Filed under: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Desert Rats, Heroes Return 2, Italy
Len Burritt, 92, will journey to Egypt later this year to visit some of the places that he served in with the 7th Armoured Division – known historically as the ‘Desert Rats’.
This legendary division fought in every major battle during the North African Campaign and helped swing the war, at a pivotal point, in the Allies favour.
After joining the army at the age of 18 in 1936, he formed part of a Wireless troop controlling communications for a new formation to be known as The Mobile Desert Division (Egypt) – later renamed the 7th Armoured Division.
He recalls: “I joined the army at a young age but I wasn’t particularly nervous about the prospect of doing so. I’d worked all my life on farms and wanted a change of scenery, so at that age, when you felt as though you’re ready to take on the world, worry didn’t really come into it.
“I served as a wireless operator with the 7th Armoured Division, using Morse Code to pass on key communications from north Africa to places as far afield as Hong Kong, Palestine and India. Eight different generals were in command during the campaign and I was the personal wireless operator for the first five of them. As a result, I became one of the most informed chaps out there and would often be briefing our commanders on troop positions in the middle of the desert.”
Len worked from Armoured Command Vehicles (ACVs) – the nerve centres for the Division, positioned just behind the forward troops. As he mentions, in many of the battles that he saw action, there was no ‘front line’ as such and elaborate camouflage was often needed to divert enemy attention away from their vital radio equipment.
On many occasions he accompanied his commanding officers deep into raging battles, travelling in the relative ‘safety’ of their personal armoured cars. They would do battle with the elements as well as the enemy, and after one ferocious sandstorm Len found he had sand trapped behind his eyes which meant a lengthy operation and two weeks in cumbersome bandages.
“Operating long shifts as a wireless operator was both mentally and physically taxing,” he continues. “You had to have your mind completely focused on the task at hand while being aware of your surroundings and position. During the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941, I was in our ACV for four days and nights with almost no rest at all. One shift was often quickly followed by another so you just had to get used to it. The ‘crack, crack, crack’ of bullets bouncing off the armour plating became commonplace.”
As well as being an expert in communications, relaying accurate Morse Code messages in cramped, sweltering conditions, Len was also trained in the use of the Bren guns and anti-tank weapons mounted on his armoured vehicles – his teacher being Major Gott, who later became a renowned lieutenant general. In close combat with both German and Italian forces, Len recalls a particularly bizarre attack by a low-flying plane.
“I remember quite clearly an attack on our convoy by the Italian Air Force. As the pilot swooped down low there was no burst of gunfire as there had been many times before – we were used to the threat of flak. On this occasion he simply opened the cockpit window and threw a mechanic’s wrench at us instead. The pilot’s action was his undoing, as Corporal Burgon of the BEM shot him down using an anti-tank rifle, firing from the hip. I’m not sure how he managed it, but he was as strong as a horse. The memory of it sticks with me to this very day.”
Surviving the desert’s inhospitable conditions, Len landed on the Salerno beaches during the invasion of Italy and the Normandy beaches during the D-Day Landings (6 June 1944). During the war he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major and was involved in over 100 front line battles in 15 different countries before being demobbed in May 1946.
During his journey back to Egypt, Len will visit memorials and cemeteries marking the sacrifice made by those who fought and did not return from battle. He will also visit some of the places in which he was stationed.
“I’m looking forward to going back and seeing some of the places in which I served,” Len concludes. “They have changed immeasurably since I was there with the Desert Rats but the memories of that time still remain strong.”
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