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Staying alive

 article about Staying alive

 


‘A' Company moved out at El Alamein in 1942 to an assembly area one thousand yards southeast. They encountered light machine gun fire from a ridge to the front. Company command ordered the platoon onto a full frontal attack; Steve's rifle blazed at many targets as a quiet night suddenly turned to one of violence. The Australians had the ascendancy as Steve threw a grenade at a German trench: the enemy took the full blast and as survivors tried to scramble away, the machine gunners finished them off. The platoon destroyed a tractor and a large gun.


 


To Steve's right, the Seventeenth platoon saw three tanks then attacked as the sappers destroyed the tanks with explosives. The enemy retired from the fight in the face of the attack and left a fifty-millimetre gun that the diggers destroyed. The 18th platoon pushed to the west and encountered enemy guns; they moved in from the flank, killed at least three enemy soldiers then destroyed more guns and returned with prisoners. Explosions sounded from many areas as the engineer's demolition charges began working. There was six hundred yards of mayhem.


 


Next morning, news of the raid spread like wildfire and other units of the 9th division sent congratulatory messages. General Morshead visited especially to congratulate the company. The Aussies were back in action and this pleased other units of the 8th Army. The battalion moved to new positions the next day and continued to work on their defensive positions.


                                                                        *


 


General Morshead assigned the 24th Brigade the task of striking at the enemy and taking Ruin Ridge. Four carriers were out with officers who wanted to plan their attack; the enemy were keeping their distance but were in force around the objective. ‘This is not going to be easy Ned. The Huns and Ities are in force, with tanks and artillery. The whole bloody lot,' said Sergeant Nelson.


 


‘Daisy reckons it'll be a piece ‘o piss.'


 


‘Pity he's not here. This will test those new American tanks, I hope they're as good as the Yanks reckon they are,' said the Sergeant.


 


‘This'll need the whole division.' said John.


 


‘Yeah, and a bit more I'd say.'


 


‘Why did Rommel stop here, Sarge? After they took Tobruk, you would have thought he would have gone right into Egypt. We've been able to reinforce the line at El Alamein he will have a lot of trouble breakin' through,' said Bill.


 


‘They say he stretched his supply lines. It took a lot out of them and they needed to reinforce.'


 


‘What's this new bloke Montgomery like?' asked Bill.


 


‘Buggered if I know, they reckon he's a fiery little bastard, he doesn't take over for a while yet.' Sergeant Nelson received a signal from the lead carrier. ‘That's it Bill, let's go back.' Bill swung the carrier around and drove back to their lines.


 


During the night, the battalion moved by motor transport to the assembly area. The 2nd 32nd was supposed to have taken Makh Khad Ridge in a silent night attack by the time the 2nd 43rd moved out at 05:20 hours. No word arrived to confirm the taking of the ridge, so at 06:00 hours the 2nd 43rd deployed without word from the 2nd 32nd. It was now almost daylight.


 


Bill had not escaped the attack; Headquarters Company was brought up as reserves and he crouched as enemy artillery screamed in at the troops. Some of the shells burst in the air making them even more dangerous, two of his section were hit as they tried to escape the shells. Men were screaming, at first he thought it was from wounds, but it was their officers and NCOs yelling at them to disperse away from the incoming shells. He ran as fast as he could to the eastern flank of the attack and slowly moved back and formed up in the reserve area.


 


Despite the shelling, the three companies of the battalion fought their way forward slowly at about one hundred yards a minute as they rooted out and disarmed Italian soldiers and sent them back as prisoners. On the left flank, C Company fought its way forward for the last three thousand yards over broken ground. They killed and wounded Italians, taking four hundred prisoners.


 


They reached Ruin Ridge at seven o'clock in the morning then ‘C' Company faced enemy guns firing across its front from only three hundred yards away. A force of over platoon strength captured the gun positions and took one hundred and fifty prisoners as they destroyed three guns. They left the rest because they didn't want to use up their anti-tank weapons. ‘D' company moved up and assisted them to consolidate.


 


B Company advanced two thousand five hundred yards on the right across ground erupting from shellfire. Half a mile further on they ran into machine-guns and an anti-tank gun. They out flanked the enemy with fifty Italians surrendering and they killed the anti-tank gunner then attained their objective. They saw seven enemy tanks and hundreds of other vehicles farther out. Sending forward an observer, they directed heavy fire onto them.


 


Heavy machine-gun fire, mortars and anti-tank fire on front and flanks landed among the Australians as the enemy counter attacked. The diggers initially broke up the attack but the enemy brought up more tanks and commenced firing. The 2nd 43rd was in open ground with no anti-tank support. Ammunition was running low and communications broke down with Field Artillery.


 


The Commanding officer of the 2nd 43rd ordered a withdrawal in the face of a heavy concentration of enemy tanks and with no anti-tank weapons. Stukas dive-bombed and took out eleven vehicles. The battalion was forced to withdraw as they engaged the enemy on the right flank and drove off two light tanks.


 


Bill had to join most of Headquarters Company to guard the hundreds of prisoners. Some of the Italians seemed pleased they were out of the war and joked with their comrades. The diggers were rough with the prisoners hoping they would run so they could shoot the bastards. They marched the captives to a compound and placed them under guard.


 


The attack was a success even though they had to give up the objective. The 2nd 43rd took one thousand prisoners, destroyed thirteen field guns, twelve machine guns and three heavy mortars. They inflicted large but unknown casualties on the enemy. The 2nd 43rd suffered eighty-one casualties; sixteen killed or died of wounds, three missing and sixty-two wounded.


                                                                        *


 


On the front line, the buzz of the enemy bullets kicked up dirt around Steve. Some diggers were hit. There was a break in the enemy fire so he slipped behind a sandbag as he watched the forward Platoon. He could see wounded men crawling as best they could away from the fighting, others were not moving. Steve saw outlines in the darkness as the forward Platoon was pinned down. They sustained heavy casualties. Then he heard the noise of a German eighty millimetre anti tank gun shooting at the Italians. The Australians captured it and were using it against the enemy.


 


The tide of the battle was turning as Steve rushed forward to join the fight; he sprinted towards the enemy machine gun post as the captured enemy gun blew away the covering from the post. With half of their number dead, the machine gun nest surrendered. Steve raced past the captured Italians and started firing at further machine gun nests. The Australian advance overwhelmed the Italians as many perished to the Australian riflemen. Steve fixed his bayonet and killed three, the rest surrendered as the diggers took fifteen prisoners. Steve rushed the other machine gun posts; frightened Italians died as the Australians over-ran them. A Company fought fearlessly against machine gun posts and finally drove the enemy into retreat.


 


As Steve's battle continued, Bill Kelly drove the carrier towards enemy lines. John, Bill and Daisy were attached to ‘A' Company for this attack. They were in a group of six carriers and ten tanks pushing towards Ruin Ridge, firing at any target they could find. Their job was to protect the tanks from infantry grenades while the tanks took on the German tanks and large guns.


 


Bullets hit their armour. Swinging the Vickers Corporal Cross yelled, ‘Left flank in those trees.' The cover for the Italian infantry was suddenly inadequate. Bill drove straight at the Italian troops while Corporal Cross and Daisy Day kept firing. Enemy soldiers died as they were shot, several tried to surrender. With no time to take prisoners, they kept firing as the effort of the Italians petered out. Swinging back with the tanks, John sighted more infantry and continued the assault. 


 


A German tank started firing at the British tank nearest their carrier. The tank took a hit that glanced off the body and went whining into the distance. Four British tanks disabled the German tank and its crew scrambled out. Daisy yelled as the tank crew tried to escape, ‘ Come on you Hun bastards, this is not Tobruk we don't have to hide we're comin' to get yuh.' The Corporal and Daisy killed most of the crew as one of the British tanks finished the German tank off from point blank range.


 


‘We've reached Ruin Ridge!' John yelled. The tanks and carriers were coming to a halt. It was a dark night with poor visibility. They couldn't see the enemy unless they were very close. The tank commander signalled them to disperse and defend the area. The 2nd 28th Battalion was supposed to push south to Ruin Ridge and consolidate the position. They reached some ruins they mistook for Ruin Ridge in the dark. The tank force could hear the enemy over the ridge. The enemy tanks and artillery were waiting for daylight to attack the tanks and carriers at the ruins. The 2nd 28th never made it to Ruin Ridge. The tanks and carriers were exposed, so they withdrew. Ruin Ridge was taken twice, once by the 2nd 43rd, then again by tanks and carriers. On both occasions, they withdrew because they couldn't consolidate.


 


Capturing Ruin Ridge was still in the commanders' minds. They put an ambitious plan into effect that included 30 Corps. The 2nd 43rd was in reserve; the main attack would be by the 2nd 28th, with the 69th Infantry Brigade. The attack failed. At daylight, on the 27th July, the situation was grave. The 2nd 28th was in danger of being over run. The 50th Royal Tank Regiment began an attack to relieve the pressure on the 2nd 28th . They knocked out twenty-two tanks. It was all to no avail; the enemy over ran them and took the battalion prisoner.


 


The next day the battlefield was a mess. Rotting bodies and burnt out machines and vehicles littered the landscape. Both sides were exhausted and General Auchinleck was unable to dislodge Rommel's army from El Alamein. Flies were a problem because of the bodies. Troops were out trying to clean the area. Bill Kelly and Corporal Cross were on a detail to bring up ammunition and spares for the carriers. Their carrier drove towards the ammo dump. Suddenly, a Stuka screamed out of the sky towards them.


 


Bill halted the carrier in an attempt to avoid the bombs. Bill and John crawled under the vehicle as the bomb exploded harmlessly in the open. The tanks opened fire as a second Stuka dived straight for them. A bomb exploded near the tank and Bill watched as the large bomb fragment flew straight for his head he flinched and slammed his head to the ground hoping it would swallow him. The bomb slammed into the wheel of the carrier, which disintegrated and sent pieces flying. Bill screamed as shrapnel crashed into his body and blood began to ooze from his chest. John was screaming. ‘Bill's hit. Get a medic.'


 


Bill thought for a second I'm dead this time. John was still under the carrier but away from the smashed wheel, he saw Bill move. ‘Don't worry mate,' he said. ‘The mechanic will get the ambulance.' John crawled out from under the carrier and said something then Bill heard the mechanic's motorbike start and race away. He realised John had been checking to see if he was still alive. He must be bad. John slid back under the carrier, ‘You bleeding?'


 


‘Yeah, I think so I can feel warm sticky stuff.'


 


‘Can you put your hand over it to stop the blood.'


 


‘Get me out of here first.'


 


‘Stay there mate until the medics get here. I might fuck something up if I move you.'


 


‘Angry, if I don't make it. Will you do something for me?'


 


‘Try to relax I can't get near you. The ambulance won't be long. The more you are relaxed the less blood you'll lose.'


 


‘It's real easy to relax cramped up under this carrier with bits of a bomb in me. Will you go and see my family on Muddy River Station.'


 


‘You'll go yourself mate, I can hear the ambulance coming.'


 


The ambulance skidded to a halt and two stretcher-bearers and a doctor arrived. The doctor crawled under the carrier after John backed out. ‘We'll take over. Is he losin' much blood?'


 


‘Yeah, quite a bit, but it seems to have slowed.'


 


‘OK, Bill can you hear me? Where does it hurt?'


 


‘Every bloody where.'


 


‘Where were you hit?'


 


‘In the side, and in the chest, the right side.'


 


Bomb pieces had hit the wheel and the track; parts of the wheel were still holding up the carrier. The doctor examined Bill, then after a few minutes a stretcher-bearer crawled under with the doctor, ‘OK. Private Kelly, we're goin' to move you and dress your wounds. We have to stop the blood loss.'


 


‘Take it easy. Everything hurts.'


 


‘I'll be gentle. My girlfriend likes me to be gentle.'


 


‘So do I,' said Bill. Slowly the medics turned Bill onto his back and gently slid him out from under the carrier then placed him in the ambulance. John looked in and saw Bill staring at him.


                                                                        *


 


At the field hospital, he was rushed straight into the operating theatre. The surgeon removed the shrapnel from his chest.


 


Next day the surgeon said, ‘The chest wound will be okay. The one in the side is the problem. I can't do anything about it here. Tomorrow you will be able to travel. I'm sending you to Cairo.'


 


Despite the pain, Bill smiled. He knew he would see Penny again. ‘Will I live, Doc?'


 


‘It depends on where the piece has lodged. It looks close to vital organs, it is certainly a worry.'



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