Interpreting Egypt’s War Cemeteries – Holders of the Victoria Cross (WW2)

To conclude my previous post on Egypt’s V.C burials  we shall now look at the holders of the remaining five awards cited during the course of the Western Desert campaigns of WW2, the recipients being three members of the Australian Infantry, a member of the Durham Light Infantry and a member of the General Staff.

WX10426 Private Percival Eric Gratwick V.C

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Date of Death: Between 25/10/1942 and 26/10/1942, Age 40

Regiment/Service: Australian Infantry, A.I.F, 2/48 Bn

Grave Reference: XXII.A.6, El Alamein War Cemetery

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Percival Gratwick joined the 2/48th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force and served in Egypt and Libya during the North African campaign. On the night of 25th/26th October 1942, his unit attacked German positions on the Miteiriya Ridge. The  platoon took heavy casualties and, with no regard for personal safety, he charged several German positions, saving the other men and enabling the capture of their objective.  Sadly he was killed in the fighting and posthumously received the Victoria Cross.

His citation in the London Gazette of 28th January, 1943 gave the following details:

‘During an attack at Miteiriya Ridge on the night 25th-26th October, 1942, Private Gratwick’s platoon was directed at strong enemy positions, but its advance was stopped by intense fire at short range which killed the platoon commander, the platoon serjeant and many others, reducing the platoon strength to seven. Private Gratwick, acting on his own initiative and with utter disregard for his own safety, charged the nearest post and completely destroyed the enemy with hand grenades. He charged a second post, from which the heaviest fire had been directed, and inflicted further casualties, but was killed within striking distance of his objective. By his brave and determined action, Private Gratwick’s company was enabled to move forward and mop up its objective. His unselfish courage, his gallant and determined efforts against the heaviest opposition changed a doubtful situation into the successful capture of his company’s final objective’

WX9858 Private Arthur Stanley Gurney V.C

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Date of Death: 22/07/1942, Age 33

Regiment/Service: Australian Infantry, A.I.F, 2/48 Bn

Grave Reference: XVI.H.21, El Alamein War Cemetery

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Arthur Gurney was 33 years old, and a Private in the 2/48th Battalion A.I.F when he was posthumously awarded the VC  for his actions during the first Battle of El Alamein at Tel-el-Eisa, Egypt. The battalion were subjected to intense machine gun fire inflicting heavy casualties which included most of the Units command structure. Private Gurney, realizing the seriousness of the situation, charged the nearest machine-gun post, silencing the guns and bayoneting three of the crew. He bayoneted two more at a second post before a grenade knocked him down. Picking himself up, he charged a third post and disappeared from view. Later, his comrades, whose advance he had made possible, found his body.

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The Desert Grave of Private Arthur Gurney

His citation in the London Gazette of 8th September, 1942, gave the following details:

‘During an attack on strong German positions at Tell-El-Eisa on 22nd July, 1942, the company to which Private Gurney belonged was held up by intense enemy fire. Heavy casualties were suffered, all the officers being killed or wounded. Private Gurney without hesitation charged and silenced two machine-gun posts. At this stage he was knocked down by a stick grenade, but recovered and charged a third post, using his bayonet with great vigour. His body was found later in an enemy post. By this single-handed act of gallantry in the face of a determined enemy, Private Gurney enabled his company to press forward to its objective. The successful outcome of this engagement was almost entirely due to his heroism at the moment when it was needed’

Private Gurney’s medal group, including his Victoria Cross, is on permanent display at the Australian War Memorial.

SX7089 Sergeant William Henry Kibby V.C

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Date of Death: 31/10/1942, Age 39

Regiment/Service: Australian Infantry, A.I.F, 2/48 Bn

Grave Reference: XVI.A.18, El Alamein War Cemetery

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William Kibby was born in County Durham, England. In early 1914, the family emigrated to Adelaide where Bill attended Mitcham Public School. After leaving school he was employed at a Plasterworks where he designed and fixed plaster decorations. In 1926, he married Mabel Sarah Bidmead Morgan and had two daughters. Although diminutive in stature William was a strong man who loved outdoor activities. William joined the A.I.F during Second World War. In 1942 and served as a Sergeant with the 2/48th Battalion during the campaigns in North Africa.

In 1942 during the October phase of the Battle of El Alamein William distinguished himself through his skill in leading a platoon after his commander had been killed during the initial attack at Meteiriya Ridge. On 23 October, he charged a machine gun position killing three enemy soldiers, capturing 12 others and taking the position. His company commander intended to recommend him for the D.S.O after this action, but was killed. During the following days, Kibby moved among his men directing fire and cheering them on. He mended his platoon’s telephone line several times under intense fire. On 30–31 October, the platoon came under intense machine gun and mortar fire. Most of them were killed or wounded. In order to achieve his company’s objective, Kibby moved forward alone, to within a few metres of the enemy, throwing grenades to destroy them. Just as his success in this endeavour appeared certain, he was killed.

His citation read:

‘On 23rd October 1942, during the attack on Meteiriya Ridge, the commander of Serjeant Kibby’s platoon was killed, and he assumed command. The platoon had to attack strong enemy positions holding up the advance of their Company. Without thought for his personal safety, Serjeant Kibby dashed forward firing his tommy-gun. This courageous lead resulted in the complete silencing of the enemy fire. On 26th October, under heavy and concentrated enemy artillery attack, Serjeant Kibby not only moved constantly from section to section cheering the men and directing their fire, but several times went out and restored the line of communication. On the night of 30th-31st October, again undeterred by withering enemy fire which mowed down his platoon, Serjeant Kibby pressed on towards the objective. Finally he went forward alone throwing grenades to destroy the last pocket of resistance, then only a few yards away, and was killed. Such outstanding courage, tenacity of purpose and devotion to duty was entirely responsible for the successful capture of the Company’s objective. His work was an inspiration to all and he left behind him an example and memory of a soldier who fearlessly and unselfishly fought to the end to carry out his duty’

His Victoria Cross was awarded posthumously and is displayed at the Australian War Memorial.

4270383 Private Adam Herbert Wakenshaw V.C

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Date of Death: 27/06/1942, Age 28

Regiment/Service: Durham Light Infantry, 9th Bn

Grave Reference: XXXII. D. 9, El Alamein War Cemetery

In 1942 Private Wakenshaw was fighting in North Africa as part of a DLI anti-tank gun crew when enemy guns came within range. They attempted to destroy Wakenshaw’s anti-tank gun in order to advance and attack the British Infantry. The first German gun’s progress was stopped, but a second German gun killed or seriously wounded the DLI crew, including Wakenshaw, who lost his left arm. Despite this, he managed to fire five rounds and halt both German guns, before he was killed by a direct hit. His actions gave the nearby British Infantry enough time to safely withdraw, and for his self-sacrifice he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The London Gazette, dated the 8th September, 1942, gave the following details:

‘On the 27th June, 1942, south of Mersa Matruh, Private Wakenshaw was a member of the crew of a 2-pounder anti-tank gun. An enemy tracked vehicle towing a light gun came within short range. The gun crew opened fire and succeeded in immobilising the enemy vehicle. Another mobile gun came into action, killed or seriously wounded the crew manning the 2-pounder, including Private Wakenshaw, and silenced the 2-pounder. Under intense fire, Private Wakenshaw crawled back to his gun. Although his left arm was blown off, he loaded the gun with one arm and fired five more rounds, setting the tractor on fire and damaging the light gun. A direct hit on the ammunition finally killed him and destroyed the gun. This act of conspicuous gallantry prevented the enemy from using their light gun on the infantry Company which was only 200 yards away. It was through the self sacrifice and courageous devotion to duty of this infantry anti-tank gunner that the Company was enabled to withdraw and to embus in safety’

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‘Private A.H Wakenshaw’ 1943, The National Archives, Catalogue Ref: INF 3/455

Major General John Charles (Jock) Campbell V.C, D.S.O, M.C

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Date of Death: 26/02/1942, Age 48

Regiment/Service: General Staff, Cdg 7th Armd Div and Royal Artillery

Grave Reference: K171, The Cairo War Memorial Cemetery

Major General Campbell was born in Thurso. Commissioned into the Royal Horse Artillery he became a career soldier, joining the Royal Horse Artillery and became a first class horseman, excelling in both polo and hunting. 

When World War II started, Campbell was 45 years old and a major commanding a battery in the 4th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery in Egypt. When Italy declared war in June 1940, Campbell, by then a lieutenant-colonel, was commanding the artillery component of 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group under Brigadier William Gott. The British Army was heavily outnumbered by the Italians, so General Archibald Wavell formulated a plan with his senior commanders to retain the initiative by harassing the enemy using mobile all-arms flying columns. Campbell’s brilliant command of one of these columns led to them being given the generic name “Jock columns” (although it is unclear if the idea originated with Campbell or not).

During Operation Compass Campbell’s guns played an important role in 7th Support Group’s involvement in the decisive battle at Beda Fomm in February 1941 which led to the surrender of the Italian Tenth Army. In April 1941 Campbell was awarded the DSO.

In February 1942 when Gott was promoted to lead XIII Corps Campbell was promoted to the rank of Major General and given command of 7th Armoured Division. He was killed three weeks later when his jeep, driven by his Aide-de-Camp, Major Roy Farran overturned on a newly laid clay road surface. Major Farran, who was thrown clear in the process, later admitted that he had considered suicide whilst awaiting rescue. During the Western Desert Campaign Campbell was considered to be one of foremost commanders in the Eight Army, an old desert hand who had been in North Africa from the start of the war. His loss was deeply felt by the soldiers of the Eighth Army.

I’m very fond of the following description of him:

He led his tanks into action riding in an open armoured car, and as he stood there hanging onto its windscreen, a huge well built man with the English officers stiff good looks , he shouted ‘There they come, let them have it’ . When the car began to fall behind, he leapt onto the side of a tank as it went forward and directed the battle from there … they say that Campbell won the V.C half a dozen times that day. The men loved this Elizabethan figure. He was the reality of all the pirate yarns and tales of high adventure, and in the extremes of fear and courage he had only courage. He went laughing into the fighting’ 

The following particulars regarding his actions at Sidi Rezegh were given in “The London Gazette,” of 30th January, 1942:

In recognition of most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Sidi Rezegh, in Libya. On 21st November 1941 Brigadier Campbell was commanding a small force holding important ground in the area of Sidi Rezegh Ridge and Aerodrome. The force was repeatedly attacked by large numbers of tanks and infantry. Wherever the situation was most difficult and the fighting hardest Brigadier Campbell was to be seen with his forward troops either on foot or in an open car. In this car he carried out several reconnaissances for counter attacks and formed up tanks, under close and intense fire. The following day the enemy attacks were intensified. Brigadier Campbell was always in the forefront of the heaviest fighting, encouraging his troops, staging counter-attacks and personally controlling the fire of his guns. During the final enemy onslaught he was wounded but continued most actively in the foremost positions, controlling the fire of batteries which inflicted heavy losses on enemy tanks at close range. Throughout these two days his magnificent example and his utter disregard of personal danger were an inspiration to his men and to all who saw him. His brilliant leadership was the direct cause of the very heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy. In spite of his wound he refused to be evacuated and remained with his command where his outstanding bravery and consistent determination had a marked effect in maintaining the splendid fighting spirit of those under him’

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Military History, Antiquities and the New Suez Canal

To coincide with the inauguration of the new Suez Canal the Ministry of Antiquities have recently organised several events to mark the occasion.

News of interest is the commissioning of a new Museum in the Kantara area which will focus upon  Egypt’s military history from the Pharaonic to more contemporary periods.

In a recent interview with Ahram Weekly Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, the coordinator of archaeological sites around the Suez Canal, confirmed that after the official opening of the new canal that the Ministry of Antiquities would start a major project to contextualise Egypt’s military history. This is likely to focus upon the development of the Horus Road which still retains physical evidence of its ancient fortresses and military structures. However this will include the refurbishment of seven archaeological sites at Kantara East and West which will be opened to the public on a long-term basis. Development of the area may facilitate easier access to the CWGC cemeteries in the Suez area subject to the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign Office.

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The Kantara War Memorial Cemetery – Image Source: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

In the early part of the First World War, Kantara was an important point in the defence of Suez against Turkish attacks and marked the starting point of the new railway east towards Sinai and Palestine, begun in January 1916. Kantara developed into a major base and hospital centre and the cemetery was begun in February 1916 for burials from the various hospitals, continuing in use until late 1920. After the Armistice, the cemetery was more than doubled in size when graves were brought in from other cemeteries and desert battlefields, notably those at Rumani, Qatia, El Arish and Rafa.

The Second World War again saw Kantara as a hospital centre. No 1 General Hospital was there from July 1941 to December 1945 and two others, Nos 41 and 92, were there in turn for varying periods. One of the major allied medical units in the area, No 8 Polish General Hospital, adjoined the war cemetery. The Cemetery contains 1,562 Commonwealth burials of the First World War and 110 from the Second World War. There are also 341 war graves of other nationalities in the cemetery, many of them made from the Polish hospital and concentrated in a distinct Polish extension.