arrived at the Libyan port of Tobruk.

"Everyone was rushing headlong back into Egypt, the only troops moving west were the South Notts Hussars," said Bombardier Ray Ellis, from Hucknall.

Epic battle: The South Notts Hussars in action at Tobruk.

Hard work: A South Notts Hussars gunner grabs some sleep during a moment of peace at the siege of Tobruk.

Sing when you're winning: Men of the South Notts Hussars during the siege of Tobruk

In his book on the Hussars in the Western Desert, historian Peter Hart tells the dramatic story using eye witness testimony from the battlefield.

Just after midnight on April 9, 1941, the Hussars rolled through the Tobruk defence line... just in time as the Royal Engineers laid their final row of mines and barricaded the entrance behind miles of barbed wire.

From their gun positions and observation posts the Hussars, along with Australians, Indians, Poles and Czechs – all part of the 7th Armoured Brigade – gazed out across a barren, rocky desert, knowing that somewhere, perhaps behind the nearest ridge, General Erwin Rommel and his Panzers were waiting to attack.

Seize Tobruk and the road to Egypt, the Suez Canal and unlimited oil supplies would be Germany's. It could not be allowed to happen.

The Notts men, with their officers drawn from some of the county's leading families including the Birkins, the Barbers and their commanding officer Colonel William Seely, who liked to walk in front of the guns with a rifle under his arm, waited for the inevitable attack.

"They didn't attack in great strength, probably about 14 or 15 tanks," recalled Lance Sergeant Harold Harper. "The firing was incessant. It was rather like going to a cup-tie – when you knocked a tank out everybody cheered."

Then came the infantry. "It was quite a sensation – a game I had played as a boy – it was actually happening," said Ray Ellis.

It was the Hussars' job to plug gaps in the wire with their 25-pounder guns. "At all costs we had to keep out every infantryman we could," said Major Robert Daniell.

Any that did get through were left to the tough Australian infantrymen, who took them on at bayonet point.

"I was absolutely petrified of this," confessed Ray Ellis. "I wasn't trained to take on a German infantryman... all I could do was pray."

It was desperate stuff. At one point, Captain Colin Barber's observation post was cut off by the charging tanks and infantry. According to the Hussars' history, Capt Barber took them on with his revolver... "range was only seven yards but in the best Gunner traditions, he missed them all."

The story quickly became a Hussars legend – a year later Capt Barber, from Hucknall, would be killed at the Battle of Knightsbridge.

The Hussars fired thousands of rounds, only stopping when the guns became too hot. "I reckon my gun fired something like 1,200 rounds... everyone was exhilarated," said Sergeant Ian Sinclair.

It is impossible to put yourself in their place and truly appreciate the noise, smoke, screaming German Stuka dive-bombers, bombs, shells, red, blue, green and white tracer cutting across a cloudless sky. "It was a splendid sight, a real sort of enormous fireworks display," said Captain Charles Laborde.

It was also terrifying. "The Stukas came so low they nearly scraped the floor... you didn't know you had been Stuka'd till you had tread marks on your back," said Gunner Ted Holmes.

For nine long months, this was the Hussars' daily fly-blown, wind-swept routine.

"No newspaper, no radio, no cinema, no beer, no time off, no recreation, no sport – just sat there for nine months," said Ray Ellis.

"That in itself was a terrific strain – forgetting all the dive-bombing and fighting."

It was their plight that inspired Lord Haw Haw, the Nazi propaganda radio broadcaster, to call them "the rats of Tobruk", giving the name to the legend of the Desert Rats.

They made the best of it, playing cards, childhood games of cowboys and Indians around the gun pits, impromptu sing-songs... but always waiting for the shell that had their name on it.

On November 17, 1941, the order to relieve Tobruk was given to the British 8th Army. The Hussars' role was to support the infantrymen of the Black Watch.

Bolstered by a mug full of rum, the Scots marched into a bullet-torn maelstrom. Hussar Erik Morley watched them. He said: "Just falling down and the blokes that didn't fall stepped over their comrades. There was no turning back, you didn't stop for anyone."

The two armies did their level best to blow each other to kingdom come. The Hussars' guns got so hot, shells began to explode in the barrel. That was how Arthur Fox, 21, from Lenton was killed.

But finally, the Afrika Korps broke under the pressure and on December 8 the siege was lifted. "Up until that moment we didn't know Tobruk was going to be relieved... there was a constant fear we would be overcome and taken," said Ray Ellis.

Like so many others, the Hussars' response was to get "gloriously drunk".

The South Notts Hussars The Western Desert 1940-1942 is published by Pen and Sword, priced £12.99.

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