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The Second Battle of El Alamein

The Second Battle of El Alamein


While bagpipes were common on the front lines of the First World War they were almost unheard of during the Second World War. One of the main reasons for this were the high casualty rates among pipers in the first war; another being the types of weapons and tactics used. During the North African Campaign of World War II, bagpipers led the troops on a few occasions. The Second Battle of El Alamein finally ended this practice.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was part of the North African Campaign of WWII. The North African Campaign started on 10 June, 1940 although the ground work for the battles had been in place for a long time.

Great Britain had considerable interests in Egypt since the early 1830s. Egypt was a protectorate of Great Britain during the World War I. They continued to station troops there until the 1950s, mainly to protect their interests in the Suez Canal, which was the main connection to British interests in India.

Italy had large interests in Lybia. In 1911, the Kingdom of Italy was at war with the Ottoman Empire and seized Lybia as a colony. From then until the start of WWII a large number of Italians settled in Lybia. Italy also invested heavily in Lybian infrastructure.

On 10 June 1940, Italy formally aligned itself with Nazi Germany and declared war on the United Kingdom and France. On June 22, 1940, France signed the Second Armistice at Compiegne. This ended French hostilities with Germany and the Kingdom of Italy. This allowed Italy to move troops who were fighting French forces in Tunisia into eastern Lybia.

Following a series of skirmishes, Italy invaded Egypt in September of 1940. The British launched a counter offensive in December which almost wiped out the Italian forces. The German Afrika Korps, under Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, were sent to reinforce the remaining Italian forces in February of 1941.

The British Commonwealth forces continued to battle the Germans and Italians until May of 1943. The United States entered the Campaign in late 1942 but the turning point in North Africa was the Second Battle of El Alamein.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was actually a series of battles from October 23 to November 11, 1942. The battles took place around the railroad heads near El Alamein. The British Allied forces faced off with the Germain Afrika Korps.

The German forces dug in near El Alamein in late July. Generalfeldmarschall Rommel was trying to regroup his forces after a long series of battles with the British. Rommel created a defensive position to the east of the Alamein railhead. This position with an estimated 500,000 mines. The majority of these were anti-tank mines.

The British forces used this time to build up their forces. The British supply lines were shorter allowing them to quickly outnumber the axis armies in men and material.

The plan was for the British forces to send infantry through the minefield, because they were too light to set off the anti-tank mines. They were to create bridgeheads at a weak points in the German lines. Engineers and sappers would follow clearing mines and marking paths for the tanks.

The allied forces in the battle were the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 9th Australian Division, the 1st South African Division, and the 51st Highland Division.

The 51st Highland Division contained battalions from the Seaforth Highlanders, The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, the Black Watch, the Gordon Highlanders, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The attack started around 11pm on the night of October 23, 1942. It started with an artillery barrage of almost 1,000 guns. The shelling lasted for five and a half hours with almost 530,000 rounds fired. After 20 minutes of general bombardment, the artillery started targeting specific axis positions to support the British advance.

The battalions moved through the minefields by regiments. They advanced in a line a mile and a half wide with the soldiers keeping about five meters between them to reduce the effects of machine gun fire. The darkness made it difficult to stay in formation and to stay with their regiments.

Because of the darkness and the smoke and sand in the air from the artillery, the soldiers could hardly see the men on either side of them. Almost every group of the 51st Battalion was assigned a piper. The pipers played regimental tunes so the members of each regiment could stay in formation.

Members of the Gordon Highlanders advanced with the 5th Battalion Black Watch and their piper. The Black Watch cleared the minefield and allowed the Gordon's to pass through to start making defensive machine guns positions.

As they dug in, they came under fire from a german sniper. A few members of the Gordons were sent out and found the sniper but lost their way back in the dark. They heard the piper playing "Monymusk," the B company march. This allowed them to find their way back.

Another company of the Black Watch was accompanied by Piper Duncan MacIntyre of the Black Watch. At one point of the advance, his company came upon a German machine gun nest. As they approached, MacIntyre, who was playing "Highland Laddie," the regimental march, was wounded.

He continued playing during the assault until he was again shot and fatally wounded. It is said he continued to play until he ran out of breath. The next morning his body was found with his pipes under his arm and his hands on his chanter.

In many of the groups the bagpipers were at the head of the regiments. There are also reports of them walking and playing beside the tanks. As a result the bagpipers suffered high casualty rates during the battle. After the battle, and for the rest of the war, bagpipers were delegated to positions behind the front lines.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was the last time bagpipers officially led troops into battle. There were a few instances of bagpipers used later in WWII, most notably during the invasion of Normandy, but these were in an unofficial capacity.

The British forces eventually won the battle and it became the turning point in the North African Campaign. The German and Italian forces were put on the defensive, falling back to the west. In early November of 1942, American and British forces landed in western North Africa. This effectively trapped the axis forces between two armies.

In May of 1943, Axis forces in Africa surrendered, although some axis forces retreated to Italy. The end of the North African Campaign created a large pool of seasoned and experienced allied forces who would help train and lead during the invasion of Europe. This included a number of pipers, who would continue to play for their regiments, albeit in reduced unofficial capacities, during the remainder of the war.

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David Lairson David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.