In 1940, one year after declaring war on Germany, Great Britain was facing significant challenges in WWII. Their ground forces in Europe were being overrun by the advancing German army. However, the newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill firmly believed that the British Army needed one victory to turn the tide in their favour. That opportunity presented itself in North Africa.
Determined not to be overshadowed by his friend and ally Adolf Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded and occupied Abyssinia and Libya as part of his expansionist ambitions and to establish Italian dominance in North Africa. Fuelled by his success, Mussolini had set his sights on Egypt as his next conquest.
With 0.5 million Italian troops poised to attack, the odds had been stacked against a British force of 36,000 men defending northern Egypt, an independent state under British control. The British were faced with the daunting task of defending Egypt’s strategic position, including the vital Suez Canal, against the advancing Italian forces.
Italian troops broke through British defences but instead of capitalizing on the advantage, they inexplicably halted 60 miles inside Egypt, creating a thin front and leaving significant gaps that the British attacking forces exploited. Due to these tactical errors made by the Italian forces, the British launched a counteroffensive that allowed them to recapture territories in North Africa, including Libya. Churchill’s words rang true: the army had delivered a turnaround.
Unbeknownst to them, however, a more formidable foe had followed the events closely, and the British were about to face a tougher challenge.
In a swift response to Britain’s expanding foothold in North Africa, Hitler acted. In February 1941, he sent the Afrika Korps, led by his ace commander General Erwin Rommel, to counter the British. By January 1942, Rommel’s forces had pushed the British back to the Egyptian frontier and captured Benghāzī in Libya. The German and Italian troops planned to attack British defences at El Alamein in Egypt by 30 June 1942. Africa was becoming the backdrop for a big fight.
Amid this raging war, on June 20, 1942, a letter arrived addressed to Chanan Singh Dhillon, whose unit was posted in Mersa Matruh, a coastal township situated near El Alamein in North Africa. Lieutenant P Devonald, his platoon commander, handed it to him. “I have good news for you,” said the British officer, with a toothy grin. The letter had orders for Chanan to sail to India to join the training academy.
Chanan’s eyes filled with tears; he had never let go of his dream and finally, his moment had arrived. He was about to fulfil his aspiration of becoming a commissioned officer. Filled with a sense of triumph and nervous anticipation, Chanan eagerly counted down the days until the ship that would take him home would arrive.
Just five more days to go.
On June 28, 1942, there occurred a significant turn of events.
As the battle shifted to North Africa, Chanan and his unit valiantly defended their position at Mersa Matruh. News arrived one evening that Rommel’s German army was closing in.
On June 26, they faced a formidable clash with Rommel’s forces, engaging in fierce fighting that persisted for three days. With British defences stretched, Rommel’s attacking columns steamrolled through the fortifications, moving with blazing speed.
At approximately 2350 hours on June 28, Chanan’s unit received the order to retreat. He and his mates planted dynamite to destroy the installations – such as bunkers, fortifications and other defensive structures – before their departure. They consulted the withdrawal plan on the map. They had to travel six miles on the main road towards Cairo, then turn right and head south into the desert.
The plan was to go approximately 32 kilometres deep into the desert, make a semicircle towards the East and join the road using a railway track. This would place them farther away from the advancing Germans.
Chanan had thought this would be his last piece of action before the ship to take him to India arrived. He would then return to the war after training and gaining a commission – as a lieutenant leading his men in battle.
Not content to simply hold the captured territory, Rommel’s troops had pursued the retreating British soldiers. Determined to escape, Chanan and his comrades sped away in their vehicles, racing through the desert to evade the Germans.
Their detour into the desert had been a strategy to outmanoeuvre the Germans and outlast their pursuit. But the Germans had other ideas. As Chanan and his group drove on, the sound of gunfire grew nearer. As they abandoned their planned route, the lead vehicle in their convoy was ambushed and destroyed. The rest of the vehicles quickly changed direction, with Chanan’s vehicle now leading the way.
They spent an uneasy night in the desert; by morning, they seemed to be in the clear, but continued to drive at a cautious and slow pace, remaining vigilant for any signs of danger.
At about 1030 hours, Chanan spotted two shadowy figures in the distance. As their vehicle approached, he realised they were two British armoured cars parked side by side, facing north. He turned to the driver beside him, letting out a deep sigh.
“Stop! Stop!” he said, raising his palm. The driver pressed the brakes but kept the engine running.
They stared in silence for what felt like an eternity. Were those abandoned or captured vehicles? Were there enemies hiding inside?
Chanan’s gut said they were adversaries waiting for them. With nowhere to escape, all they could do was wait. The driver retrieved a bottle of water, a rarity in the desert. Chanan took a swig and felt the cool water ease his parched throat. He smiled nervously at the driver, aware that it might be a while before they had water again, if they survived.
The armoured cars remained motionless. Were they lying in wait, their gaze and weapons fixed on the convoy? Both sides held their positions, waiting to see who blinked first. Chanan made the first move. “Let’s march,” he told the driver.
As they began to move, the armoured cars suddenly sprang to life and someone inside began firing. It was clear that these British vehicles had indeed been captured by the Germans.
Amid a fierce exchange of fire, the Germans swiftly closed in, targeting the rear vehicle in the British convoy just as it veered away. The vehicle, which had been hit, came to a screeching halt. Exiting, the men sprang into action, engaging the armoured cars with machine guns and light rifles.
Chanan’s vehicle managed to escape, but the one behind it, carrying ammunition, came under German fire. The resulting explosion shook the desert, giving the scene the semblance of a minor battle. In retaliation, the British successfully incapacitated a German armoured car, forcing its crew to abandon it in the desert.
Excerpted with permission from Camouflaged: Forgotten Stories from Battlefields, Probal Dasgupta, Juggernaut.