2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry

...a pictorial tribute

Extract from the unpublished memoirs of John Neill Harris OBE, MC and Bar, BSc

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DESBROW THOMPSON CHAFFE

IX PREPARING FOR COMBAT

 

Mid January 1941 saw me at Kirby Malzeard outside Ripon, troop leader of 4 Tp, B Squadron, 2 Derby Yeo, the Squadron commanded by the one and only Tom Pearson, who looked after me as though I were his only son. Tom was a farmer from near Ashbourne, a real old fashioned Yeoman, brimful of common sense who ran his squadron in a fatherly fashion.

 

We looked for digs around Kirby Malzeard. They were very scarce and the only possibility turned out to be a lonely farm deep in the snow covered countryside of an exceptionally severe winter, with very little in the way of modern conveniences.

 

We trained hard in the bitter cold. Several members of my troop turn up to this day 60 years later at 2 Derby Yeo Reunions in Long Eaton, notably my then troop sergeant, Chalky White, later Squadron Sgt. Major of B Sqn. Also Peter Fountaine who died lately. He drove my light armoured car which together with Pat Macnaghten's armoured car and a half-track vehicle comprised our Squadron HQ in Europe.

 

We were equipped in 1941 with Guy armoured cars, made in Wolverhampton, most unreliable vehicles typical of the armoured equipment which the British had to accept until America came into the war. I remember one amusing moment when the CO held a regimental inspection of the armoured cars. As he passed one car the air was rent by a loud squawk.  If there was one sound our Colonel recognised it was the call of a cock pheasant - and such was indeed revealed, secreted in a comfy corner of the ammunition rack!! Quite a row ensued.

In March 1941, with great relief we left the snow and ice of Yorkshire for Gloucestershire  - the small town of Wotton-under-edge. I was transferred from B Sqn. into Regimental Headquarters to help teach recruits from the North Staffs regiment to drive.

 

In midsummer 1941 we moved to Surrey in and around Charlwood, where regimental HQ was and I became assistant adjutant to Tom Killick. In particular, I remember, the War Office decreed that an armoured car regiment was now to have four not three squadrons. The C.O., the wily regular James Browne asked Tom and me how we should set about this, assuming each existing squadron would contribute one quarter of its personnel with a stated complement of NCO's, skilled tradesmen and so on. Just tell them to do that, we said. "In which case we shall get their least desirable quarter and lose the essential balance of squadrons of equal skills," responded James. The answer is, he explained "to tell each squadron to divide their men into 4 equal segments and I shall draw one quarter from each by lot. They will balance the quarters very carefully." he went on. They did.

When D Squadron, the fourth, was eventually formed I was promoted captain to be its second-in command. In December we were warned for overseas service and everyone went on embarkation leave. Then in typical military style the overseas posting was cancelled. We had moved meanwhile a short distance to Maresfield Camp near Ashdown Forest and there spent the early months of 1942. The CO decided Tom Pearson was too old,  he was certainly over 40, to command a fighting squadron so he was moved to the administrative HQ squadron, Tom Killick took over B and I became Adjutant (rank remaining capt.). General Montgomery came in March or April to inspect us, following which we were told that James Browne would relinquish command and by a most unhappy coincidence our second-in-command, the much respected John Cairns, was claimed at the same time by his own RTR regiment to command them. He was to be killed in the Desert.

 

New OC and 2nd I/C would arrive shortly we were told by 8th Armoured Division of which we were part. I had quite a load to carry meanwhile, especially as departure overseas was now expected early May.

 

During April Lt Col Viscount Allenby, regular 11th Hussar cavalryman and nephew of the great WW1 General Allenby and successor to the title arrived to command us, followed by another 11th Hussar Major Peter Wiggin as second-in-command. We departed in due course from Crowborough station, going through the middle of London on the Metropolitan line and on to the Clyde and sailed from there on 7 May 1942 in convoy, half the regiment on the 'Strathnaver', half on 'Monarch of Bermuda'. I was on the first named, in which my father had travelled to India in peacetime.

 

X THE WESTERN DESERT

 

We called at Freetown, then Cape Town for four days of wonderful South African hospitality. The voyage was uneventful though being such a bad sailor I felt pretty miserable. There must have been 1500 or so on board, including a military hospital whose nurses cheered things up a bit. I remember so well going up on deck at night looking back on the great convoy of troopships, guarded by the majestic destroyers. We reached Port Suez on 5 July, went by rail in cattle trucks to the Delta to train furiously in desert warfare, most particularly how to find your way about the desert by compass, sun compass and the stars.

 

The military situation was desperate. The 8th Army had stopped the Germans on the Alamein line (the battle now called first Alamein), the last defensive position before Alexandria and the open road to Middle Eastern oil and the underbelly of Russia. The next German offensive was awaited. Within a month we were in the line, briefed for a typical role for an armoured car reconnaissance regiment like 2 Derby Yeo, when in a defensive battle. That is to monitor the enemy's movements to give vital warning to heavy artillery, dug in tanks, anti-tank guns and so on. Lightly armoured cars should not get involved in fighting unless things go wrong. Our armoured cars were in position watching the minefield gaps as the Germans advanced on the night of 30/31 August 1942.

 

For once the Germans made mistakes in this the battle of Alam Halfa (now called second Alamein). Their tanks drove straight into well prepared British defences, lost heavily in tanks and men and after a week's furious battles withdrew without gaining any ground. The Alamein line was unbreached; the Germans had lost their last chance to win the Desert War. Our troops on the minefield gaps had done well in an unpleasant role often heavily shelled but unable to take avoiding action. We earned the praise which came from higher command.

As adjutant I operated in a four man armoured car cheek by jowl with Jaff Allenby. We directed affairs but of course were not expected normally to have direct contact with the enemy. The 8th Army allowed all manner of dress and most officers wore corduroy trousers and suede desert boots made by one Lyras in Cairo. In the chase after the Alamein victory our Regimental HQ did encounter some Italian lorries and Allenby roared for the gunner to traverse on to the target. Alas to the CO's furious dismay my trousers jammed the turret traversing gear solid and immovable!

 

Alam Halfa was General Montgomery's first battle. He had the advantage of large numbers of American Sherman tanks able to match the Germans, in sharp contrast with his predecessors (in particular Auchinlech) whose tanks were so hopelessly out-gunned. Monty's stock rose rapidly, as did the 8th Army's morale. We still had to drive the Germans back, but believed we could do just that when the time came. Moreover, Monty's reputation gave him the status to resist demands to join the next battle before he judged the moment right.

 

That moment came on the night of 23 October 1942, the opening of the Battle of El Alamein, among the crucial conflicts of the Second World War. A furious infantry battle lasted more than a week while armoured car regiments and tanks waited for a hole to be punched in the German-Italian line. It came in the early days of November, and the chase was on. Thousands of the enemy surrendered, streaming on foot across the desert, but every now and again they stood their ground, and amazingly on 5 November there was a great rain storm after which vehicles sank in the sand up to their axles.

 

We lost cars through breakdowns, the Humbers not much better than the Guys they replaced, through enemy guns which could easily pierce our thin armour and above all by cars blown up on mines. The Humbers had exceptional ground clearance which made them a better target for enemy guns, but conversely meant all four wheels could be blown off by mines without human casualties.

 

We started with 60 armoured cars (brought by slow convoy from the UK). By the time we approached Tobruk we had under a score of 'runners' and were ordered to pull out of the chase, to refit. We assembled not far from Tobruk on a patch of sand by the sea, in which we swam, even on Christmas Day, expecting new cars by the day.

New cars did arrive but the powers that be had decided that only two of the five armoured car regiments could be re-equipped and that preference would go to the regular regiments. We did scratch together a dozen or so cars which went on to Tunis doing escort duty for Montgomery and his c-in-c General Alexander. The rest of us waited and waited until early March when we were moved back to Alexandria – well illustrating the fact that war is long periods of boredom interspersed with brief bouts of exciting action! We saw the Bedouin drill barley in the coastal strip of Desert sand in November and reap the foot high harvest in February.

 

So our desert war was over. In retrospect we all agreed that if one had to do battle the Western Desert was an appropriate place – no civilians to speak of, no towns, no livestock and so on. It was very hot by day, but in November the nights were chilly and one slept well under the stars (or under your armoured car when in action). Each vehicle crew fed itself though on very basic rations. We managed well on a gallon of water a day for all purposes. On supplying itself the British army was very good. We were never hungry nor short of fuel. Mail came up regularly. There was leave to Alexandria (and its awful bedbugs!) when things were quiet.

 

Towards the end of the post-Alamein chase Lord Allenby decided that the commander of B Sqn., Tom Killick, should be replaced – by his adjutant.  Surprisingly, Killick elected to stay on as my second-in-command, reversing our previous role of adjutant and assistant adjutant. Thus from November 1942 I was a Major.

 

 I shall never forget my often tempestuous eight months as adjutant to Jaff Allenby. He was a very forceful character bearing a name still of great renown in the Middle East. He held in fierce contempt those who spent their war – the more senior the better – propping up the bar of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo consuming “Suffering Bastards” (gin, fresh lime etc). Jaff Allenby stood down in April 1943.

 

Another cavalry colonel followed, Rodney Palmer of the biscuit dynasty but come the invasion of Europe he was evacuated wounded. Then Walter Serocold (family closely connected with Watneys) of the Reconnaissance Corps took over to the end of the war.

 

Two final desert memories. Standing-to one morning at first light a lot of our tanks passed close to us and Allenby asked me if I noticed anything odd about them. I had not realised that these "tanks" were silent, no roar of tracks. They were dummies made of canvas on lorry chassis, part of a whole division deceiving the enemy. And lastly when the opposing armies were a few hundred yards apart before Alamein, the haunting strains of Lili Marlene coming across from the German lines in the cool of the evening – unforgettable!    The best tune of the war.

 

XI VIA  ISRAEL TO NORMANDY

 

Back at Alexandria in March we were told to prepare to become a 'Brick' – a formation which takes charge of and protects a landing on foreign soil, in our case intended to be the islands of Kos or Leros. So we trained for this combined operation for six months in Israel, on the coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv, in sweltering weather. We were expected to land by scrambling down nets on the side of ships, for which I was not designed.

 

In November, mercifully, we were ordered to hand over our Brick role to another formation and proceed back to Suez for transport to England to get ready for D-Day. The Mediterranean was by now clear. We arrived in Liverpool on 6 January 1944, welcomed by a quayside band playing "There'll always be an England", then on by train to Hartwell House near Aylesbury and home leave.

 

I returned to train my squadron in a new role. We were to become the reconnaissance regiment to an infantry division, the 51st Highland, whereas in the desert we had a much more mobile role in 7th Armoured Division (the 'Desert Rats') and similar formations. Each squadron would have three armoured car troops, three troops of tracked carriers and one assault troop of about 20 infantry men.

 

On 6 June 1944 the D-Day landing took place, as the world knows. My squadron travelled to Tilbury on the morning of D Day, waited two days there, before embarking and landing near Colombiers-sur-Seulles on the evening of D+4. C Sqn. had landed on D+1.

 

We drove ashore from our "Landing Ship Tanks" in fairly shallow water (ages had been spent in waterproofing the vehicles, exhausts carried up in the air) without losing any vehicles and without opposition. But we were on the wrong beach and I had no idea how to proceed to a map reference rendezvous in the Normandy countryside. To his eternal credit my second-in-command, Pat Macnaghten, knew exactly where we were, and led us to the field which was our destination. Next morning Roy Dunlop and I were enjoying a drink when brother Mike appeared. He was a Gunner Major in 11th Armoured Division (and stayed in the army post war retiring as a Brigadier)

 

Things seemed cushy -  till teatime when the Colonel sent for me to give orders to cross Pegasus Bridge over the Orne and relieve troops holding the village of Escoville on the perimeter of the bridgehead to the east of the Orne captured by airborne troops on D-Day. This bridgehead was considered vital by our high command and the orders to me were quite clear: "You must hold Escoville."

 

 

 

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