Baron’s Breakthrough

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the baron who found his way through the Qattara Depression

Baron’s Breakthrough
One of the prettiest old castles in Ireland is Dunsany Castle where my father used to stay as a guest of Randall Plunkett, the nineteenth Lord Dunsany. The barony of Dunsany is amongst the oldest Irish titles, created under Henry VI and a major branch of the family has lived in Dunsany Castle for more than 550 years. Randall was commissioned into the Guides and had been decorated in 1930 while serving in the then Northwest Frontier Province. He was a legend in the British India Army for a feat in North Africa that was never replicated by any other troops, British or German.

It was the summer of 1942 and for the last time, the British Eighth Army was retreating against the onslaught of the Afrika Korps. Rommel had won a narrow but decisive victory at the Battle of Ghazala and with the fall of Tobruk had been promoted Field Marshal. As the British forces scrambled back to the Alamein position in what came to be called the ‘Ghazala Gallop’, the Guides Cavalry which had been redeployed from Iraq (along with many other regiments of the Indian Armoured Corps), was pushed forward. Alongside 13th Lancers, it screened a much depleted British 1st Armoured Division as it struggled to check the German advance.

The Guides was organised as an armoured car regiment and equipped with a mix of Marmon Herrington Armoured Cars and Indian Pattern Wheeled Carriers. Each squadron consisted of one Marmon Herrington car troop of three cars, a lorried infantry troop of four Chevrolet trucks, and two troops equipped with ‘Armoured Carriers Indian Pattern Wheeled MK II’. This vehicle was commonly referred to as a ‘wheeled carrier’ and its armoured hull of 14mm thick plates was mounted on a Ford or GMC CMP truck chassis imported from Canada. The Indian Railways manufactured most of the hulls, and the armament typically consisted of Bren light machine guns (in some variants mounted in a small turret) and Boys anti-tank rifles. The Marmon-Harrington Armoured Cars were manufactured in South Africa as well as in India. It was a 6.4ton, 4x4 vehicle fitted with Ford V 8 engines, and was underpowered due to the weight of the armour thus making it slow and cumbersome. It had a crew of three and the Mk-III version in service with the Guides was armed with the Boys anti-tank rifle, a coaxial Bren machine gun in a turret, and one or two additional machine guns for anti-aircraft defence.  The only vehicles of the squadron that were fast, robust and reliable were the American Chevrolet trucks carrying the rifle troops.

It was covering a front of 110 kms on the open desert flank and when the coastal road got blocked the two regiments slipped back to the Alamein Line through the desert. However, ‘B’ Squadron of the Guides Cavalry commanded by Plunkett was operating 320 kms south of the coast on a flank deep in the desert. The squadron had been placed under a mixed Anglo-French force known as the Long Range Desert Force that was patrolling along the edge of the Great Sand Sea and based in the oasis of Jerabub.

An Indian-pattern wheeled carrier of the Guides in North Africa during the Second World War

The main duty was far ranging patrolling. The armoured cars patrolled like cruisers at sea. Cars moved on both sides of the commander, nosing into all suspected depressions, and reporting constantly on the wireless. Approaching a rise, the commander would halt the patrol and roll up to a hull-down position near the crest. Once he gave the clear, the cars in the rear swept up and around and then fanned out to race over the skyline. If there was evidence of an enemy column, the cars hunted according to a careful plan, back and forth, in and out of wadis. A group would be detached to prowl through a large wadi while the commander took the rest of the force around and behind in case they flushed out something. It was dangerous work because the German armoured cars were far superior.

Maj Randall Plunkett in a still taken from a documentary

Moving through the sand dunes put a severe strain on the vehicles and showed in the recording of the following transmissions by the diarist of the Guides.

First Message: “Hello Colo, Sano calling, Hamara left wala armoured car ke half-shaft tut gya.” (My left armoured car’s half-shaft is broken).

Second Message: “Hello Colo, etc. Hamara right wala armoured car ke short propeller shaft tut gya.” (My right armoured cars short propeller shaft is broken).

Third Message: Hello Colo, etc. Hamara apna armoured car rhet men fass gya.” (My own armoured car is stuck in the sand).

When the Eighth Army lost Tobruk and withdrew along the coastal road towards Alexandria, the Long Range Desert Force moved eastwards to the oasis of Siwa, the famous site of the Temple of Jupiter Ammon which Alexander visited 2,000 years earlier. Two days later when orders were received to move back to Alamein, the force was in a dilemma because of insufficient fuel. It had three options. One was to withdraw to the oasis of Baharia and await fuel while their rations ran out. The French elements of the Force were tired of withdrawing and inclined to march north and submit to the Germans. However, Plunkett was not prepared to surrender his squadron of the Guides, a corps with a long and proud history that was raised after the defeat of the Sikh Army in 1848. If his squadron cut due west through the treacherous marshes of the Quattra Depression, there was enough fuel to get within 160 kms of Cario and radio for assistance. There were little known tracks through this 18,000 sq km basin but they were difficult for even camels let alone tanks and wheeled vehicles.

Salt marshes of the Qattara Depression with a deceptive crust. Inset are Chevrolet trucks of the Long Range Desert Group at the Siwa Oasis

The vehicles of the British Eighth Army used a device called the Sun Compass to guide them through the desert. During the Second World War it was also used by ships and aircrafts because it did not have the drawback of a magnetic compass which cannot be used from a moving vehicle or a tank as the mass of metal gives an error in the reading. The shadow of a steel pin (or gnomon) on a dial calibrated for different latitudes indicated the direction of the north. Once the north was established, the required bearing was set with a needle on a 360º dial. Assisted by the stars, the Sun Compass could also be used at night. There were many designs of the Sun (or Solar) and the type that the Pakistan Army inherited on Independence was the all-steel Abrams Solar Compass.

Using the Sun Compass to guide them through 400 difficult kilometres of the depression, the squadron arrived behind the Alamein position at Abu Mena much to the consternation of Auchinleck’s staff. The British right flank at Alamein rested on the sea and its left 64 kms to the south, on the hitherto “impassable 99 quicksand’s of the Qattara Depression”. The impassable had been now breached but luckily by their own troops. A lot of secret information about the Eighth Army leaked out to the Germans from Cairo and Plunkett’s feat was given a “most secret” label, to prevent Rommel becoming aware of it. However, Plunkett’s reward was for his squadron to star in a documentary titled ‘E Boats of the Desert’.

One member of ‘B’ Squadron who accompanied them during this entire period including the trek back, was the squadron mascot ‘Dumba Singh’—born of a ration sheep while the squadron was in Kurdistan. It eventually returned with the squadron to India.

The Sun Compass

Postscript: In 1980 my brother-in-law Brig Jafar Khan of the Guides visited Plunkett at Dunsany Castel and was shown the sun compass that the Baron used in his epic journey.