One of the Duke of Westminster’s Rolls-Royce armoured cars at Solium, April 1916
If, for the moment, the Turkish narrow-gauge system seemed secure from British interference, the same could not be said of the standard-gauge, which passed within a few miles of the coast as it rounded the Gulf of Alexandretta (Iskenderun), sending a branch line down into Alexandretta itself. If the main line could be cut this would effectively sever the Palestine Front’s major supply artery and simultaneously compromise the logistics of the Turkish armies serving in Mesopotamia as well. In December 1914 an Allied naval squadron did considerable damage to the branch line and even occupied Alexandretta for a short period. This success led to plans being drafted for the permanent occupation of Alexandretta and the destruction of the main line. Unfortunately, these were shelved, initially because the Dardanelles operation held a higher priority and latterly because, after the traumatic failure at Gallipoli, the risks involved in further landings on the Turkish coast were not politically acceptable. Had the effort been made the entire course of the war in the Middle East could well have been very different, for during the winter of 1914/15 the Turks sustained a disastrous series of reverses in the Caucasus, culminating in a Russian invasion of Asia Minor from the north-east. The fact remains that it was not and this in itself made some kind of initiative by the Turks against the Suez Canal inevitable.
Obviously the scope and duration of the operation could only be limited and what was contemplated amounted to little more than a large-scale raid which would cause damage to installations and possibly block the Canal with sunken ships. Even so, the objectives set were vague and the possibility of Allied warships being integrated into the Canal defence scheme seems to have been largely discounted.
The troops detailed for the operation were Djemal Bey’s VIII Corps, accompanied by a team of German advisers under Colonel Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein. By the middle of January 1915 the corps was ready to leave Beersheba and embark on its crossing of the Sinai, from which the British had withdrawn the previous autumn. The coastal route was avoided, as this would have brought the marching columns within range of naval gunfire. The inland route, though hot and arid in summer, was now quite passable, as heavy winter rains had filled pools and cisterns along the way. Even so, 5,000 water-carrying camels were still required to prevent thirst from becoming an acute problem.
The advance had been expected by the British and its progress was reported by Nieuport seaplanes flying off the Canal. The defenders, therefore, had plenty of time in which to set their house in order. On 3 February the Turks launched a series of uncoordinated attacks along a wide front and were defeated in detail by a storm of fire from Allied warships and British positions on the west bank. The majority of assault boats launched were riddled and sunk; only three managed to cross the Canal and their occupants were all quickly killed or captured. Djemal retired slowly to Beersheba, having sustained 2,000 casualties, approximately 10 per cent of his strength. British casualties amounted to only 163.
Lieutenant-General Sir John Maxwell, the Commander-in-Chief Egypt, was naturally satisfied with the outcome of the engagement but made no attempt to pursue Djemal and remained sensitive regarding the prospect of a further Turkish offensive. His anxieties were aggravated by the incessant demands of the Dardanelles, which had reduced the garrison of Egypt to a dangerously low level, by the wave of anti-British feeling which was sweeping the country, and by the growing belligerence of the Senussi across the frontier in Libya. There was little doubt that the Senussi were preparing to extend their activities beyond the guerrilla war they were waging against the Italians, for along the largely deserted coastline of Italy’s newest colony German U-boats came and went more or less as they pleased, landing small arms, machine guns, mountain artillery, ammunition and Turkish instructors. By the autumn of 1915 the merest spark was required to explode Senussi antipathy into outright hostilities against the British.
That spark was provided, unwittingly if not unwillingly, by Lieutenant-Commander Waldemar Kophamel, the commander of U-35, on 5 November 1915. Kophamel, who was to survive the war as Germany’s sixth highest-scoring submarine ace with 190,000 tons of Allied shipping to his credit, was an officer who somehow managed to preserve his sense of chivalry despite the growing brutalism of total war, and the previous day he had arrived in the little harbour of Bardia brazenly towing two schooners loaded with munitions for the Senussi. Next morning he set off on his return journey to Turkey but five miles out in the Gulf of Solium he sighted the smoke of a twin-funnelled vessel and dived.
The ship was HMS Tara, under the command of Captain R. S. Gwatkin-Williams, RN. In peacetime her owners had been the London and North Western Railway Company and she had operated as SS Hibernia on the run between Holyhead and Dublin. On the outbreak of war she had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, armed with three sixpounder guns, and became an armed boarding vessel. Now, she was engaged on a routine visit to the frontier post of Solium.
Kophamel quickly brought U-35 into an attacking position and fired a single torpedo, which struck Tara amidships. The British ship began settling at once and launched her boats. Kophamel surfaced among these and towed them back into Bardia, taking some of the survivors on to his own deck. Having handed over his prisoners to the senior Turkish officer present, he resumed his journey the following day, sinking one Egyptian gunboat and severely damaging another at Solium, then adding a horse transport to his score on the way home.
The British authorities in Egypt at once sent an envoy to the Senussi to negotiate the release of Tara’s survivors. At first the Grand Senussi, Said Ahmed, denied all knowledge of the affair. Under pressure, he admitted that the prisoners were being held at an undisclosed location, but declined to hand them over as they had been left in his care as hostages by the Turks. He was, in fact, under the influence of two Turkish senior officers by now, Nuri Bey, the brother of Enver Pasha, and Ja’far Pasha, who had received his training from the German Army. These two had arrived with gifts of gold and a flattering letter from the Sultan himself. They pointed out that the Turkish army had not only defeated the Gallipoli landing but was also doing extremely well in Mesopotamia, and that in view of recent events in the Gulf of Solium the claim of the Royal Navy to rule the waves was obviously no longer valid. An invasion of Egypt, they argued, would bring about the collapse of the weakened British, particularly if the large number of Senussi supporters in Egypt rose against them. Said Ahmed was convinced and gave orders for his troops to march.
During the night of 17 November the Solium garrison beat off an attack, and was then brought out by steamer. Sidi Barrani was attacked on the 18th and held, although many of the Egyptian coastguards deserted to the enemy. The remainder marched along the coast to Mersa Matruh spreading alarm and despondency.
In Cairo, Maxwell was seriously alarmed by the invasion and the Egyptian desertions, knowing that the despatch of troops to fight the Senussi would leave very little in reserve with which to mount counter-insurgency operations, should the need arise. Nonetheless, a number of Territorial infantry battalions and Yeomanry cavalry regiments were assembled under Major-General A. Wallace and designated Western Frontier Force. Wallace fought a number of costly holding actions west of Mersa Matruh, and these succeeded in containing the Senussi advance. As the position stabilized, his strength was augmented by South African and New Zealand infantry, as well as troops recently returned from Gallipoli.
Wallace’s command also included the first British armoured unit to serve in the Western Desert, the Emergency Squadron Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Division. As its name implies, this was formed hastily in November from Nos 3 and 4 Armoured Car Squadrons, elements of which had taken part in the Gallipoli fighting. It was equipped with Rolls-Royce armoured cars based on the Alpine chassis, with a fourspeed gearbox and a strengthened back axle. The body was sheathed in armour plate, leaving a small carrying platform at the rear, and an Admiralty pattern turret mounting a Vickers-Maxim machine gun was fitted over the main body of the vehicle. Comfort there was none, the driver sitting on a pile of small square mats, his back supported by an adjustable sling. Only the smallest men could operate efficiently in the cramped turret, which one contemporary account refers to as `the cylinder’.
The Emergency Squadron saw little fighting, largely because the winter rains had turned the going into a quagmire, much as they did in the same area after the Second Battle of Alamein, 27 years later. However, by January 1916 the squadron had acquired considerable desert experience and, having been relieved by the Duke of Westminster’s armoured car brigade (formerly No 2 Squadron RNAS Armoured Car Division), was sent up the Nile to Upper Egypt where Senussi bands were threatening the security of the west bank of the river, having occupied the oases of El Kharga, Dakhala, Farafra and Baharia. In due course its cars, and those of its personnel who wished, were transferred to the Army, as was the case with every naval armoured car unit, with the notable exception of one which continued to pursue an adventurous career in Russia.
The Duke of Westminster’s unit, having seen active service in Flanders, had already made the change and consisted of three batteries of four Rolls-Royce armoured cars and a small headquarters, supported by an echelon of Model T Ford tenders. Its morale was high, the Duke having selected his officers and men with care, the majority, including Second-Lieutenant Griggs, his own jockey, coming from cavalry and yeomanry regiments, with a leavening of professional motor drivers and mechanics.
In January, air reconnaissance revealed that the Senussi were occupying an entrenched camp at Halazin, 22 miles south of Mersa Matruh, and Wallace decided to eject them. A move by the cavalry to isolate the camp was foiled by a counter-attack led by Ja’far, but the Senussi fled when their trenches were stormed by the infantry. The battle was fought in atrocious conditions, the wounded having to be carried by hand across several miles of sodden ground, while the troops were compelled to spend the night without blankets or shelter of any kind, exposed to the wind and rain.
Wallace’s health had begun to deteriorate, and on 10 January he was relieved by Major-General W. E. Peyton. The Western Frontier Force was now in a much stronger position and Maxwell ordered it to take the offensive and recapture Solium, allocating 2,000 transport camels for its support. A forward base was established at Unjaila and when aircraft reported that the main Senussi camp was located at a place called Agagya some way to the south-east of Sidi Barrani Peyton led out a column to deal with it, consisting of two battalions from Brigadier-General Lukin’s South African infantry brigade, the Dorset Yeomanry, one squadron of the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry, a Royal Horse Artillery battery and four of the Duke’s armoured cars.
By the evening of the 24th the column was within eight miles of Agagya. Peyton decided to rest his men throughout the following day and attack on the 26th. The Senussi, 1,500 strong and supported by artillery and machine guns, were holding a ridge five miles north of their camp and brought the infantry under fire as soon as they were within range. Ja’far again attempted a counter-attack but this was defeated by a reserve which Peyton had retained for the purpose. The South Africans then fought their way forward on to the ridge and through the enemy position. After several hours of hard fighting the Senussi began to pull out, watched closely by Lieutenant-Colonel Souter, commanding the Dorset Yeomanry, from the British right flank. Once he was certain that the enemy were clear of their trenches he set his regiment in motion. At once machine-gun fire from the rearguard began to cut swathes through the ranks of his troopers, but the gap closed steadily and the lines of galloping horsemen swept into the mass of the enemy, cutting down 300 of them and pursuing the rest across the desert. At the critical moment Souter’s horse was shot dead beneath him and he almost landed on top of Ja’far, who was promptly taken prisoner. Ja’far, himself wounded, acknowledged that the yeomanry’s charge had been devastating, but commented that it had been made contrary to the normal usages of war. The Dorsets’ casualties amounted to 58 out of 184 men taking part, but the loss of 85 horses effectively reduced the regiment’s strength by half. For the armoured cars, Agagya had been a disappointing battle, their part being confined to providing machine gun support from ground mountings when they became bogged in soft sand.
Sidi Barrani was occupied on 28 February and on 9 March Peyton resumed his advance on Solium. Lukin’s brigade and the cavalry were to advance along the coast to Buq Buq and then swing inland to climb the coastal escarpment near Augarin Wells. The Duke’s armoured cars would head south from Sidi Barrani and climb the escarpment by way of a pass which, it was thought, might just be passable for motor vehicles, although the last wheels to make the journey had probably been Roman. It was a struggle, but all the cars made it, some having to be man-handled over the difficult stretches as they flogged their way upwards with boiling radiators.
Next day they picked their difficult passage along the edge of the escarpment, trying to keep in visual touch with the troops on the coastal plain below. After they had covered 14 miles the Duke ordered a halt and opened heliograph communication with Lukin. The news conveyed by the distant winking light was far from good.
LEFT BUQ BUQ EARLY THIS MORNING. WELLS HERE ALMOST DRY. SEARCHING FOR WATER. POSITION SERIOUS.
The cars continued on their way and some miles further on the first South Africans came scrambling up the escarpment, desperate for water, many with their tongues hanging out; one, a former bank manager, willingly offered £50 for a drink. There was little that the crews could do for them. Their spare water tanks had already been drained by the greedy radiators, and apart from what little remained in the men’s water bottles, the only other sources lay within the radiators themselves or the machine guns’ cooling jackets, and to touch either of these had been declared a court martial offence.
Early next morning the cars discovered a source of water which enabled the advance to continue. On 14 March Peyton’s force reached Halfaya Pass, and from there marched the remaining three miles to Solium, which the enemy had abandoned. Once again the Union Flag was hoisted over the little white fort, but Peyton was not satisfied with having evened the score; he wished if possible to complete the destruction of the Senussi field army and when aircraft reported a large enemy camp at Bir Wair he instructed the Duke to take his armoured cars and act with such aggression as the situation demanded.
Bir Wair technically lay in Italian territory, but since the Italians themselves were unwilling or unable to do anything about the Senussi, little embarrassment was felt, especially since Italy had become the United Kingdom’s ally the previous year. Across the frontier the going was found to be excellent and the cars were able to maintain a high average speed. At Bir Wair the Senussi camp fires were still burning but the enemy had pulled off to the west and the armoured cars caught up with them at a well called Bir Azeiz.
The Senussi had established themselves in a rocky position fronted by some rough going and opened up on the cars with mountain artillery and machine guns. The cars fanned out and went straight for them, machine guns chattering. Inside, conditions quickly began to deteriorate as the heat of the racing engines added to that of the sun, while choking fumes from the machine gun turned the atmosphere blue. The noise level within the vehicles was almost intolerable, being a compound of their own machine gun fire, rounds striking the armour plate, the roar of the engine and the shouts of commanders as they ordered the drivers to change direction. One driver at least suffered the added torment of hot cartridge cases falling on to his bare neck and into his shirt, where they burned his back. The cars concentrated their fire on the enemy gunners, whose own rounds were badly ranged and exploded beyond their moving targets. When the gun crews, mostly Turks, began going down around their weapons the whole Senussi army suddenly broke and ran. Hundreds were killed or wounded during the ensuing pursuit; among the fugitives was Nuri Bey, who narrowly escaped capture.
The Duke’s men spent the night near the battlefield and returned to Solium the following morning with their prisoners and booty-three 4-inch guns, nine machine-guns, an assortment of small arms and 250,000 rounds of ammunition. Their own casualties amounted to one or two very slightly wounded, almost certainly as a result of bulletsplash penetrating the visors and interior flaking of the armour under impact, and some vehicle tyres punctured. The engagement at Bir Wair, though small in scale, marked a major turning point in the history of desert warfare, for a mere 34 men, protected by armour plate and possessing the superior mobility conferred by the internal combustion engine, had routed an entire army. In recognition of the fact, Peyton had the unit paraded in front of the fort and thanked it personally for its invaluable services.
Meanwhile, there was still no news of Tara’s survivors. No one knew whether they were alive or dead and none of the prisoners could give any information. Quite possibly they would never have been heard of again had not a letter written by Captain Gwatkin-Williams, the ship’s commander, been discovered in a house in Solium. The letter had been addressed to the commander of the British garrison, but it had been delivered during the period of Senussi occupation; it gave the prisoners’ location as El Hakkim Abbyat, or Bir Hacheim.
In Arabic Bir means well, or more specifically an underground cistern. The desert is dotted with Birs, but at that period no maps existed of the interior and none of the inhabitants of Solium had any idea where Bir Hacheim might be located. The prisoners taken at Bir Azeiz were questioned and at length an elderly man named Ali confessed that in his youth he had tended stock there. Bir Hacheim, he said, was five days’ journey by camel from Solium, and he would be prepared to act as guide.
The Duke of Westminster at once volunteered his armoured cars to lead a rescue attempt. A column was quickly assembled, including Ford tenders and motor ambulances, a total of 45 vehicles including the armoured cars. It left Solium at 01:00 on 17 March and proceeded through the darkness along the track leading through Bir Wair to Tobruk. Leaving two of their number to act as rearguard to the column, the armoured cars led the advance, with the tenders, loaded with spare petrol, water and provisions, following behind. A short halt was made at first light for breakfast and then the march resumed.
After 50 miles had been covered Ali spotted a camel caravan moving along a parallel course to the south. A diversion was made and the caravan intercepted by the armoured cars. It was found to be carrying supplies for the Senussi and these were confiscated, the drivers captured and the camels shot. This took more time than had been bargained for and it was almost noon when the column started off again. The route took them ever westward with no further instructions from Ali save to continue in the same direction. The interpreter pointed out testily to the old man that motor vehicles were unlike camels and had to be fed regularly, but Ali steadfastly maintained that this was the way to Bir Hacheim.
After about 100 miles had been covered Ali indicated that the column should swing left and head south over the desert. This generated serious doubt as to whether the guide knew his business. Halts were made frequently to verify the position. By. 15:00 the vehicles had travelled over 120 miles since leaving Solium and the Duke, who had by now completely lost faith in Ali, decided that they had gone far enough. The fuel state indicated that the point of no return had been reached and to venture further would simply result in the temporary immobilization of the Western Frontier Force’s armoured element, and most of its motor transport as well. Suddenly the guide shouted that he could see Bir Hacheim. Through his binoculars the Duke observed two small hummocks on the horizon and Ali assured him that the wells lay beneath.
The cars spread out and charged the mounds. Armed men could be seen scurrying about and running off into the desert, evidently taking their families with them. Soon other, horribly emaciated, figures tottered into view, waving and cheering in cracked voices.
`The scene when we got there was one I shall never forget,’ wrote an officer serving with the brigade’s supply tenders. `Numbers of prisoners were crying without any effort to hide their tears while a number of our men found great difficulty in not following suit; I personally had a very big lump in my throat if nothing more! The majority were so weak from dysentery and starvation that they could only just stand, and most were half naked and ravenous.’
Gwatkin-Williams was in slightly better shape than the rest of his crew, although he had escaped once and been recaptured. He had lost six stone in weight and four of his men had died as a result of their privations; for another, the rescue had come just too late. The Senussi had not been deliberately cruel and had, in fact, lived on the same rations as their prisoners, but food was in terribly short supply and the latter had been forced to eke out their meagre diet with desert snails and roots.
Seized by blind rage, the armoured car crews roared off in pursuit of the guards. Gwatkin-Williams’ pleas for mercy were ignored and neither age nor sex was spared. The only survivors of the massacre were two babies who were brought back with the column. It was a stain on an otherwise perfect operation, deeply and sincerely regretted when calmer thoughts had returned.
The column set off on its return journey to Solium as soon as the released captives had been clothed and fed, reaching Bir Wair, now held by a unit of the Australian Camel Corps, at 23:00. The drivers were exhausted and most collapsed over their wheels the minute they arrived. The Duke had gone ahead to make arrangements for the survivors, who were placed aboard a hospital ship for passage to Alexandria as soon as they reached Solium. The armoured cars remained at Bir Wair for two days until a sand storm blew itself out, but drove up to the fort to the cheers of the infantry and a salute fired by the artillery. Once again, General Peyton congratulated the unit on its remarkable achievement.