As we approach the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I am reminded that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Tobruk with the Duke of Edinburgh and met the King and Queen of Libya at the end of her first world tour in May 1954. During her visit to Cyrenaica, she toured the Tobruk war cemetery, attended a parade in the desert by the Royal Scots Greys and met families of the garrison troops.
At the end of the stopover, she and Prince Philip boarded The Royal Yacht Britannia, which had brought Prince Charles and Princess Anne from England on its maiden voyage. An enthusiastic heir to the throne rushed up to Her Majesty when she was piped aboard, but according to the magazine, Vanity Fair, the Queen adhered to protocol and said “No, not you, dear,” as she greeted dignitaries first, then shook the five-year-old’s extended hand before privately sharing a “warm and affectionate” reunion with her “enchanting” children in her cabin.
This was not the first British royal visit to Libya because her father, King George VI, had travelled to Tripoli on 19th June 1943 on his way to Malta to present a Field Marshal’s baton to Viscount Gort. In Libya, the King was hosted by Major General Brian Robertson, who later earned fame for his part in the relief of Berlin. This was a low key visit compared with the triumphant parade for the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in February because the Luftwaffe was still very active along the North African Coast, as evidenced by the near-death experience handed to General Horrocks a fortnight earlier.
News that Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks’ ashes were never scattered after his funeral in 1985 has come as a complete surprise this weekend.
The ceremony on Monday gives us another chance to pay our respects to one of the finest British generals of World War II. Horrocks was awarded an immediate DSO for his leadership of XIII corps at El Alamein, took over X corps in Libya for the Advance to Tripoli and in 1943 led IX corps during the final Allied offensive in North Africa, before he was badly wounded by enemy aircraft on the coast of Tunisia. A year later, he was given XXX corps in France, which he commanded until the end of the war, when he sadly had to be medically-discharged due to the injuries he had sustained.
In researching for my book, Liberating Libya, I interviewed one of his platoon sergeants, Jeff Haward MM, of the Middlesex Regiment and had tremendous help from the actor Edward Fox, who became good friends with him when he prepared for his role in the film A Bridge Too Far.However, the biggest discovery was when I learned that he nearly died of Typhus after he was captured by the Red Army in Krasnoyarsk in 1920 and it was only through the care of his best friend, Captain Eric Hayes, that he lived to become such a success twenty years later. See Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for the full story of the Horrocks’ time as a PoW in Russia during WWI.
The World War 2 commemoration in Moscow has provided another chilling reminder of the military power that President Putin currently holds. He justifies his aggression by claiming that the West threatened Russia. This rationale was put forward by Peter Hitchens when we opposed each other at the RA Butler Debate on Anglo-Russian relations before Lockdown. It is the flawed excuse of the killer who claims that because a person insulted him, he is justified in hitting them with a hammer. However, pre-emption is not one of the three permitted reasons to go to war in international law (self-defence; a treaty such as NATO’s Article 5; or a UN resolution in response to something like genocide).
The irony is that it is the West’s weakness, not its military threat, that has enabled Putin to invade his neighbour. Not only have we run down our military so we can no longer sustain a fully capable armoured division abroad, but our decisions about Libya, Syria and Afghanistan have demonstrated to Putin that we run away from difficulties overseas. Since China, India and most of Asia are still providing him with economic sanctuary, we really need to change tack if we are to win this one.
This month we are commemorating the Battle of Gazala, which marked the high point of Rommel’s tactical success in World War II. It began well enough for the Eighth Army. In the north, 1st South African Division held the initial German push and at the southern bastion of Bir Hakkim, the Free French Brigade stopped the Italian XX corps. However, beyond this, the old hands in the Afrika Korps hooked around the static line and according to Ken Macksey: “one by one…the British formations offered themselves for destruction.”
The rot stopped in the centre at an area named Knightsbridge with theMark 3 Grant tanks making their presence felt for the first time in the western desert. This provided an opportunity for the British commander, General Ritchie to strike a fatal blow using Cecil Haydon’s 150 Brigade as a pivot, but he sat on his hands while Rommel, who was “down to his last cup of water” boldly attacked the British position in what became known as the Cauldron.
Rommel described the British defence as “the toughest resistance imaginable”, but the gallant Brigadier Haydon, who had commanded his brigade since 1940, was abandoned by General Ritchie and sadly killed in action with thousands of his soldiers marched into captivity.The only highlight was in the north where Sergeant Quentin Smythe of the Royal Natal Carabineers was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading two attacks on German strong points despite being hit in the head by shrapnel.
There are 2,674 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen buried in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Libya. This lonely site in the desert is meticulously maintained by a friendly Libyan family who have looked after it since its creation. This week, I am giving a talk to an audience which includes the son of a padre at Gazala and will reflect on the sacrifices made by the Allied soldiers in Libya during World War II.