Editor’s time as a Desert Rat
Winston Churchill saw the fight in Africa as key to protecting the British Empire and ultimately victory over Germany in the Second World War
Seven decades on Darren Burke speaks to former Bells editor Derrick French about his role in the battle of El Alamein.
AS he watched a television documentary on the first British land victory of the Second World War the memories of warfare in the Egyptian desert 70 years ago came flooding back to Derrick French.
At 21-years-old he was a member of an armoured car reconnaissance unit, the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry regiment of mechanised cavalry, whose task was to engage the enemy as, after heavy bombardment by British guns it retreated westwards along the North African coast road.
To enable his regiment to reach the road and carry out this task the British Royal Engineers cleared a narrow pathway through a British minefield and then through a German minefield. The regiment passed through safely and began undertaking its role of harassing the retreating Germans.
“During this operation, hundreds of Italian soldiers who had invaded through north west Africa, happily surrendered to us, smiling, waiving and shouting to us ‘Hello Tommies’,” said Derrick, also known as John.
To get a seat next to Hitler on the Axis table Mussolini invaded north Africa. The Allies and the enemy both enjoyed success pushing the enemy lines back before then having to retreat themselves.
In late October 1942 the Allies had fallen back to a railway crossing in El Alamein, just over 60 miles from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which Churchill said had to be defended at all costs otherwise the Germans would be able to advance through the Suez Canal and Middle East and threatening Britain’s colonies in the east.
Leading up to El Alamein, Derrick’s regiment was engaged in front line observation of enemy lines, being so close to them that they could see what the German soldiers were doing.
“We were aware at this time that in our vicinity were members of Free French soldiers who had escaped from their defeated country to England via Dunkirk then on to north Africa to carry on their fight against Germany.”
The 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry was also very actively engaged in reconnaissance in enemy territory south of these positions.
On one of these occasions a small number of armoured cars, including Derrick’s troop, stopped to observe what appeared to be burnt out German tanks.
“But after about half a minute the tanks started moving towards us. We moved forward to engage them but it was obvious that we were outgunned and so we retreated.
“Having gone only a short distance, the fan belt of my car broke.
“We tried to move on but very soon the car overheated and would go no further so we three crew members got as far away as we could from our car and dug a shallow recess to hide in.
“The Germans obviously thought we were not worth pursuing and we were later rescued by another armoured car crew.
“I didn’t realise until 41 years later when I married Bett, that my best man was indeed my rescuer on that day.”
The Desert Rats lead by General Montgomery managed to push the enemy out of Egypt, back into Libya and eventually out of Africa altogether.
The victory was the first major victory over the Germans since the outbreak of war in 1939 and provided a great morale boost.
Derrick went on to pass two selection boards to join military intelligence but contracted malaria before he could take up his new post.
Visiting him in hospital, his colonel gave him the choice of staying in his new job or returning with his regiment to England to prepare for the liberation of France and other countries.
He chose the latter and back in an armoured car with two other crew members, took part in the liberation of France and Holland.
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