Queen's in the Middle East

Adieu To A Battalion

Chapter 1

When it was realised that the enemy were in full retreat 16 Brigade was given the task of driving west between the old perimeter and the Trig Capuzzo track. 2nd Queen’s advanced rapidly with ‘D’ Company as the vanguard and captured forty stragglers with only one casualty. On the 10th December the Battalion took over from a Polish battalion in the north-west sector of the perimeter in order to free them to follow up the enemy retreat. However, the Battalion only stayed 24 hours before moving to Sidi Rezegh to clear up that battlefield. This was a most unpleasant task, dealing mostly with charred bodies taken from burnt-out tanks, and not without danger. The Battalion suffered a number of casualties from mines and booby-traps. Brigadier Lomax returned to the Brigade at this time and Lt Col Oxley-Boyle resumed command of 2nd Queen’s. After ten days at Sidi Rezegh the Battalion travelled by MT to the frontier and then by train to the familiar camp at Qassassin, arriving on Christmas Day to find the camp flooded by a freak rainstorm. The policy was to give ‘The Rats of Tobruk’ leave, so the personnel of the 2nd Queen’s were duly given block leave of 7 days in Cairo before settling down in Qassassin to clean up and absorb some much needed reinforcements.

The Battalion was very weak in numbers on leaving the desert. The casualties during the three weeks of the break-out had been one officer (Capt George Armstrong) and 23 men killed, with three officers and 69 men wounded, and one officer and 10 men missing. Another Queen’s officer, Major Monty Sydenham-Clarke, the pre-war Adjutant of the Battalion in Palestine, had also been killed in the same battles, serving as the GSO2 of XIII Corps, whilst trying to contact General Freyberg, commanding the 2nd New Zealand Division, on Belhammed.

Although 2nd Queen’s moved back to Syria in February 1942, world events determined that their service in the Middle East was effectively at an end. On the 7th December the Japanese pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor had taken place, and the next day they had invaded Malaya and attacked Hong Kong. During the following two months they advanced down the Malay Peninsula, and on the 15th February Singapore surrendered. The situation in the Far East was critical and reinforcements were essential. The 70th Division was selected to be the first formation to be sent.

And so it was that those regular battalions of the 14th and 16th Infantry Brigades exchanged khaki for jungle green, and in the fullness of time earned the title of ‘Chindits’ in addition to the honour of being known as ‘The Rats of Tobruk’. They shared the distinction of being amongst those few units which had fought in battle against all three major enemies during the War; the Germans, the Italians and the Japanese. The 2nd Leicesters shared with 2nd Queen’s active service with 16 Brigade continuously for more than 41/2 years,

There were many changes in both the Battalion and the Brigade before the brigade group left for Colombo in the MV Nieuw Amsterdam on the 4th March. Brigadier Lomax relinquished command of 16 Brigade after almost three years, to go on to command a division. Lt Col Oxley-Boyle left the Battalion to command the Middle East OCTU, and Major D. de S. Barrow took over temporary command. Major Bingham was medically down-graded and left to take command of a POW camp, and Major John Freeland became GSO2 Eighth Army. The Battalion RMO, Capt H.J. McCann, RAMC, a fearless officer and most kindly and amusing, who had been with the Battalion throughout Syria and Tobruk, was also posted.

The 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment, retained very strongly the characteristics of a regular battalion of infantry during its three years in the Middle East. Although probably not under such rigid discipline as the 1st Battalion, it certainly conformed with the Regiment’s high regard for smartness and good conduct. When the Battalion moved to Jericho Camp in January 1940 the lines were maintained to such a high standard that the GOC, Palestine and Trans-Jordan, Lieut-General M.G.H. Barker, remarked that they were the best that he had ever seen. Even as late as the clearing up of the Sidi Rezegh battlefield in December 1941, Sgt Tommy Atkins, a regular NCO, caused a mild sensation when he saluted a general officer who stopped to make enquiries. This senior officer commended Sgt Atkins to the CO, stating that itwas the first salute that he had received for weeks!

From late 1939 onwards drafts of reservists and conscripts started to join the Battalion in order to bring it up to strength or replace casualties, and there is no doubt that there was some animosity between the regulars and those who had been called-up. The regular soldiers were referred to as ‘old soldiers’, although most of the newcomers were in fact older. All conscripts, regardless of age, were treated as ‘young soldiers’.

Terence Close and Gordon Cheston were the first ‘temporary gentlemen’ to join the Battalion in February 1940 with a draft of reinforcements, and perhaps were made rather more welcome by the senior officers, most of whom were World War One veterans, than by their fellow subalterns. Most of the newcomers’ indiscretions mainly concerned dress, or the lack of the right items of dress! The regular officers tended to maintain a somewhat formal posture, even in the desert, and some of the emergency commissioned officers took an impish delight in provoking them in such matters. However, there was little animosity, and those emergency officers who survived usually achieved the rank of captain within two and a half years, and became amongst the best dressed officers in the Battalion in their turn!

Most of the earlier Queen’s drafts contained a high proportion of reservists who knew the form about life in a regular battalion. 2/Lt R.R. Acheson was one of a draft of 4 young officers and 200 other ranks which awaited embarkation at Aintree in July 1940. They were lucky to be able to establish themselves at a camp on their own at the Canal Turn. 2/Lt Acheson wrote the following impressions of this experience :

“We’re the model camp of Aintree and the envy of the other units who visit us - which we discourage, of course, for we’re afraid that someone else will be sent along to join us here, or that someone will think that we’ve done too well for ourselves. It has made a great difference to have been on our own, and we’re easily the most cheerful and best disciplined crowd in Aintree. You should see our guard-mounting! There is in the Queen’s a wonderful combination of smartness and discipline with hard work and bonhomie between all ranks. Other regiments are scandalized at the way we joke with our NCOs and men, and they think that we’re mad to do so much spit and polish and to salute so smartly. But the result of it all is that after all these weeks of waiting and constant changes of plan we’re still all very cheerful, whereas everyone else is thoroughly depressed and fed up.” Later Russell Acheson was to write again whilst travelling in the SS Otranto, “The Queen’s are the smartest men on this ship.” Russell Acheson himself took over command of ‘C’ Company during the battle of Sidi Barrani when Sam Lynwood was killed, stayed with the Battalion throughout its active service in the Middle East and the Far East; became the Column Adjutant of the Chindits’ 21 Column in the rank of Major under, firstly, Lt-Col J.F. Metcalfe, later under Edward Clowes; and then entered the Church after the war and retired eventually as a Canon.

Some of the other interesting wartime officers to serve with the Battalion included Jim Robertson-Walker, the long-time Battalion Intelligence Officer, a most cheerful, affable and humorous officer who greatly assisted Michael Jennings with his duties as Adjutant. Jim was aged 30 when he joined, rather older than the average “temporary gentlemen” and with a law degree and a track record as a chartered accountant, which was probably the reason that he was appointed to be the IO. After Tobruk he was posted to a staff job prior to going to the Staff Collage at Halfa. Thereafter he was on the planning staff for the invasion of Sicily, and subsequently joined General Eisenhower’s operations staff at his HQs in Algiers and Italy as GSO1(SD) in the rank of lieutenant colonel. Post-war he continued his career in finance, retiring in 1976 as the Birmingham Director of Barclays Merchant Bank Ltd.

Then mysteriously there was Lt Tom Martindale, who became a patrol specialist in Tobruk, and disappeared one night, believed to have been taken prisoner, but was never heard of again; Lt Colin Tod, who was standing next to George Armstrong when he was hit by the 88mm shell which killed him, and was himself badly wounded by the same shell and lost an eye; and 2/Lt Prithi Singh, a Rajput and second son of the Maharajah of Bharatpur, who was commissioned into the Queen’s from 164 OCTU and joined the Battalion in March 1941.

Despite the rather formal standards retained by the regular officers, nevertheless many of the senior officers acquired nicknames from the rank and file; the Commanding Officer was known as ‘Billy’ Oxley-Boyle; the Second-in-Command was ‘Bingy’ Bingham; and inevitably the Quartermaster was affectionately called ‘Buzz’ Waspe. On at least one occasion ‘Bingy’ Bingham lived up to his nickname, when in Tobruk he told Lt John Cotton that he was too young to enjoy his evening rum ration, so he drank it himself!

Unfortunately, Lt Col Haggard was not a well man after the Glenroy experience, being described as having a short fuse and suffering from stress. Lt Col Oxley-Boyle, who had also served in the 1914-18 War like Lt Col Haggard, earned the wholehearted admiration and respect of the Battalion. He was well remembered for his coolness and cheerfulness when visiting forward sections in tight places, particularly in those positions overlooked by Point 1634 on the Jebel Mazar. The award of the DSO for his period in command was well deserved. Lt Col Oxley-Boyle was reluctant to recommend the award of decorations to junior officers. His views were said to have been coloured by the action of the CO of another regiment who, after a rather poor showing by his battalion, awarded MCs to practically all his subalterns.

Father Joe Gardner, the RC padre, was also remembered with great affection and respect by ex-members of the Battalion. He was a delightful character, who always had a copy of The Horse and Hound in his tent or dug-out. His language was not always priestly, and on one occasion he described a slow moving soldier as “a short-arsed little bugger.” However, when visiting a unit he always made for the NAAFI or wherever the troops were congregated, and only descended to the Officers’ Mess after everyone had had the chance to talk to him.

At the other end of the scale, some of the regular subalterns found themselves launched into accelerated promotion and successful wartime careers. 2/Lt David Lloyd Owen was the company commander of ‘A’ Company at Sidi Barrani and went on to build a high reputation with the Long Range Desert Group. 2/Lt Michael Forrester was sent to Greece and then served on the staff before becoming the commanding officer of the 1/6th Queen’s at the age of 25, and commanded that battalion in Italy and Normandy. Both these officers finished their service with the rank of Major General. 2/Lt Charles Hull, the intrepid commander of the Ration Platoon at Abu Salami, was highly regarded as a young company commander when he was killed in Syria, a sad loss to the Regiment.

Most soldiers will say that the backbone of any battalion or regiment lies with the regular and recalled timeserved WOs and NCOs, and in this respect the Battalion was well served indeed. The RSM was Sam Sharp, a fine man, later to become a much respected QM in the Regiment. Fred Harcup was the Pioneer Sergeant in Palestine, but when the war broke out he was promoted to become the CSM of Headquarter Company, and later in India he became the RSM of the Battalion. On retirement in 1949 he went to the Tower of London as a Yeoman Warder. Sgt Sharman took over as the Pioneer Sergeant, and was largely responsible for the Battalion’s excellent skills in dealing with anti-personnel mines, particularly those laid by the Australians using improvised ammunition cartridges which were difficult to spot and could blow off the toes of the unwary. The ‘A’ Company CSM was Lenny Wells, a First World War veteran, who had been decorated with the DCM and the MM, and who adopted a paternal attitude towards his young soldiers. He considered it a terrible personal disgrace that he had been taken prisoner by the Vichy French on the Jebel Mazar. He also became a WOI and retired as the RSM at the Regimental Depot, Stoughton Barracks. The CSM of ‘C’ Company was WOII Sandys, who came to be well known for crying out, sometimes rather plaintively, “Dig in. They are ranging on us.” The two 3" Mortar detachment commanders were Sgts Booker and Brunton, the latter being a particularly charming man. Cyril ‘Lofty’ Mountjoy was the Signal Sergeant before becoming a platoon commander and leading his platoon to join the beleaguered Australian company on Point 1634. Much respected by all ranks, he went on to be commissioned. Sgt Charlie Cronk was another fine leader, who, with Lt Gordon Cheston, showed great initiative in the handling of the Carrier Platoon on numerous occasions. He was blown up four times in carriers, was awarded the MM for commanding what was left of 16 Brigade's carriers during the breakout phase at Tobruk, and left the Army in 1948 as a WOII. He became a Messenger in the House of Commons, becoming the Head Messenger before his retirement in 1974, when he was awarded the MBE for services to the House, Finally, the MT was presided over by Cecil Ottaway, who started as the MT Sgt but was commissioned to become the MTO. Most of the MT were to become muleteers in the fullness of time!

There were, of course, a number of reservists who came not only from the Queen’s, but from other regiments. They had rejoined in late 1937 or in 1938 under the Hore-Belisha scheme. Sid Waldron, ex-Coldstream Guards and a boxer of some standing, was one such reservist. He became a really true and loyal Queen’s man, reaching the rank of WOII in post war years with the 1st Battalion. These reservists from other regiments made a great contribution in maintaining the high standards of the Battalion.

2nd Queen’s did not believe in heroics, but preferred to do things by the book whenever possible. When Sgt Atkins sent his patrol back to the perimeter in Tobruk under his corporal, and then went on alone to try to obtain the information required, he was left in no doubt by his company and the battalion officers that his actions were not approved of, and that they were not to be repeated under any circumstances. Although the Battalion was quite capable of seizing an opportunity, such as during the opening moves of the battle of Sidi Barrani, the efficiently conducted battalion attack to retake Kuneitra was much more typical of the Battalion’s style. This style probably contributed to the comparatively modest casualty lists caused by enemy action. Casualty lists are not a reliable indication of quality, but the circumstances of some of the Battalion’s actions do indicate high standards of discipline, battle drills and fieldcraft. The operation at Abu Salami, the
battle of Sidi Barrani, and the attack on ‘Tugun’ could have all resulted in unacceptable butcher’s bills if they had been conducted with less precision. When heavy casualties were incurred by the Battalion, it was always in tactically flawed situations such as at Jebel Mazar, the attack on ‘Freddie’, or the night attack on ‘Bondi’, all of which were largely outside the control of the Battalion’s officers.

The British and Commonwealth units that found themselves in the Middle East theatre during the early days of the Second World War eventually successfully secured the strategically vital Suez Canal despite poor equipment and out-moded theories on how to conduct war. As regards equipment, the 2-pounder gun was virtually a useless weapon, whether employed as the main armament in a tank or as an anti-tank gun by the infantry and gunners; the 3" mortar was usually out-ranged by the equivalent enemy weapons, and this was particularly marked in Syria when matched against French mortars; there were never enough medium machine-guns available; and the carrier was a uniquely British vehicle, in that it looked good, and consequently there was a great temptation to use it in the role of a light tank, but its ability to protect its crew was frighteningly inadequate. The carrier survived the war, and indeed variations were still issued to British battalions into the early ‘50s, but the Germans and the Americans found a much more suitable vehicle in the half-track and the half-track’s appearance never tempted commanders to use it as a tank! When it came to tactical training, the fact that 2nd Queen’s spent an inordinate amount of time perfecting the manoeuvre of ‘Relief in the Line’ in a trench warfare setting, before moving to the desert, speaks for itself.

Up to the end of 1941 the British Army had not experienced any large scale or costly battles. El Alamein, Salerno and Normandy lay in the future. However, the units of the Western Desert Force, alias the Eighth Army, had demonstrated that the Axis Powers were not invincible, and so gave the British peoples that invaluable ray of hope after all the disasters on land suffered during the first two years of war. The 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment had the honour of being one of those units.


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