RACE Henry

Henry RACE 1906 – 1942

 2939016 Corporal Henry (Harry) Race, 5th Battalion, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders was killed in action 24 October 1942 aged 36 and is buried at El Alamein War Cemetery. [1]

Family Details

Henry [Harry] Race was born 1906 [2] to Robert and Lily Race of Evenwood and was brother to Annie, Robert, Rhoda, Dorothy and Rebecca.[3] In 1911 the family lived at Victoria Terrace, Evenwood and Robert worked as a coal miner [hewer].[4] In 1939, widower Robert lived at Copeland Row with his daughter Rebecca.  He was retired and Rebecca worked as a shop assistant at Woolworths.[5]

 Service Details

The service records of Corporal Henry Race have not been researched.  He served with the 5th Battalion, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders which at the start of the war was part of 26th Infantry Brigade, 9th (Scottish) Division but following reorganisation came under the orders of the newly reformed 152nd Infantry Brigade, 51st (Highland) Division together with 2nd Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders and 5th Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders.  The 51st Division was involved in the campaign in North Africa and, up to the death of Corporal Harry Race, the Second Battle of El Alamein.  The following account takes the battle up to 24 October 1942.

The campaign in the Western Desert [6]

The campaign in the Western Desert was fought between the Commonwealth forces (with, later, the addition of two brigades of Free French and one each of Polish and Greek troops) all based in Egypt, and the Axis forces (German and Italian) based in Libya. The battlefield, across which the fighting surged back and forth between 1940 and 1942, was the 1,000 kilometres of desert between Alexandria in Egypt and Benghazi in Libya. It was a campaign of manoeuvre and movement, the objectives being the control of the Mediterranean, the link with the east through the Suez Canal, the Middle East oil supplies and the supply route to Russia through Persia.

The Second Battle of El Alamein 23 October – 7 November 1942

The Division was moved forward in preparation for the attack into defensive “boxes” 25 miles east of El Alamein. The attack commenced on the night of 23/24 October. The battle concluded on the 3rd November with the 7th Argylls of 154 Brigade taking the strong point of Tel El Aqqaqir to find that it had been abandoned by the enemy.

The Battle of El Alamein is usually divided into five phases, consisting of the break-in (23 to 24 October), the crumbling (24 to 25 October), the counter (26 to 28 October), Operation Supercharge (1 to 2 November) and the breakout (3 to 7 November). No name is given to the period from 29 to 31 October, when the battle was at a standstill.

Phase One: The Break-In

Prior to the actual barrage, there was a diversion by the 24th Australian Brigade, which involved the 15th Panzer Division being subjected to heavy fire for a few minutes. Then at 9.40 p.m. (Egyptian Summer Time) on 23 October on a calm, clear evening under the bright sky of a full moon, Operation Lightfoot began, but not with a 1000-gun barrage as in popular belief nor with all guns firing at the same time. The fire plan had been carefully planned so that all 882 guns from the Field and Medium batteries’ first rounds would land across the entire 40-mile (64 km) front at the same time. After twenty minutes of heavy general bombardment, the guns switched to precision targets in support of the advancing infantry. The shelling plan continued for five and a half hours, by the end of which each gun had fired about 600 rounds.

There was a reason for the name Operation Lightfoot. The infantry had to attack first. Many of the anti-tank mines would not be tripped by soldiers running over them since they were too light (hence the code-name). As the infantry advanced, engineers had to clear a path for the tanks coming behind. Each stretch of land cleared of mines was to be 24 feet (7.3 m) wide, which was just enough to get tanks through in single file. The engineers had to clear a five-mile (8 km) route through the ‘Devil’s Gardens’. It was a difficult task that was not achieved because of the depth of the Axis minefields.

At 10 p.m., the four infantry divisions of XXX Corps began to move. The objective was an imaginary line in the desert where the strongest enemy defences were situated. Once the infantry reached the first minefields, the mine sweepers, including Reconnaissance Corps troops and sappers) moved in to create a passage for the armoured divisions of X Corps. Progress was slower than planned but at 2 a.m., the first of the 500 tanks crawled forward. By 4 a.m., the lead tanks were in the minefields, where they stirred up so much dust that there was no visibility at all, and traffic jams developed as the tanks got bogged down.

Meanwhile, 7th Armoured Division (with one Free French Brigade under command) from Brian Horrocks‘s XIII Corps made a feinting attack to the south. The main attack aimed to engage and pin down the 21st Panzer Division and the Ariete Division around Jebel Kalakh, while the Free French on the far left were to secure Qaret el Himeimat and secure the el Taqa plateau. The right flank of the attack was to be protected by 44th Infantry Division’s 131st Infantry Brigade. However, the attack met heavy resistance from the 185 Airborne Division Folgore and Ramcke paratrooper brigade and the Keil Group. The minefields proved thicker than anticipated and clearing paths through them was impeded by heavy defensive fire. By dawn on 24 October, paths still had not been cleared through the second minefield to release 22nd and 4th Light Armoured Brigades into the open to make their planned turn north into the rear of enemy positions five miles west of Deir el Munassib.

Further north along the XIII Corps front, the 50th Infantry Division achieved limited gains at heavy cost against determined resistance from the Pavia and Brescia divisions and elements of the Folgore. The Indian 4th Infantry Division, on the far left of the XXX Corps front at Ruweisat Ridge, made a mock attack and two small raids intended to deflect attention to the centre of the front.

Phase Two: The Crumbling

The morning of Saturday 24 October brought disaster for the German headquarters. The reports that Stumme had received that morning showed the attacks had been on a broad front but that such penetration as had occurred should be containable by local units. He went forward himself to observe the state of affairs and finding himself under fire, suffered a heart attack and died. Temporary command was given to Major-General Ritter von Thoma. Hitler had already decided that Rommel should leave his sanatorium and return to North Africa. He flew to Rome early on 25 October to press the Comando Supremo for more fuel and ammunition and then on to North Africa to resume command that night of the Panzerarmee Afrika, which that day was renamed the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee (“German-Italian Panzer Army”).

Dawn aerial reconnaissance showed little change in Axis disposition, so Montgomery gave his orders for the day: the clearance of the northern corridor should be completed and the New Zealand Division supported by 10th Armoured should push south from Miteirya Ridge. 9th Australian Division, in the north, should plan a crumbling operation for that night, while in the southern sector, 7th Armoured should continue to try to break through the minefields with support, if necessary, from 44th Division.

During the day, there was therefore little activity pending more complete clearance of paths through the minefields. The armour was held at Oxalic and all day long, artillery and the Allied Desert Air Force, making over 1,000 sorties, attacked Axis positions to aid the ‘crumbling’ of the Axis forces.

Panzer units counter-attacked the 51st Highland Division just after sunrise, only to be stopped in their tracks. By 4:00 p.m., there was little progress.

At dusk, with the sun at their backs, Axis tanks from the 15th Panzer Division and Italian Littorio Divisions swung out from the Kidney feature, often wrongly called a ridge (it was actually a depression), to engage the 1st Armoured Division and the first major tank battle of El Alamein was joined. Over 100 tanks were involved and by dark, half were destroyed, although neither position was altered.

That night, the thrust by 10th Armoured Division from Miteirya Ridge was unsuccessful. The lifting of mines on the Miteirya Ridge and beyond took far longer than planned and the leading unit, 8th Armoured Brigade, was caught on their start line at 10 p.m.—zero hour—by an air attack and were scattered. By the time they had reorganized, they were well behind schedule and out of touch with the creeping artillery barrage. By daylight, the brigade was out in the open taking considerable fire from well-sited tanks and anti-tank guns. Meanwhile, 24th Armoured Brigade had pushed forward and reported at dawn they were on the Pierson line, although it turned out that, in the dust and confusion, they had mistaken their position and were well short.

The attack in XIII Corp’s sector to the south fared no better. 44th Division’s 131st Infantry Brigade cleared a path through the mines, but when 22nd Armoured Brigade passed through, they came under heavy fire and were repulsed, with 31 tanks disabled.

Allied air activity that night focused on Rommel’s northern armoured group, where 135 tons of bombs were dropped. To prevent a recurrence of 8th Armoured Brigade’s experience from the air, attacks on Axis landing fields were also stepped up.

Corporal Harry Race was killed in action 24 October 1942.

The battle concluded 3 November with the 7th Argylls of 154 Brigade taking the strong point of Tel El Aqqaqir to find that it had been abandoned by the enemy.

Burial [7]

Corporal H. Race is buried at grave reference 5.A.3, El Alamein War Cemetery.  It contains the graves of men who died at all stages of the Western Desert campaigns, brought in from a wide area, but especially those who died in the Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and in the period immediately before that. The cemetery now contains 7,240 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, of which 815 are unidentified.

Henry’s headstone bears the following inscription:

He died that we might live

Will always be remembered

By all at home.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.285 1906Q1 Auckland

[3] 1911 census & 1939 England & Wales Register

[4] 1911 Census

[5] 1939 England & Wales Register

[6]A Brief History of 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment (1941 -1943) and its Involvement in the Desert Campaign”  https://51hd.co.uk/accounts/recce_reg

[7] CWGC

Thanks to John Dixon for the photo.