The South Notts Hussars (SNH) had been raised in 1794 to defend the county following the rise of the French Revolution and the thought that it may spread to England. The Regiment was raised from Gentlemen and Yeomen of the County, and this is something that continued, especially in the selection of its officers. As Yeomanry they were in effect mounted infantry and remained in that role in one form or another until after World War 1 when, following the restructuring of the army and TA they became an Artillery unit but were permitted to retain their regimental title. Hart gives a very good description of the equipment and training that the SNH undertook to re-trade as gunners in the 1920’s/30’s.
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Part one deals with the SNH coming together as a TA unit and going off to war, with all the doubts and worries that brought. Officers who did not really know their trade had to lead men with differing stages of training. This is told, as it is throughout the book, by using the accounts of the officers and men, taking written accounts, letters in some cases but mainly from audio tapes of these men talking about their experiences. This covers all ranks within the SNH and it has been expertly woven into the tale by Hart, using their stories in chronological order to explain the various happenings throughout. One of those interviewed was a chef who had been drafted and formerly worked at the Ritz – a bit a shock to the system having to use the rations issued and make something of them. He quickly rose to become the Cook Sergeant of SNH and continued his career after the war in the army ending up as Brigadier and top slop jockey in the ACC. It also details the officers coming to terms with their role as leaders of men in wartime, young men from the ‘right’ background who had been selected by the SNH as being suitable for the Regiment. Some things never change as one of the stories recounts a young, new soldier saluting the RSM who is then told, in no uncertain terms, “I am not a ***ing officer, I am far more important! I am the RSM! When you see me you don’t salute, you shiver!” The unit trained in Britain then was sent to the Palestine, Middle East before moving to Egypt.
Italy joins the war and the Regiment goes to face them, still with the outdated guns they had been issued and trained with. Moving up to the front meant that the guns had to be dug in, something that was quickly to become a feature of life. At first the SNH were put in a fairly static line and dug elaborate gun pits – many of the men were miners and digging was second nature to them. However they soon came to realise that desert warfare was very mobile and elaborate gun pits using stores nicked from the Engineers were not practical. They also learned what it was like to be under fire and bombing. However, one of the main features and one to stay with them during their time in the desert was the constant flies and fleas – Gunner Hutton “I just couldn’t stand the dugouts, they were full of fleas….. They love me fleas do. I used to sleep outside – I was more terrified of the fleas than bombs!” Well the Italians came along and were chased off resulting in the ‘Benghazi Chase’ where they were pushed back hundreds of miles and thousands of prisoners taken. This could not be exploited as the operations in Greece took a large number of troops away from the Western Desert. The Axis were a bit cheesed off at being pushed back so sent Rommel and what was to become the Desert Afrika Korps to bolster the Italians. When Rommel was ready he started his push and the British withdrew as they were now under strength and felt it not worthwhile to defend areas of sand needlessly. Part of the plan was to invest Tobruk and make it a strongpoint which Rommel would have to take to ensure his supply lines. The SNH were one of the units sent to become part of that siege and enter history as being part of the Rats of Tobruk.
Part Two of this book details the time that SNH spent as part of the garrison defending Tobruk, working closely with the Australians at first then the Polish who relieved the Aussies, finally breaking out of Tobruk to join the push from Egypt. This part of the book details life in a siege environment, shortages of food, ammunition and of course sweet water; fending off German tank attacks with guns that were overheating and exploding rounds prematurely. The SNH worked closely with their infantry taking Ops out to cover them: Capt Pringle “We used to go forward with the infantry. It was hell! I was terrified! It is a funny thing you notice that each arm of the services is not as frightened of being shot at by its own arm. Machine guns and rifles don’t worry infantry as much as they worry me. And shells don’t worry me as much as they worried the infantry.”
Thirst was a constant companion as water was severely rationed, with most going to the cookhouse. Very occasionally they would get a ration of beer which proved more frustrating than satisfying: “Occasionally there’d be a ration of beer which was usually so small that it wasn’t worth having. The Aussies had the right idea with the beer – they used to cast lots for who should have the beer. One chap would get gloriously drunk and that was that! What was half a can of beer – it wasn’t worth drinking really!”.
The STAB/ARAB bun-fight is nothing new either. Major Daniell a regular Horse Artillery officer and Regt 2i/c “There were two or three officers I liked, but the officers as a whole, did not like me as their Second in Command. I was a regular officer and had been brought up in a Horse Artillery Regiment and I was accustomed to carrying out anything I was told to do immediately to the best of my ability. I did not find that the majority of these officers copied me in any way whatsoever. They found difficulty in obeying orders in carrying out any operations that they themselves did not care for.” However this was seen in a different light by the SNH: BQMS Ward “Major Daniell had a great deal of experience and went about his job with a great deal of aplomb. He treated our officers with contempt because, “All you lot are bloody amateurs!” He would talk to them in a tone that was contemptuous. His attitude and the way he acted was wrong.”
The SNH spent 9 months besieged at Tobruk until the big ‘push’ came again and the garrison of Tobruk broke out to re-join the 8th Army. SNH were by this time supporting the Black Watch with observers travelling with them to bring supporting fire down for the advance. The link-up was made and the siege lifted and the SNH were moved back to Cairo area to regroup, re-train and rest. Once again SNH did what all soldiers have done throughout the ages and enjoyed the bars and nightlife of Cairo. A fifth battery was formed and the Regiment trained to undertake mobile warfare – up to now, even though they were classed as a Horse Artillery unit they had done all their fighting from static lines. In May the Regiment moved up to the Gazala line and we move into the third part of this story.
The Eighth Army was in a line of ‘boxes’ stretching from Gazala on the coast to Bir Hacheim in the south. The idea being that the boxes would be self-contained, behind minefields and would fight off the Axis forces. Unfortunately Rommel had other ideas and hooked round Bir Hacheim. SNHs position was to the rear of the box known as Knightsbridge with a battery further south protecting a gap in the minefield. The Battle of the Boxes was joined and quickly Rommel’s tanks swept round the rear and side of the 8th Army pushing up against the boxes, taking them from unexpected directions. There followed a very confusing battle and at one point the 8th Army HQ thought they had the upper hand and ordered moves, including SNH into an area at Knightsbridge which they thought was controlled by 8th Army – they were mistaken and SNH moved into a trap, coming up against Rommel’s tanks. By this time SNH’s CO had been given the order by General Lumsden to ‘stand and fight to the last round’. As the battle continued, with losses mounting Major Bob Daniell contacted his Bde HQ and said that the situation was untenable, but he thought that with the help of smoke he could evacuate the wounded, most of the guns with the few men who remained fit. The reply from Brig Carr sealed the fate of SNH. He said “Bob, you are to stand and fight in the position where you are now, you are not to move! Do you understand me? You are not to move at all!” Maj Daniell told him that this would mean losing every single man. The reply “You are a Horse Artillery officer, you have been properly brought up and you know that in battle you will obey orders, or take the consequences!”
The fate of the SNH was now sealed. June 6th 1942 is the day that the South Notts Yeomanry ceased to exist. In the list of casualties with their date of death and grave plot, shown in an annex at the end of the book, the number of deaths from the Regiment on 6th June indicates the destruction of the Regiment. Many were captured and spent the next 3 years in PoW camps in North Africa, Italy and Germany. Strangely one of the people to get back to British lines was Major Daniell who, when the guns had been overrun, drove his vehicle at a group of tanks, knowing they could not fire on him due to their closeness together and he was able to get away.
The SNH were reformed as a battery - 107th, until being formed as 107 Medium Regiment in 1944 and serving on to the end of the war in Europe.
Peter Hart has expertly brought together the life and death of an artillery unit in WW2, using the voices of the participants rather than the dry historical facts. Battles may have been fought over huge areas of North Africa, but this story is about the ones fought by this Unit. It is an excellent book which would be of interest of Gunners, anyone with an interest in the war in the Western Desert and WW2 in general. It is a great compliment to the men who served in this proud Yeomanry Regiment.
4.5 Mr Mushroomheads
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