El Alamein - A personal account by Col. J. Sym DSO
Colonel John Sym DSO was 21C of 2nd Bn. Seaforth Highlanders and then Brigade Major of 152 Brigade during El Alamein. His book, "Seaforth Highlanders" by Colonel John Sym (editor) was Published by Gale & Polden Ltd, Aldershot (1962) and can still be obtained from second hand book sites.
The following account of the Battle of El Alamein comes from the personal account of Colonel John Sym DSO who was 21C of 2nd Bn Seaforth Highlanders. On 31 October 1942 he was called forward to take over as Brigade Major of 152 Brigade (the BM having been injured by a mine) and held the appointment until mid-December. He later commanded the 5th Seaforth in NW Europe. These extracts were published in the Queen’s Own Highlander magazine winter 1992 commemorating the 50th Anniversary of El Alamein. His book, "Seaforth Highlanders" by Colonel John Sym (editor) was Published by Gale & Polden Ltd, Aldershot (1962) and can still be obtained from second hand book sites.
“The 51st Highland Division's task on the first night of the Battle was to attack on a 2 Brigade front through that sector of the line which each Brigade had previously held in turn, and which was held at the time by 152 Brigade. 153 and 154 Brigade were to attack with all 6 Battalion and the Divisional Reconnaissance Battalion in line. Each Battalion wax allotted a separate sector and objectives. Strong points in the enemy defences located by air and ground reconnaissance were given code names of towns in the Battalion areas.
Of the 3 Battalions in 152 Brigade, 5th Cameron were responsible for making the gaps in the enemy minefield and covering them; 5th Seaforth were to tape the Divisional Start Line and 9 separate battalion routes up to it, and to hold the old forward defended localities as a firm base; and 2nd Seaforth were in Divisional Reserve, with a Battalon of 22nd Armoured Brigade. The Australians on the right and the New Zealanders on the left were to attack objectives which conformed in depth to those on our front. The bearing of the attack was slightly south of west.
The Attack on 23/24 October
The attacking battalions moved up the night before the attack to slit trenches previously prepared behind the original forward defended localities, and spent the day in them under camouflaged cover.”
(The author describes the open stages of the battle from his position a Battalion 2IC at the rear).
"The Barrage opened at 2140 hrs. I had climbed a hill between the railway and the Coast Road above our Camp to watch it, along with some representatives of Rear Division who had their Headquarters in an underground position there. It was a magnificent sight. The horizon, from the coast on our right to the Ruweisat Ridge which was as far as we could see to the left, seemed to light up on the instant, and for the next hour or two flickered and flashed continually as the guns maintained a steady roar.
I then went to the Mess and listened to the reports as they came in over the wireless. It was extraordinary how conflicting these could be by the time they were passed on. As the hour approached when the advance was due on the line of the first objective, we went out on top again to watch for the combination of Verey lights which was the pre-arranged signal that this line had been reached. There were 4 such lines, covering objectives at various depths in the enemy position, each designated by a different colour; the Brown, Red, Black and Green lines, I think they are known as. However, the whole area was such a mass of confused lights, what with gun flashes, Bofors firing red tracer, searchlight, and the variety of coloured signals sent up by the enemy (a habit of their even on the quietest night) that it was impossible to be certain, although one or other member of the party would frequently exclaim, "There it goes". I remained for a long time wondering what it was like up there in front in the thick of it, and felt bitterly disappointed that I was so narrowly missing my first real battle.
It was cold, and I thought it pointless to stay there longer. Also I might be required next day, when I would be more use if I was not tired, and so I went to bed fully dressed."
The 2nd Seaforth attack on 24 October
Two Companies of the 2nd Seaforth were called for to put in an attack against an enemy strong point which bore the code name Stirling and which was still holding out. 'A' Company lost their way up, but eventually 'B' and 'C' Companies under Alan Gilmour went in. They came under very heavy fire and were eventually held up, but maintained their ground all next day. 'B' Company Headquarters was practically wiped out, but Alan Gilmour held the whole show together. He was awarded the Military Cross. The Regimental Sergeant Major brought back some of the bodies and we buried them in the Cemetery using our own Padre.
As I was coming away I noticed a rather large party of Australians, one of whom told me that they were burying their fourth Commanding Officer since the start of the Battle. I shall always have a great admiration for the Aussies, who were so friendly and took such trouble to give us the benefit of their experience. I fear that this incident was typical of the very heavy casualties which they suffered in their fearless and resolute attacks. I used to watch the regular stream of ambulances being called up, one by one, from their park alongside the road running to the sea.
(On 31 October the Brigade Major of 152 Brigade was injured on a mine and the Major Sym was called forward to replace him. The Commander of 152 Brigade was Brigadier George Murray who had commanded the 2nd Seaforth.)
'Supercharge' 1/2 November
"The next operation was known as 'Supercharge', and began on the night of 1 November. The object of 'Supercharge' was to punch a gap in the enemy defences which would allow our Armour to get through to the plain, west of the Sidi Rahman track, which was ideal tank country and known not to be mined.
151 Brigade of the 50th Division and 152 Brigade of the 51st Highland Division were to attack from a Start line which corresponded with the final objectives for the first night of the Battle of the Australian Brigade on the right flank of the 51st Division. This line was held at the time by a Brigade of New Zealanders and the operation was under command of General Freyberg.
The objectives were selected entirely from the map. Each Brigade was to advance due west on a frontage of 2 grid squares to a depth of 4 grid squares. Consequently, the execution depended on accurate navigation by maintaining a true bearing and correct distances. A very heavy barrage was to precede and cover the advance, and Bofors were to fire coloured tracer to define the flanks of the attack and assist in maintaining direction. A pause had been arranged on an intermediate line, and the Artillery were to announce the beginning and the end of this by firing rounds of smoke.
5th Camerons were on the right and 5th Seaforth on the left, each on a frontage of one grid square, while 2nd Seaforth were to form a second wave engaged on mopping up operations across the whole front. On completion they were to consolidate the left flank behind 5th Seaforth.
Brigadier George Murray had been lent a Scott Reconnaissance Car, and we went up in it to the gap in the old enemy minefield where we were to meet Battalion Commanders. There was no sign of them, and we got out for a preliminary look at the ground when some fighter aircraft came over us. I rather prided myself, at the time, on my ability at aircraft recognition and reassured the Brigadier, who was regarding them rather apprehensively, that they were Kittihawks. A moment later we were throwing ourselves on our faces as their bombs crashed uncomfortably near us. I still think they were Kittihawks but, although they turned back and headed for home over our lines, my reputation was lost.
Eventually the Commanding Officers arrived and we proceeded with the reconnaissance. It was extraordinarily difficult to find one's way about the battlefield owing to the intricate maze of tracks and the necessity for avoiding minefields, most of which as they had been laid by the enemy, were not yet clearly marked. When had buttoned up the final details and approved the Headquarters dugout constructed by the Defence Platoon, we returned to the old Headquarters which was easy to find as it was near an Observation tower. We had an early dinner and then moved forward again to the dugout before It got dark.
Zero hour was at 2200 hrs I think, and after testing our communications we settled down to wait for Battalions to report their arrival on the Start line. It was a very dark night, a the full moon which had served so well on the first night of the battle was now 10 days on the wane, and the Brigadier became a bit anxious as to whether Battalions would find their way to the Start line in time. Gen Freyberg was also anxious about 151 Brigade, and telephoned repeatedly to ask whether we had seen anything of them, as he had no news from them.
Eventually our Battalions reported that they were in position and the preliminary barrage opened. It was a very different sensation to the first night when I had watched from a distance. We were harassed by one gun which was firing short and continued for the next 20 minutes to bracket our dugout, carrying away our wireless mast, and necessitating a detour by the 5th Cameron as they advanced.
My memories of this night and the ensuring days are confused. The two wireless sets and the telephone buzzed continuously, and as each call was for me I had little respite. Reports to be entered, demands for information, requests for support, all the communications from lower and higher formations, in addition to the ordinary routine matters of a Brigade Headquarters. I am glad that I had this experience during a battle. It gave me some insight to the trials of Staff Officers, and also the fascination of knowing what is going on all round, and to some extent directing the course of events over a larger field than is possible by direct personal command. The Brigadier got a bit restive at the number of officers from supporting arms who invaded the dugout and filled it with the smoke of their cigarettes. Neither he nor I smoked, and I got some quiet amusement from watching the stages of exhaustion of his patience until, sure enough, he blew up and turned them all out to wait in their vehicles. From time to time I went out on top to see what was going on, but the darkness and the thick low cloud of dust kicked up by the advance was impenetrable for any distance, and the noise added to the confusion.
Reports, as they came in, indicated a steady advance according to plan. Communications throughout the battle were excellent. 2nd Seaforth were delayed by a minefield and anxious because they could hear tanks moving on their exposed left flank. 5th Camerons also encountered minefields, and near their objective came on several dug in German tanks which they dislodged with Sticky bombs.
Before dawn the last line was reached, and the anti-tank guns, mortars, and carriers which had been waiting behind the gap in the minefield were ordered forward to consolidate. 2nd Seaforth, who had found it very difficult to maintain contact over their wide front, were unable to establish touch with 'A' Company, and throughout the day all units were collecting stragglers and sorting themselves out. It transpired later that' A' Company had lost direction to the left, or had been drawn off to meet opposition. The Company Commander and many of his Headquarter had been killed, and it was not until several days later that the company could be effectively reformed owing to their heavy casualties.
The Attack on 2/3 November
During the day orders were received for 2nd Seaforth to put in a further attack, supported by a Battalion of 22nd Armoured Brigade, on an objective further out on the left flank which was known a Skinflint. A conference was held at Brigade Headquarters to arrange the details of this attack which went in on the night of 2 November. It was completely successful, and the objective captured with very few casualties.
The Brigadier of 151 Brigade who paid us a visit recounted an incident of the night of 1-2 November. A sharp burst of shelling had driven him to take cover in a slit trench when a Jock appeared, stepping cautiously through the darkness and dust, lifting his feet high before putting them down again. Seeing the figure crouched in the trench he lifted his rifle and fired at it. The Brigadier, luckily unhit, called out indignantly, "Who the hell do you think you're firing at?" The Jock regarded him with his head on one side and then replying "I was tell't to fire at anything in a hole," disappeared again into the night, his rifle at the high port and stepping high.
The difficulty of mopping up operations on this night is perhaps well illustrated by another incident. The 5th Camerons Regimental Aid Post was following close behind their advance, and at one point a party of Italians appeared and surrendered to them. Shortly afterwards the Italians realised that their captors were unarmed and started throwing red devil hand grenades which they had hidden about them, causing several casualties. The Medical Officer and the Padre were wondering what they could do about it when a Section from 2nd Seaforth arrived on the scscene and restored the situation. I fear that none of the Italians lived long to regret their perfidy.
Other Memories of the Battle
Day and nights tend to become very confused in my memory. The site we had elected for Brigade Headquarters proved an unhealthy one. The enemy had the range of the gap in the minefield just behind us, and 2 Sherman tanks, a Daimler scout car, and an ammunition truck, which had all been knocked out near it, drew the unwelcome attention of the stukas. I remember one occasion when a working party of Royal Engineer had reported in, and I had just returned to the dugout after giving them instructions, when a salvo of shells burst round about killing their truck driver and another Sapper and wounding several others.
Another day I had taken advantage of a lull in communications to go over to my truck for a shave when the Stukas came over, and unwittingly I had to join my driver and batman in their slit trench, stripped to the waist and with lather all over my face. They had a narrow escape when a carrier ran over their trench one night, but it only buckled Gray's rifle.
I can remember snatching the odd hour's sleep in a slit trench at the entrance to the dugout, which was too short for comfort. But, with an attack staged every night, for the most part one went without sleep. The difficulty of eating a meal at the same time as answering the wireless sticks in mind, particularly as the Brigadier was very particular about the tidiness of the dugout and one could not spread oneself."
There is much more in the Colonel’s book and I commend it to readers.