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The Leading Edge: Americans at El Alamein

By Rachel S. Cox 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: November 05, 2012 
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By October 1942, the United States had been at war with Germany for nearly a year, yet American ground forces still hung back from the field. And in North Africa, where British and commonwealth troops had been locked since March 1941 in a deadly tango with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, the British Eighth Army had its back to the proverbial wall. Rommel and his Italian allies had their sights trained on Cairo—and beyond that the Suez Canal and vital British oil fields in the Middle East.

As the Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, dug in along the Alamein Line, a blasted stretch of desert just 60 miles west of Alexandria, Egypt, the United States was helping as it could. The Sherman tanks and self-propelled guns that U.S. Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall had promised to British prime minister Winston Churchill were finally arriving, giving Allied tankers something like parity against German panzers. Overhead, 100 American-made fighters and medium bombers had joined the assault on Axis troops, airfields, and communication lines.

And in the desert five young Americans were putting their lives on the line as platoon leaders with the King's Royal Rifle Corps. In June 1941, frustrated by their government's unwillingness to enter the fray, they had committed to the Allied cause all of America they could command: themselves. They had survived crossing the North Atlantic in a convoy, trained for nine months in England and been commissioned second lieutenants, and had traveled by merchant vessel and troopship to the theater of war. After nearly two more months of acclimatization and training, of flies in their tea and dust nearly everywhere, they at last found themselves poised for combat.

By the afternoon of October 23, the vast stony plane of the desert teemed with men and machinery. Operation Lightfoot, the Eighth Army's latest attack on the Alamein Line, was about to start. Forces equivalent to seven infantry divisions and three armored divisions were poised for the advance.

Near the southern end of the line, Jack Brister, a 22-year-old Dartmouth grad from Ambler, Pennsylvania, went over orders one last time with the British soldiers he commanded. As part of the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, Brister's platoon of motorized infantry would advance with the 7th Armoured Division—the famous Desert Rats—as they strove to penetrate formidable defenses and establish a bridgehead for tanks. Not far away, Brister's college classmate Bill Durkee, of Balboa Island, California, prepared his platoon to do the same.

The defenses truly were formidable: the forward enemy positions were situated within a miles-deep array of half a million antitank mines interspersed with antipersonnel devices, nicknamed Devil's Gardens by the Germans who installed them. Rommel's order to reinforce the Alamein Line had been his last command before returning to the Reich for sick leave on September 23.

The 7th Armoured's advance was intended to divert Axis firepower from Operation Lightfoot's main point of attack in the north. There, about 20 miles behind the British front line, three other young Americans in the 1st Armoured Division girded themselves for the coming conflict. Chuck Bolté hailed from Connecticut, and Heyward Cutting and Robert Cox from New Jersey. Like Brister and Durkee, they had taken the extraordinary step of enlisting in the King's Royal Rifle Corps six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. Bolté, too, was a Dartmouth man. Cox and Cutting went to Harvard.

The five Americans at El Alamein were the first of 18 Yanks to serve with the King's Royal Rifle Corps during World War II. The British regiment, also known as the 60th Rifles, was formed in the American colonies during the French and Indian War when the need for local knowledge and improvisational tactics inspired Parliament to allow colonists to serve as British soldiers. The regiment lost its American element, of course, with the War of Indepedence. But in 1941 the British unit used its history as a precedent for enlisting Americans to fight.

The five who signed up in June 1941 had varied motivations. Four had just graduated from college. Heyward Cutting, the exception, was only 19. Scion of an old and wealthy American industrial family, he had been raised in England after his father's early death and was anxious to rejoin friends there in their hour of peril.

Rob Cox had grown up on family stories of his ancestors' patriotic service—from founding father Roger Sherman to New York senator and secretary of state William M. Evarts (see "Finding Uncle Robbie," below). Of more immediate concern, Cox's draft number was near the top of the list. He had little appetite for joining an army that might never enter the war, and when he heard that he could join the British he jumped. "I love America, and I could not sit mediocre while America was being attacked," Cox wrote in a letter to his mother, to be opened in the event of his death. "For America is a faith and because it is a faith must be dynamic or perish."

In spring 1941, the three Dartmouth men had been high-profile supporters of intervention on campus, where debate raged about America's role. On April 24, infuriated by news photos of the Nazi flag flying over the Acropolis, Chuck Bolté penned an open letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the ringing refrain, "Now we have waited long enough." The Dartmouth daily newspaper ran Bolté's letter on page one, interventionist papers across America reprinted it, and New Jersey senator William H. Smathers read it into the Congressional Record.

Bolté's friend Jack Brister was a writer of stories and plays, a man who, as a friend later said, "believed in the job of finding the truth, and that it was an important job." Senior year, he helped found a sophisticated campus magazine, The Pictorial. Brister's passionate but nuanced conviction shone through the commencement-issue editorial: "Four months ago we wrote a bitter satire on war. We wrote it because war offends our most deeply rooted and most sincere emotions…. Now we realize that we do conscientiously object to war. But we realize too that America must fight Hitler…. We're ready. Ready to fight. Ready to destroy. Ready, if necessary, to be destroyed."

Bill Durkee was less literary; his interests were economics and politics. He saw clearly the catastrophe that would result from Nazi victory. And he shared with the others a belief in the Allied cause, a conviction that Hitler must be stopped as soon as possible, and a desire to place himself at the leading edge of history.

Since the Battle of Britain began in 1940—despite neutrality laws threatening loss of citizenship and imprisonment—a growing number of Americans had joined the Royal Air Force (see "The Few Among the Few," November/December 2010). But as the five Rifle Corps volunteers met in New York on July 10, 1941, finalized arrangements with a British Embassy official, and boarded a train to Halifax, Nova Scotia, they became the first American men to join the fight against Germany on the ground.

In England, the five Americans often found themselves objects of curiosity. By then many people knew about the Yanks in the RAF, but these men were something new. Britons emerging from the Blitz thanked them, and feted them as harbingers of a time when America at large would share their mortal struggle.

The American ambassador to the Court of Saint James's, John Gilbert Winant, befriended the quintet. They received guided tours of Parliament and the Times of London, and were entertained by British families with American ties—including Colonel Waldorf Astor and his American-born wife, Nancy Langhorne—at their palatial country house, Cliveden. They chafed with embarrassment as they posed repeatedly for photographers with the British Office of War Information, which acutely understood the volunteers' propaganda value as symbols of American support.

The Americans endured the same rigors as every other rifleman in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, forced to master the brutal choreography of marching and rifle drills. But much of their training—learning to maintain and shoot rifles and Bren guns, driving trucks and motorcycles, acquiring map and compass skills, and practicing maneuvers and bivouacking—seemed to be "all the most wonderful boys' games," as Cox put it in a letter home. When at the end of June they prepared to ship out, Ambassador Winant arranged a farewell dinner at the smart London hotel Claridge's. Winant and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden joined them in the private dining room for coffee and brandy.

In peacetime the 2,000 miles between England and Egypt was a relatively brief trip, but since the Axis controlled the Mediterranean the rifle corps had to reach Suez by sailing 13,000 miles around South Africa—a two-month voyage. After arriving in Suez, they spent nearly two more months retraining with the Vickers machine gun (and Rob Cox with the big new 6-pounder antitank gun as well). By the time they were prepared for what became known as the Second Battle of El Alamein (the first being the July 1942 defensive action that halted Rommel at the Alamein Line), it was clear that they were involved in something extremely serious.

Twenty-four hours into the battle, Jack Brister had lost seven men.

At 9:40 on the night of October 23, 1942, an 882-gun barrage had set the eastern sky ablaze and rocked the earth—right on schedule. Reconnaissance regiments and sappers moved forward to clear and mark the way through the minefields for the armored advance.

At first, 7th Armoured Division's tidy columns of gun carriers, troop carriers, jeeps, tanks, antitank guns, and trucks advanced smoothly into lanes cleared through the southern end of the minefields. The men took comfort from the Allied artillery fire rushing overhead. But as Brister and Durkee, near the fronts of their columns, passed into no man's land, it became clear that fierce opposition lay ahead. Tracer rounds slashed in all directions. Armor-piercing shot skidded to earth like lightning. "Column halted," Brister noted in his diary. "Holy havoc reigned. Engaged M.G.s [machine guns] and then got out of it. 24 hours of most concentrated shell fire." In the south, the costly struggle to penetrate enemy minefields would last nearly a week before being called off.

In the north, Cox, Cutting, Bolté, and their men advanced haltingly toward the enemy. As part of 7th Motor Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, they had orders to advance behind the 51st Highland Division as it broke through. The motor companies would then advance beyond the last minefield, dig in, and form an antitank flank to defend the armor coming on behind them.

But the Highlanders failed to progress, and by 4:15 a.m. on October 24, Cox, Cutting, Bolté, and their units found themselves stymied by a scrum of men and vehicles. Caught nose-to-tail and hemmed in by minefields, they knew what gratifying targets they presented to an enemy bomber or fighter.

For three days and nights they stuttered through two minefields, only to be stopped cold by a third. As they waited for a breakthrough, shells began falling. Cox strove to appear unperturbed, but his pride soon broke. He turned to the battle-seasoned riflemen beside him and asked if this was the usual thing. Their reply brought both relief and anxiety: this much shelling was as new to them as to him.

The situation was as frustrating as it was perilous. In later life, Cox's company commander, Major David Graham-Campbell, would bitterly concur with one of the officially recognized lessons of the second El Alamein offensive: "It is a serious criticism of Montgomery's generalship that we were moved forward and had to sit between…minefields within shelling distance of the enemy suffering useless casualties," Graham-Campbell wrote in an unpublished memoir. "And it is a criticism of Montgomery's character that, to his dying day, he claimed that everything had gone according to his plan, and roundly cursed our tanks and their Corps Commander because they did not fight their way out."

Rumors of imminent advances came and went. Order was followed by counterorder. Finally, the night of October 26, a new plan arrived. The King's Royal Rifle Corps would join an assault on two German strongpoints at a spot called Kidney Ridge (actually a depression). At about 9 p.m., with a gibbous moon rising behind them, the men of the 2nd Battalion drove forward slowly through the last German minefield, halted briefly in open country, then spread out to attack. Just before zero hour—11:30 p.m.—flashes lit the sky behind them, followed by thuds and the whistles of shells. The men drove forward.

Thick smoke and dust from the barrage enveloped them. When the gloom lifted, orders came to advance on foot. As Cox and Cutting clambered from their vehicles, heavy antitank and machine-gun fire erupted from only 75 yards away. Again clouds engulfed them. A flaming ammunition truck cast a lurid glow. Tracers streaked the darkness. Exploding mortar shells shook the air. Soon small-arms fire was amplifying the din.

When the Allied barrage ended, the dust cleared. All around, Cox saw men struggling with vehicles. Others were returning enemy fire. Cox attempted to move forward with his 6-pounders, but they became tangled in barbed wire. Bolté, in a jeep, saw Cox urge his men on with a wave and a shout, shells banging around the blazing lorry. Minutes later, Cox hit the ground, a bullet through his back. A German gunner had let the Tommies pass so he could shoot them from behind.

Before dawn, Cutting was wounded too. Cut down at the knees by machine-gun fire, he drove his jeep back to company headquarters, then collapsed.

Bolté made it through unharmed, and some of his company achieved their objective, scattering though not defanging the German defenders. But his platoon was isolated, and at sunrise he turned his field glasses toward the rear, looking for reinforcements. Suddenly, it felt as if someone smacked him in the right thigh very hard with a baseball bat. As he fell he heard the screech of an 88 round and his own voice announce, "They got me"—words so clichéd he could hardly believe he said them. Shrapnel had ripped his leg, high up.

When the southern arm of the first wave faltered, Montgomery refocused. On October 30 the order came for Brister and Durkee and the rest of the 7th Armoured to move north. That afternoon and for most of the next day they did so, staying five or six miles behind Allied lines. Late afternoon on October 31 found them laagered about a mile and a half from the battle, near the El Alamein rail stop. Excitement was running high. Rumors of a breakthrough flew. But artillery fire told another story.

The night of November 1 another barrage rocked the desert as Montgomery unleashed Operation Supercharge, his second great attempt at penetrating enemy lines. The next day, Brister and Durkee passed along instructions to prepare to advance on short notice. Men reacted as if shot with adrenaline. The Battle of El Alamein, it appeared, was won. The evening of November 3, beaming riflemen boarded their trucks. As the march began, up went the cry, for the third time in two years: "On to Benghazi!"

By November 4 the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were in full retreat, with Brister and Durkee in pursuit across open desert with the rest of Eighth Army. "Slept the night at the sea," Brister recorded. "Came on through the incredible dust of the 8th Army rear to within shell range again. The enemy is reported to be racing west. His guns, if this is so, are doing the rear guard for him. What a lot of kit!"

On November 6, clouds rolled in and the skies opened, handing a reprieve to Rommel, who had hurried back to the desert upon learning of Montgomery's attack. Allied vehicles spun their wheels in the mud while the remnants of Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika fled on the paved coastal road.

"I slept in a rocky sheep pen," Brister wrote in his journal, "the pouring rain creeping through to my bones — it seemed. It wasn't sleep — merely a restful shiver."

As the Eighth Army outran its air cover, the danger of Luftwaffe attacks increased. Few events were as alarming as the scream of a diving Stuka, or the sight of a Messerschmitt dropping from the sky, cannons blazing. On November 9, as Durkee and Brister led their platoons toward Gazala with the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, a Bf 109 found them. Brister's company commander was wounded, and exploding shells smashed into Durkee's knees, leaving him all but helpless. The doctor could do no more than lift him into a truck and drive to a casualty station, where the long process of removing the shrapnel could begin.

Brister pursued Panzerarmee Afrika along the coast from Egypt to Tunisia, some 2,000 miles in six months. Cox, recovered from his wounds, rejoined the fight in Libya in January. They crossed into Tunisia on February 2, 1943, met the enemy at the Battle of Mareth, and pursued it north toward Tunis.

But the two American veterans of El Alamein would not survive Tunisia.

On April 19, less than a month before the Germans surrendered North Africa, freeing the Mediterranean of Axis domination and setting the stage for the Allied invasion of Italy, a sniper shot Rob Cox. He died in the hills near Mount Zaghouan.

By this time, American land forces had disembarked in North Africa. Troops of Operation Torch, the war's first major Anglo-American joint operation, came ashore at Morocco and Algeria on November 8, 1942. At Casablanca, Oran, Algiers, and, advancing east, at Kasserine Pass and El Guettar, American soldiers under Generals George S. Patton, Lloyd Fredendall, and Charles Ryder began to learn the cruel lessons that would carry them into Sicily and Italy and, later, into France and Germany.

In April 1943, as Allied armies closed on Tunis and the North African campaign appeared to be ending, Jack Brister decided to transfer to the U.S. Army. On the 14th he wrote to his commandant, reminding Sir John Davidson of his assurances to the Americans that volunteering for Britain would not compromise their ability to later fight for the U.S. "For twenty-three years," Brister wrote, "I have been pledging allegiance to the United States of America. The time has come to turn those words of allegiance into action of allegiance." The papers approving his transfer arrived on April 27—two hours after a stray shell killed him.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was a watershed. After two years of bad news, the British people had sound reason for hope. Montgomery's 12-day offensive was the Allies' first decisive triumph. "It marked in fact the turning of 'the Hinge of Fate,'" Winston Churchill wrote. "It may almost be said 'Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.'"

Of the remaining Americans who took the field on October 23, 1942, only one stayed with the Eighth Army. Heyward Cutting recovered slowly from his wounds, and in the fall of 1943 he was transferred to Allied Forces Headquarters, Italy. He returned to the United States in August 1945 as a major, raised a family, and lived a long life as an architect and planner.

Bill Durkee's wounds were the slowest to heal. He lay abed in an Alexandria hospital until April 1943—so long that standing up felt odd. "After months on your back you develop a new sense of proportion that is destroyed when you get on your feet again," he wrote home.

In July, Durkee was evacuated to England, where Ambassador Winant found him work at the U.S. Embassy. Not until summer 1944 did he feel ready to go home. He completed Yale Law School, married, fathered three children, and spent his career in international relations with the State Department, the CIA, and the Defense Department.

After El Alamein, Chuck Bolté spent an agonizing month waiting to learn whether doctors could save any of his right leg. It was amputated near the hip at the end of November. In June 1943 he returned home with a tin prosthesis, and in July married his college sweetheart. Before long he was campaigning again, this time for veterans' rights and world peace. He became director and spokesman of the American Veterans Committee, a new racially integrated group whose motto was "citizens first, veterans second." He worked in publishing and at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, and remained a writer his whole life. He named a son, John Cox Bolté, after his two comrades buried in Tunisia. And his first book, The New Veteran, published in 1945, contained this dedication: FOR JOHN FREDERICK BRISTER AND ROBERT HILL COXbrave men who died fighting and were their own memorial.

Rachel S. Cox first wrote about war for two series of Time Life Books, Civil War and The Epic of Flight. Curiosity about her lost uncle's fate in World War II inspired her to discover the untold story of five idealistic American volunteers who fought at El Alamein with the British—the subject of her article, and her book Into Dust and Fire: Five Young Americans Who Went First to Fight the Nazi Army, recently published by NAL Caliber. Her website is rachelscox.com.

Finding Uncle Robbie

Children often are drawn to the blank spots in their family stories. Perhaps this explains why, growing up, I spent so much time contemplating my grandmother's mementos of a son killed in "The War." I stared at the photos on the dining room sidetable: Robbie in his hockey skates at prep school, and Robbie with his brothers, all five unaware he soon would be gone.

I knew he volunteered ahead of other Americans; that he fought with the British; that he died in North Africa. But the Coxes are a reticent lot, at least about personal matters, and until recently that was virtually all I knew.
In 2006, as a journalist casting about for a book topic, I decided to see what else I could discover. I began with my uncle's prep school roommate, the late Charles McLane, who revealed that he and Robbie had spent the day together when my uncle chose to go to war. Rob, about to graduate from Harvard, tried to convince Charles to join him. Charles demurred, but took the news back to Dartmouth and told his interventionist classmates. Thus changed three other young men's fates.

McLane read me his diary entry for that night. "Cox has started me thinking. He wants me to go with him. The idea is very attractive — it is clean, no waiting, exciting — but I am dubious of the chance of coming back." I knew a great quote when I heard it, even as the foreshadowing broke my heart.

McLane put me in touch with relatives of the other four volunteers. Jack Brister's nephew arrived at my doorstep with a suitcase. "Here's your book," he said, and the journals, letters, and photos he unpacked told me he was right.

Growing up in the 1960s, I had absorbed that era's commonplace cynicism and pacifism. I had two sons and could hardly bear to imagine sending them off to war. I wanted to test my assumptions against a war I believed just and necessary, and to understand my uncle's and my grandmother's motivations.

I leapt, reading my way from general histories to accounts of the King's Royal Rifle Corps in North Africa. I toured the baking, featureless Egyptian desert. Among Tunisia's sere, rocky hillsides I confronted the great fact of my family story.

In a British cemetery near Enfidaville, I became the first Cox to see my uncle's grave. I did what people do when words fail them. I fell to my knees on the astonishing grass, which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cultivates against all odds, like a reminder of home. I read the sentiment my grandmother chose to memorialize her son—from Psalm 122, I learned—and better understood how she managed to live with the loss: "For my brother and companions' sakes I will seek to do thee good." —Rachel S. Cox
 


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