September 1, 2000

 

Rifleman whose intrepid action repulsed overwhelming enemy tank attacks at El Alamein

Kidney Ridge, October 1942: Toms, centre, serving his troop's last anti-tank gun, for which he had brought the ammunition in the blazing Jeep at left

 

JACK TOMS

 

Jack Toms, MC and Bar, was born on March 3, 1920. He died on August 24 aged 80

 

In the space of just four months during the desert campaign of 1942, Jack Toms won two Military Crosses, the second for his extraordinary bravery and foresight during the two most crucial days of the Battle of El Alamein.

The date was October 26, 1942. Montgomery had launched the 8th Army's attack three days earlier, but it had met spirited resistance from the enemy. With the Italians putting up an uncharacteristically stubborn defence and the Germans mounting counter-attacks, Montgomery became seriously worried about the outcome - and a deep gloom descended on Churchill in London.

Kidney Ridge (also known as the Snipe) now became the focus of a desperate struggle in which German and Italian tank commanders exerted every sinew to break through anti-tank defences, which included a troop of 6-pounder guns of the 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade under the command of Second Lieutenant Jack Toms.

Toms had taken up position on the vital western flank of the hill, but was almost immediately attacked by enemy tanks before his guns could be dug in. Nevertheless, throughout the day The Rifle Brigade's 6-pounders took a spirited toll of their assailants.

During the following morning further tank attacks were met and repulsed, but as the day wore on Toms's guns began to run short of ammunition and their crews began to take severe casualties from the overwhelming weight of the enemy's tank gunfire. He was soon down to one functioning 6-pounder and the entire southwestern sector of the British position was now threatened.

In the words of the battalion commander, Major Vic Turner (later to be awarded the Victoria Cross): "By now the position had become extremely hot in both senses of the word. The desert was quivering with heat. The gun detachments squatted in their pits, the sweat running in rivers down their dust-caked faces . . . The flies swarmed in black clouds upon the dead bodies, and tormented the wounded . . ."

In the early afternoon the crisis became even more acute when a force of eight tanks supported by self-propelled guns bore down on the position manned by Toms's troop, which they evidently regarded as being incapable of returning their fire. Manning the only undamaged gun that could be brought to bear on the enemy, Toms, Turner and the 6-pounder's commander, Sergeant Charles Calistan, formed themselves into a gun's crew and opened a devastatingly accurate fire with their remaining ammunition, knocking out five of the tanks.

But with only two rounds left, the remaining three continued to come on, subjecting the lone artillery piece to a withering fire to which it could make no reply. Realising that they must shortly be overwhelmed, Toms ran to his Jeep a hundred yards away and quickly loaded on to it several boxes of 6-pounder shells from another gun which had been put out of action. He drove back with the precious ammunition, with machinegun bullets from the three tanks streaming down on him in what was later described as an almost suicidal act. In doing so he was wounded in the right hand.

The Jeep was riddled with bullets and burst into flames ten yards short of the guns. Nevertheless, Toms, Turner and another NCO, Corporal Francis, lugged the ammunition from the burning vehicle and got it to Calistan's gun which was brought to bear on the advancing enemy, now only 200 yards away. Calistan then coolly picked off the three remaining tanks one by one, assisted by his loader Sergeant Chard, who was in turn fed with ammunition by the two officers and by Francis.

The Axis attack, which half an hour before had seemed virtually irresistible, was simply blown away, and The Rifle Brigade position, crucial at that juncture to the outcome of the entire battle, was saved.

Although suffering considerable pain from his wounds, Toms continued to command his troop throughout the rest of the day, during which it accounted for a total of 23 tanks as well as other vehicles and guns. When the troop was relieved, he walked from the position among his soldiers, rather than accept transport.

Educated at Eton, John Edward Bowring Toms joined The Rifle Brigade soon after the outbreak of war, and when it acquired an anti-tank company specialised in this increasingly important form of warfare. By the time he got to North Africa the 2-pounder, the despair of its gunners for its complete inadequacy against the latest German tanks, had just been replaced by the 6-pounder, whose shells could pierce the armour of the Panzerkampfwagen IV at a range of 1,000 yards. Most of The Rifle Brigade's encounters with the enemy were to be at much closer ranges than this and the qualities of their new weapon inspired a fiercely aggressive spirit in troops who had previously been only too accustomed to being outshot by the enemy.

Toms won his first MC for the courage and fine judgement he displayed during an action in the El Adem area in June 1942 when his troop attacked a large concentration of enemy vehicles. Although under severe fire, he managed to position two 6-pounder guns in dead ground close to the enemy. Directing their fire from the back of an open 15cwt truck - the only unarmoured vehicle in the action - he wreaked havoc on the enemy, showing absolute fearlessness in the face of a hail of bullets and artillery shells.

Losing two fingers as a result of his wound at El Alamein, Toms served the rest of the war as an instructor. Thereafter he spent precisely ten days in the underwriting business (his father had married into the Bowring family and become a broker himself) but found it not to his taste. With a private income, he went to live at Lauder in Berwickshire. There he enjoyed shooting, but more especially dry fly fishing, at which he was expert.

In private life the gentlest of men, Toms could seldom be persuaded to talk about the momentous wartime events in which he had played so vital a part.

Jack Toms is survived by his wife Ann, and by their daughter.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov