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Scotland forever and Second to none: The 7th Black Watch at El Alamein, October 23-31 1942

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‘Scotland for ever and second to none’.

The 7th Black Watch at El Alamein, 23-31 October 1942

 

Dr Derek J. Patrick

University of St Andrews 

The Allied victory at El Alamein in October 1942 was the beginning of the end of the Western Desert campaign. Fought between Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, recently appointed commander of the British Eighth Army, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, ‘The Desert Fox’, the second battle of El Alamein would be one of the decisive victories of the Second World War, reviving Allied morale and leading to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and German surrender in North Africa in May 1943. Its significance was stressed by Winston Churchill who said: ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat’.

 

Montgomery’s forces comprised almost 200,000 men and included the 7th Black Watch, part of the reconstituted 51st Highland Division which had been forced to surrender to Rommel in June 1940. The Division included three Black Watch battalions. One columnist wrote: ‘The old Highland Division, as we knew it at the beginning of the war, is now out of action. It suffered severely in France, fighting grimly to the death against terrific odds. But that is an old, though glorious song. This new Highland Division, drawn from the same soil and bred on the same traditions, was unfledged a short time ago’. It was not ‘unfledged’ for long and would demonstrate the same qualities shown by their ill-fated comrades who had stoically opposed the rapid German advance in 1940. 

General Montgomery was under no illusion as to the significance of the coming action. His message to the troops was clear: ‘The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of our history. It will be the turning point of the war. The eyes of the whole world will be on us, watching anxiously which way the battle will swing. We can give them their answer at once: “It will swing our way” … All that is necessary is that each one of us, every Officer and man, should enter this battle with the determination to see it through – to fight and to kill – and finally, to win … and let no man surrender so long as he is unwounded and can fight’.

 

The Highland Division, part of XXX Corps, occupied its position in the El Alamein Line on the evening of 22 October 1942, moving into prepared assembly areas. In front of them, as described by Eric Linklater, ‘was a five-mile depth of minefields and wire, defended by machine-guns, mortars, and above all the Afrika Korps’ armour and anti-tank guns’. The plan of attack required a frontal assault to open up way for the British tanks behind. 

The men occupied a series of ‘slit trenches’, each intended to shelter two soldiers, and conceal them from the air. ‘Each man carried his personal weapon and equipment, small pack with cardigan and [Tam o’ Shanter] or cap comforter, two grenades … 50 rounds extra ammunition in a bandolier one day’s rations and a full water bottle’. Only when darkness fell were they permitted to leave their positions.

 

The first stage of the battle was marked by an intense bombardment along the entire 40-mile front. The 1st and 5th Black Watch went forward with the leading wave at 10.00 p.m. on 23 October, advancing to the sound of the pipes. ‘The infantry went forward into a roaring hail of shell-fire, and as they drew nearer to their objectives the storm was thickened by the bursting of mortar bombs’. On capturing their objective each battalion was passed by another who continued the advance. 

The 7th Black Watch were on the Highland Division’s left flank opposite the Miteiriya Ridge. It had taken no part in the initial assault and was tasked with leap-frogging a position captured by the 5th Cameron Highlanders.  Its objectives included Point 30, or ‘The Ben’, a hillock at the northern end of the ridge.

 

Lieutenant Watson recalled that he had ‘never known such intensity of purpose’. His role as battalion intelligence officer was ‘to advise the C.O. on the axis of the battalion’s advance. It had to be precise – by compass bearing across a featureless desert, paced out against the clock to keep [the battalion] behind the “friendly fire” but not so far behind that Jerry had time to get himself organised’. During the advance six of the 7th Black Watch’s navigating officers were wounded, one fatally, ‘and there were many casualties also among the little group of other ranks detailed to escort them’. 

Before the battalion had reached the ridge all companies had sustained casualties. There were few Germans to be seen but they encountered heavy artillery and mortar fire, ‘and the second minefield was a mass of booby-taps’. These included aerial bombs linked by trip wires and grenade detonating devices.

 

Captain Charles F. Cathcart of Pitcairlie, Newburgh, led a small party comprising the survivors of his own ‘D’ Company and ‘B’ Company, which had sustained very heavy casualties, up the rocky slope and drove the Germans off the ridge. His party encountered fierce opposition and ‘the enemy was met with in person’. 

‘It was sheer hell’, wrote Private Paddy Gallagher. ‘But we knew we had to go on and we went! Anyway we knew it was a damned sight worse for Jerry than it was for us. And it put us in the right frame of mind to deal with the enemy when we came to grips with them’. One officer was killed and the remaining four wounded, including Cathcart.

 

As dawn broke some thirty survivors, one and a half platoons, occupied their objective, the only part of the ‘Blue’ line, marking the German defensive positions, captured by the Highland Division that evening. Cathcart’s party now held an exposed position on the ridge’s western slope, part of which was still held by the Germans, for the whole of the following day. The situation was precarious. Only the 7th Black Watch and the 21st New Zealand Battalion on their left flank had reached their objectives, and the supporting armour found it difficult to clear the congested paths carved through the German minefields. In navigating the minefields the tanks suffered heavy losses. 

Positioned next to the New Zealanders it had been agreed that if, ‘in the fog of battle’, there were any confusion, they would shout ‘Jock! Or Kiwi!’ The commanders of the two flanking platoons had made acquaintance before the advance began in an attempt to avoid any misunderstanding. Both were killed in the initial attack. One New Zealander recalled: ‘We always had a pretty good opinion of ourselves when it came to fighting. But we certainly hand it to the Scotties. They can teach us something!’

 

By the evening of 26 October the 51st Highland Division had advanced six miles, suffering over two thousand casualties. The depleted 7th Black Watch was finally relieved by the Cape Town Highlanders on 31 October. It had sustained heavy casualties. In total 6 officers and 72 other ranks were killed in action, and 13 officers and 170 other ranks wounded. 

These included Captain Ian Archibald de Hoghton Lyle, the eldest son of Sir Archibald Lyle of Murthly, Perthshire. Captain Lyle was a director of Tate and Lyle, the Liverpool and London sugar refiners. He had married in 1938 and left a wife and young son and daughter. He was 33 years old.

 

Lieutenant George R. Dawson whose parents resided at Station Road, Kingskettle, died on 25 October, aged 22. He was a former pupil of Bell Baxter High School, Cupar, and had recently graduated M.A. at St Andrews University before enlisting. Lieutenant Dawson is buried in El Alamein War Cemetery, Egypt. 

Twenty-one year old Lieutenant George France Morrison, was another who fell. He was the only son of Andrew and Norah Morrison, Perth Road, Crieff, and a former pupil at Morrison’s Academy. He had volunteered at the outbreak of war but was considered too young, and in the interval he studied at Aberdeen University for two years. He was described as ‘a young man of great promise – a soldier who was prepared to do all he could for his country in its hour of need’.

 

Company Sergeant Majors John Simpson, Methil, and John Husband, 28 Kinnoull Street, Perth, also appeared in the roll of honour. The latter was 30 years of age, and had served in the Black Watch for nine years. In civilian life he had been a joiner in Dunfermline Linen Mills. He was survived by a wife, Elizabeth, and two young children. 

Private Alexander Cunningham Batchelor, a 24 year old jute preparer, 16 Sandeman Street Dundee, whose father had been killed in the Great War, would also lose his life in the service of his country. Employed in the Bowbridge Works, he had two brothers serving in the Merchant Navy and Royal Air Force. Private John Anderson, another native of Dundee, was killed on 24 October. Before the war he was employed by John Connacher and Son, plumbers, 179 Blackness Road. He was only 20 years of age.

 

An editorial in the St Andrews Citizen stated: ‘They [the Highland Division] were given a job which needed everything that goes to make up a soldier – guts and endurance and the spirit which is determined to win through despite the cost’. The ‘Jocks’ had these qualities in abundance. ‘”Scotland for ever and second to none”. [The] Highland Division is once again the test and the proof’.

Media contributions

TitleScotland forever and second to none: The 7th Black Watch at El Alamein, October 23-31 1941
Degree of recognitionRegional
Media name/outletThe Courier Secord World War 80th Anniversary Supplement
Media typePrint
CountryUnited Kingdom
Date29/08/19
DescriptionThe Courier Secord World War 80th Anniversary Supplement
PersonsDerek John Patrick

ID: 260937036

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