Laurence Rees: Sam Bradshaw was one of the famous ‘desert rats’ – British soldiers who served in North Africa during the war, with the Seventh Armoured division, part of the Eighth Army. And as he vividly recalls he also fought alongside troops from the British Commonwealth and empire. Something which caused problems at a holding camp he was first stationed at in Africa.
Words of Sam Bradshaw: There was one big NAFI in this camp, it was a big wooden building which was quite good, you could go and get what you called a Banjo, which was a chicken sandwich, and marvellous, and a cup of tea. And we started using this, and we noticed that none of the Indians went in. And one chap said to me, why don’t the Indians go in? And I said I don’t know, maybe they don’t like the food or something. So we asked one of these regulars who came from India; he said they’re not allowed, they’re not allowed to eat with British troops. And we said why not? He said, Indian Army orders, they’re not allowed. We said, well, we’re not in the damned Indian Army, we’re in the British Army. So all these lads said we think this is a bit unfair, these fellows, we knew we were going to the front, you see, these fellows are going to die with us and they can’t have a cup of tea or eat with us? So we refused to go in the NAFI, we all sat outside. And you can imagine these officers pink in the face, we all sat outside the NAFI. And this orderly officer came and said, now, what’s wrong with them? Well, we think the Indians should be allowed. No they can’t. Under the British Raj system the Colonial troops can’t eat with the British troops.
And then this fellow came, he was a Colonel, you see, and he was on a horse this fellow, he came up. He said, I’m giving you an order. So we all went in the NAFI and we wouldn’t buy anything, we just sat at the tables. They can make you go in the NAFI but they can’t make you spend your money. So we wouldn’t buy anything. So the NAFI manager then went and said the soldiers won’t buy any food, you see. So they negotiated. What we did then, we bought the food for the Indians and took it outside and sat outside with the Indians and ate with the Indians.
Laurence Rees: During one of his first encounters with the enemy, Sam Bradshaw came across a wounded African soldier, who’d been fighting alongside the Italians.
Words of Sam Bradshaw: There was a fellow inside, Eritrean soldier. He was badly hurt, poor lad, he was crushed. And there was bubbles of blood coming out of his mouth, and we carried him and put him down and he was conscious and he was saying, “Nien To Mussolini, not Mussolini. Christian, Christian, Christian, Jesus.” And he had, a crucifix, I said, here, he’s Christian, he’s not a Muslim. Coz the Italians were very good at converting people, you know. And then we made him comfortable and he showed us a picture of his wife and two kids, and we felt we’ll wait and get him to the medics, as soon as we get it organised a bit, the medics will come in. And this young officer came along, I didn’t know the officers then coz I’d only joined them. Who it was I don’t know, he was only a one pipper. And he came along and, and he looked very smart, and he came along and he said, what are you doing with this man here? We said, he’s badly wounded, sir, we’re looking after him. “Well, shoot him. Shoot him if he’s badly wounded.” And I thought that was so callous. And this lad who was with me he was from Chatterton and he was like Mickey Rooney, he was a comical sort of bloke, and we only carried pistols in the tank regiment you see, and he took his pistol out and he said to the officer: “If you tell me to shoot this man I’ll bloody shoot you sir.” And he disappeared, just went, never come near us again.
Laurence Rees: Then in October 1942, Sam and his comrades took part in one of the most famous battles of the war, at El Alamein.
Words of Sam Bradshaw: You’ve got to understand that apart from Tobruk where we defended for nine months, El Alamein was the only defensive line that we had. You can’t have a defensive line in the desert, you can go for hundreds of miles - you’d have to have the population of the world digging in because it can keep coming round you, this is what Rommel kept doing. So all they had until that time was what they called boxes, defensive boxes linked, because you couldn’t possibly have a defensive line. But Al Alamein was a different situation. In the North you’ve got the sea and in the South you’ve got the Gutwara Depression which is impassable, so that was a natural defensive line and you’ve 38 miles to defend. In the tank when you’re waiting it’s the worst time, particularly if you’ve been in action before. You’re not exhilarated with the thrill because, because you, you know what it’s like, it’s like a meat grinder, you know.
And the first time I went and did this I used to think of home and picture my avenue and my home and I’d think will I ever walk there again? And I found out it was no good, it was destructive, so I stopped doing this, and I trained myself not to do this, think of something else. So what I used to do then was go over the crews duty, the driver, the gunner, the wireless operator and, and then my own duties, and in my mind has that been done, has that been done, has that been done? And then finally I’d think of the orders, the briefing. Give credit to Montgomery, before Montgomery came we used to go into battle and not know the hell what we were doing, we were not told, only the officers, we weren’t intelligent enough to know, you see. But Montgomery insisted that every man was told, and so at El Alamein I’d done this exercise, I sat and went over the order of the day, and Montgomery, his briefing was massive. But I remember this, what I call the Nelson touch, when he said that every officer and man be of stout heart with the determination to win this battle. Let no man who is unwounded surrender, and may god, who he himself is mighty in battle, give us the victory. That was his final message. And I realised then, and Montgomery had said we fight here and we die here, we don’t go back. We don’t, there’s no, no retreat. We knew then, and we’d realised how important it was to the people back home, you know.
Laurence Rees: On the night of the 23rd of October 1942, a huge artillery barrage signaled the start of the battle and, shortly afterwards, units of the Eighth army attempted to clear the vast minefields the Germans had placed in front of their lines
Words of Sam Bradshaw: It would be the early hours of the morning, this mine lifting party went through from the Queen’s Brigade, and Royal Engineers. A mine lifting party, it was a terrible job. You have an Officer in Command walking in front and then you have two lines of men, they do the hand lifting. It’s a terrible job. And then you have tanks, what they call Scorpion tanks, and they have two arms, extended arms with a roller with chains on and they’re flailing. They’re called Flail tanks. And they’d beat the ground. So they, they were the first to go in. The intention was to make gaps through the first minefield, Our orders were sort of twofold, one was to penetrate as far as possible, but mainly to hold them, keep them occupied so that they couldn’t be used up North where the main thrust was coming. And the second order was that keep the tanks as long as you can, you know, preserve your tanks.
We went into the minefield, we came under heavy fire, we were told to get out quick, which is not easy, you have to reverse out, you see. We lost 31 tanks that night. And then for three days virtually we were just there, we were being shelled incessantly, very accurate shelling most of the time, just sitting. As long as we had the other side there, that was all we had to do. It was a terrible situation, we were just hanging about. We were told to leave the position, leave a holding force, which was mostly Infantry and Artillery, and then proceed all along the 38 mile line to the North and then go through the minefield gaps which they’d got through then. And so this, the third day this is what we did. And when we got there there was that many troops trying to get through we were queuing up like bus queues. We got through with the Twenty-Second Armoured Brigade and then we went into action. This was a hunt and kill. And there was a terrific battle going on, and we came in contact with a corps of three divisions, mostly Italian. And we wiped them out virtually, wiped them out and just took them for six. It’s very confusing in the desert because it’s very difficult to sometimes identify who is an enemy tank and who isn’t. And we have identifying signals, you see, we have a wireless mast and each day you have pennants on, and each day you change the pennants.
It could be green over red, red over blue, blue over yellow, so you more or less can tell by the pennants. But you haven’t got time in a tank battle, you’re, you’re just milling around, it’s something like hundreds of tanks across miles of desert virtually, and tanks are burning, fellows are walking about, chaps are crawling about, some chaps are lying wounded and you just fight your own individual battle.
Laurence Rees: When he eventually returned back home to Britain, Sam Bradshaw was shocked at what he found.
Words of Sam Bradshaw: My mother when I went to war had lovely brown hair and when I came home she had silver hair. Terrible shock. For some years I’d been dead and suddenly I’d come to life again, and all the friends I had, had gone. I used to go to all the familiar places I used to as a young man and I didn’t know anyone. And I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to stay at home, I wanted to go back. The war was still on. And it was Christmas, and people used to go to the pub and have a drink, and my family all went out and I went with them and, and I was in this pub and I didn’t feel I belonged.
And I went out of the pub and suddenly I broke down, I was crying terribly, you know, and I didn’t know what the hell was happening to me. I’m supposed to be a soldier and a hero and I’m crying like a kid, and I was so angry with myself. I went through a period which to me was like - it’s difficult to even try and think what it was like. I would wake up in the morning and I didn’t think I was alive, I’d think I was dead. And I used to speak out so that one of the family would turn round, so I’d know that I’m alive because they could hear me.