The 51st Highland Division at El Alamein

by Colonel David Murray

This past year saw the 60th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, that great battle fought in the Western Desert of Egypt in October/November of 1942. El Alamein is a wayside halt on the railway line some 50 miles west of Cairo. The adversaries were the British 8th Army commanded by Lt. General Bernard Montgomery, and the German Africa Korps and their Italian allies commanded by the brilliant and daring Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The 8th Army was comprised of troops from Australia, New Zealand, India and the United Kingdom, the latter including the 51st Highland Division.

Before World War II the 51st had been a Territorial Army division recruited in the Highlands and islands north of the Forth and Clyde valley. The Territorial Army was roughly equivalent to the National Guard in the United States, civilians in peace, soldiers in war. Mobilized at the outbreak of war in Sept. 1939, the 51st was deployed to France. On May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked. Their mechanized forces swept all before them in a classic blitzkrieg operation. In the general debacle the 51st carried out a fighting withdrawal across France until forced to surrender at St. Valery en Caux on the coast of the English Channel. The German formation to which Major General Victor Fortune, commanding the 51st, surrendered was the 7th Panzer Division commanded by Maj. General Erwin Rommel.

Just before World War II, each battalion of the Territorial Army had recruited a duplicate unit. In the Great War of 1914-18 Scotland generally, and the Highlands and Islands in particular, had suffered grievously, as a glance at the village and town war memorials will confirm. The majority had been killed serving at the front in their local regiment. However, the heart of the country was sound. The young men of Scotland believed that whatever our fathers had endured, we could endure also. The duplicate battalions were soon up to strength. The 51st had been reactivated by incorporating these duplicate battalions.

El Alamein was to be the reformed 51st Highland Division's first battle. The Division Commander was Maj. Gen. Douglas Wimberley. Although educated in England, he was a Scotsman to the core, steeped in the history of Scotland and the Highlands and known affectionately as "Tartan Tam". A Cameron Highlander, he had "gripped" the 51st, trained it and had encouraged and stimulated a separate and independent spirit and morale. As an experienced soldier of the Great War, he know only too well how essential it was that the 51st should get off to a good start, both for its own sake and for the sake of Scotland and the Scottish people. The spectre of St. Valery had to be exorcised. "Tam" Wimberley loved the pipes. Angus MacDonald from North Uist, a piper in the 5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders, was General Wimberley's personal piper and bodyguard.

Wimberley planned the 51st's part in the battle in meticulous and painstaking detail. The Division was comprised of three brigades: The 152nd Brigade consisted of the 2nd and 5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders; the 153rd included the 5th battalion Black Watch and the 1st and 5/7th Battalion Gordon Highlanders; and the 154th had the 1st and 7th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This gave rise to the wisecrack, "One battalion of Camerons/Argylls equals two battalions of Seaforth/Gordons or three battalions of Black Watch."

The 153 and 154 Brigades were each allotted a sector of the attack and each battalion was given different objectives within it. These were strong points held by the Germans and Italians that had to be eliminated so that the tanks could pass through. The objectives were code-named after well-known places in the regiment's home country. The Black Watch, formerly the 42nd Highlanders, the "Auld Forty Twa", the "Black Watch of the battles, first in the fight and last to leave," recruited in the counties of Perth, Angus and Fife, and the City of Dundee. Thus the 1st Battalion took on Comrie, Killin, Crief and Perth.

The 5th Black Watch from Angus was told to capture Montrose, Forfar and Arbroath. The 7th Black Watch, a Fifeshire battalion, was allocated Kirkcaldy and Dundee. The Gordon Highlanders' home counties were Aberdeenshire, Banff and Kincardine. The 1st Gordons' objectives were Kintore, Braemar and Dufftown, while the 5/7th Gordons had Cruden, Turriff, Insch and Strichen to deal with. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders based in Stirling recruited in that county and also in Renfrewshire south of the Clyde. The 7th Argylls was allocated Renfrew, Paisley and Greenock. The 5th Camerons had a preliminary task to capture the strong point code-named Inverness, the regiment's hometown. The 7th Black Watch would pass through Inverness on the way to their own objectives.

Each company was to be played into action by its piper. This old custom had been discontinued after the early battles of the Great War, when heavy casualties among the pipers meant that the regimental Pipe Bands had ceased to exist. They had been reformed in 1915, but had been kept out of the front line so that they were available to lead their battalions on the march to and from the trenches. At El Alamein the pipers were given specific tunes to play, usually the company marches. These varied according to the battalion, from "The Nut Brown Maiden" and "The Black Bear" through tunes like "The Atholl Highlanders" and "Scotland the Brave" to "Lord Alexander Kennedy," a formidably difficult tune to play at regulation marching speed, and difficult for a novice to play at all.

The battle began at twenty to ten - 2140 in army terms - on October 23, 1942. It opened with an intense artillery bombardment from more than 800 guns. Twenty minutes later the assaulting infantry crossed the Start Line.

The enemy reacted swiftly, initially with intense artillery defensive fire and as the Infantry approaced their objectives, with heavy and accurate machine gun fire. All accounts describe how the pipers strode forward, apparently unconcerned, through the dust raised by the bursting enemy shells. An officer of the 1st Black Watch recalled, "The few pipers we had were playing their companies forward all the time. I had the greatest difficulty in preventing the Pipe Corporal from walking into the anti-personnel trip wires which you could generally see in the moonlight." A 5th Black Watch officer wrote, "The bit I left out was about the company pipers who played us across No Man's Land. They were very good, quite oblivious of the hell going on around them." The 5th Seaforth was one of the two battalions securing the Start Line. One officer wrote, "Then we saw a sight that will live forever in our memories. Line upon line of steel helmeted figures with rifles at the 'High Port', bayonets catching the moonlight and over all the wailing of the pipes." Another 5th Seaforth account relates how the pipers played "Highland Laddie" as the battalion attacked later in the night and how "we were gripped with an indefinable pride in our division."

The 5th Camerons' task was to secure Inverness so that 7th Black Watch could pass through. The Camerons advanced with the pipers playing in the lead. One company commander recalls how his company piper, Donald Macpherson from Broadford, Isle of Skye, had been ordered to play "The Inverness Gathering" during the advance. A good tune, maybe, but not particularly inspiring, so Donald soon broke into "The Cameron Men," which saw the company on to their objective. The 7th Black Watch then appeared through the dusty moonlight. It was clear that, in the regimental tradition, the Black Watch blood was up from their battle cries and shouted slogans. To ensure that the Camerons were not mistaken for Germans, Donald was ordered to play "Pibroch o' Donald Dubh" which luckily the Black Watch recognized. The 7th Argylls' history, written by Capt. Iain C. Cameron of Islay, tells how "Paisley" was mopped up with the piper playing the regimental charge "Monymusk", while "A" company piper played "Blue Bonnets" during the advance.

Inevitably there were casualties among the pipers. The 5th Black Watch history tells how "A" company approached their objective, "Montrose", their piper, Duncan MacIntyre, playing in their centre. Suddenly he was hit, but carried on playing, breaking into the regimental march, "Highland Laddie" as the assault went in. He was hit again and died, still playing. The next morning Duncan was found with his pipes still under his arm, his fingers on the chanter. Pipe Major Malcolm MacLachlan of the 7th Argylls was killed, as was Piper Donald Macpherson, 5th Camerons, the next morning. Piper Donald MacLeod of the 2nd Seaforth was killed on the last day of the battle. Others were wounded and missing. but after much hard and bitter fighting over the next fortnight, the Germans and Italians gave the British best and withdrew.

As far as can be established, the Pipe Majors of the Black Watch at the battle were Alan Watters of the 1st, Alec Herd of the 5th, and William Davidson of the 7th, who belonged to Lochgelly in Fife. The Pipe Major of the 2nd Seaforth was Donald "Snowy" MacLeod of Stornoway. With the 5th Seaforth was the bearded Gordon Asher. "Cherry" Anderson led the 1st Gordons' pipers, with James MacGregor heading those of the 5/7th. He had been promoted from Pipe Sergeant on the day before the battle when Robert Brown, his predecessor, had been evacuated sick. Both James MacGregor and Robert Brown had been in Royal service at Balmoral Castle on Deeside as stalkers and fishing ghillies. In 1944, Robert returned to the Highland Division as Pipe Major of the 1st Gordons. His name is still one to conjure with in piping circles. The 5th Camerons' Pipe Major was John Ross, soon to be succeeded by Roderick White*, killed at the Battle of Mareth a few months later. Angus MacDonald, the General's piper, succeeded him. After the war, Angus became Pipe Major of the world famous Glasgow Police Pipe Band and retired as Chief Inspector. Alexander "Ned" Campbell of the 5th Camerons was decorated for his work as a stretcher-bearer, as was Jock Smith, later a noted wrestler, who succeeded Malcolm MacLachlan as Pipe Major of the 7th Argylls. Ned had grown a beard by order of his Commanding Officer. This led to much argument about who really was "The Bearded Piper of El Alamein", much mentioned in the press reports - Gordon Asher or Ned Campbell. At the time, such matters were taken seriously. The Highland regiments presented a united front to the rest of the Army, but behind the tartan curtain, regimental rivalry flourished.

After the battle, a competition was held in Scotland for a tune inspired by the battle, to be called "The Battle of El Alamein". The winning entry, a four-part 6/8 march, was composed by Pipe Major Willie Denholm of the King's Own Scottish Borderers. Since his death, some confusion has arisen over whether it should be played as a march in quick time, as it was composed, or as a slow march verging on a lament. The former option is correct. Several other "El Alamein" tunes followed, only to lapse into obscurity over the years, a fate that befalls tunes whose significance becomes dim with the passage of time.

The losses at El Alamein were sorely felt, and it was decided that all pipers and drummers should be concentrated at Divisional Headquarters. Out of the line, each battalion had access to its own Pipe Band as and when required. The massed Pipes and Drums paraded to general acclamation whenever appropriate, as when the 8th Army was reviewed at Tripoli by Winston Churchill, and when the Allies held a Victory parade in Tunis at the conclusion of the North African campaign. The 51st fought in North West Europe from D-Day until the German surrender in May, 1945. Among the German troops that surrendered to the 51st Highland Division was the 7th Panzer Division. The wheel had turned full circle.

Little was recorded at the time about the pipers' part in the battle. Much of the foregoing has been based on accounts in regimental histories and on personal recollection by surviving veterans of the battle. One told me, "To be honest, I was too busy trying to stay alive to notice the pipers!"

from "The Highlander", Jan./Feb. 2003

* According to Kim Keil, great-niece of Roderick William White, his death took place on 23rd March 1943, when "he had his silver and ivory pipes blown out of his hand when someone trod on a land mine and took him with them." - the Official 51 Highland Division Website and Online Museum - Read our detailed History and browse photographs, maps and personal accounts from those who fought with the 51HD.

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