El Alamein 70th anniversary: Killamarsh veteran’s desert memories

Proud: Bill Hartley as a dashing 23-year-old, towards the end of World War Two in 1945.
Proud: Bill Hartley as a dashing 23-year-old, towards the end of World War Two in 1945.

IT MARKED a turning point in the course of history - but today it is a little-known chapter of the Second World War, writes Sarah Crabtree.

Next Tuesday is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, an Allied breakthrough of German and Italian lines in the Egyptian desert from October 23 to November 4, 1942.

Proud: Bill Hartley as he is today, aged 90.

Proud: Bill Hartley as he is today, aged 90.

Nearly two weeks of bombardment dashed enemy hopes of taking control of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Middle Eastern oil fields. It was the first decisive large-scale Allied land victory of the war.

Bill Hartley, now 90, had just turned 20 when he took part in El Alamein.

“Very few people know anything about it now,” he says. “But it was the turning point of the war. If it hadn’t been for Alamein, we would have had it.”

Bill had been brought up on Penistone Road in Hillsborough, and in 1939 enlisted for the TA aged 16 - not the required 17 - thanks to a letter ‘from his mum’ he’d written himself.

By 1941 he was in the Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and set sail from a wintry Liverpool on a six-week voyage to the scorching Middle East.

“We docked at night at the bottom of the Suez Canal and it was all lights - Arabs working like mad unloading boats, real Arabian Nights stuff,” he said.

His regiment travelled by rail and lorry to ‘the blue’ - the soldiers’ name for the baking hot desert under a clear blue sky.

He spent almost 11 months sleeping in a two-man bivouac, encountering bedouin tribes, coping with surreal disorienting desert storms which could lose a man in their swirling sands, and surviving on a pint of water a day.

The bread had weevils, stale water turned the milk in the tea sour, and the men washed their clothes in petrol.

Engaged in constant desert battles, Bill’s bivouac mate, Fred Hooper, from Liverpool, was killed aged 19 by dive-bombers who attacked their convoy in September 1942.

Bill picked him up and took him to the field hospital but a bomb splinter had severed his spine.

“Why should he get killed and not me, when I was stood up next to him?” said Bill, who went back to El Alamein in 2009 thanks to a lottery grant, and found Fred’s grave in the war cemetery there. “There is no answer.”

The men were visited by Field Marshal Montgomery who explained the strategy for the battle ahead.

“He was very dynamic,. He told us what was going to happen - we were going to knock the German Afrika Korps out of the war.”

Bill was a gunner, driver and radio operator and October 23 began with deafening bombardment by the Allies. Eventually the infantry and tanks broke through, the Germans and Italians capitulated, and Bill witnessed thousands of surrendered enemy men trudging to PoW camps.

He made it back to Blighty in December 1943 - just in time to give his sister away at her Christmas wedding in Malin Bridge - before being trained up for D-Day the following June. “You just got on with the job,” he says.

Now living in Killamarsh, the retired salesman is a father of two and grandfather of three. He celebrated his 90th birthday with a party this month.