Thomas SNOWDON 1920 – 1942

4456396 Corporal T. Snowdon, 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 15 June 1942, aged 22 and is commemorated on the Alamein Memorial and the Evenwood War Memorial. [1]

Family Details

 Thomas was born 1920, the son of John and Hannah Snowdon and was brother to Robert and Joyce.  John was the under-Manager at Randolph Colliery, Evenwood.  At the outbreak of war, the Snowdon family lived in the Manor House, 6 Manor Street, Evenwood. [2] The Snowdon family was well known throughout the area as colliery engineers and surveyors.  Thomas and his younger brother Robert were both educated at Barnard Castle School.  Thomas did not follow family tradition and he worked “in the bank”.  Robert served in the war with a Scottish Highland Regiment then worked for the National Coal Board. His sister Joyce also worked “in the bank” before marrying into a farming family, the Raines who work land at Brussleton.

Service Details

 The service record for 4456396 Corporal T. Snowdon has not been researched.  The 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry came under the orders of the 151 Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Division.  Being a motorised division, the 50th was organised into 2 brigades – the 150 and the 151 Brigades.  The Division was posted to France in January 1940 and as the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium then France in May, it was involved in fighting around Arras and the withdrawal to Dunkirk.  Embarkation back to the UK took place 1 June.

In April 1941 the Brigade as part of 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division was dispatched to the Middle East via Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and then into Libya as part of XIII Corps in the British Eighth Army.

The campaign in the Western Desert was fought between the Commonwealth forces (later with the addition of 2 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 1000 km of desert between Alexandria in Egypt and Benghazi in Libya.  It was a campaign of manoeuvre and movement, the objectives being to control the Suez Canal, the Middle East and oil supplies and the supply route to Russia through Persia.

The Battle of Gazala: summary [3]

The Battle of Gazala was a German victory over British forces in North Africa during May and June 1942. It was the most severe defeat inflicted on the British during the entire desert campaign of the Second World War. Field Marshal Rommel launched a powerful surprise attack on Gazala on the 26th and 27th of May 1942, but the British fought back well and trapped him between a minefield and their own defensive ‘box’. Rommel was contemplating surrender until the Italian Trieste Division managed to open a route through the minefield and get a supply column to him. Indecision and arguments in British headquarters also helped and he broke out of the Cauldron on the 1st of June and overwhelmed the British “box”. He pushed on toward Tobruk, defeating several British units and the British were forced to abandon their positions and fall back to the El Alamein line in Egypt.

The Gazala Line

The “Gazala Line” was a series of occupied “boxes” each of brigade strength set out across the desert with minefields and wire watched by regular patrols between the boxes. The Free French were to the south at the Bir Hakeim box. The line was not equally staffed with a greater number of troops covering the coast leaving the south less protected.

Rommel’s Attack

By late May Rommel was ready. Facing him on the Gazala defences were 1st South African Division, nearest the coast, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division (on their left) and 1st Free French Brigade furthest left at Bir Hakeim. The British 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions waited behind the main line as a mobile counter-attacking force while 2nd South African Division formed a garrison at Tobruk and Indian 5th Infantry Division (which had arrived in April to relieve Indian 4th Infantry Division) were held in reserve.

27 May:  Although first spotted by the 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment at first light, the speed of the German advance was so swift that at about 8:30 am they overran the 7th Armoured Division HQ. This scattered the 7th Motor Brigade, capturing General Messervy, then commanding. He escaped later the next day. The 7th Motor Brigade withdrew to the Retma Box, fifteen miles (24 km) east of Bir Hakeim, while 4th Armoured Brigade fought all day to stem the attackers.  The 4th Armoured Brigade’s ‘B’ Echelon was then overrun and the 1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) had to withdraw to the Retma Box and then on to El Duda. On the same day the 3rd (Indian) Motor Brigade, which was under the control of 7th Armoured Division, was also overwhelmed and did not reform for some days. By the afternoon of the 27th, the German attack had shattered the 7th Armoured Division and they were in position to assault the 201st Guards Motor Brigade in the Knightsbridge Box. Once again the British armour had been committed piecemeal, although in this case there was little other choice.

The Germans now attacked the Box at Retma which was garrisoned by 9th KRRC, 2nd Rifle Brigade, ‘C’ Bty 4 Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) and a Rhodesian anti-tank unit. Accompanied by heavy artillery fire the Panzers swarmed in, swiftly overrunning the 9th KRRC, with the rest of the garrison then moving back to east of Bir El Gubi. The Germans now pushed their panzers on to the north, moving behind the Gazala Boxes, but British resistance now stiffened. Thus unable to maintain their supply route round the south flank, the Germans cleared two paths through the minefield either side of the 150th Infantry Brigade Box and very heavy fighting took place in this area which was to become known as The Cauldron.

150th Brigade, with field and anti-tank artillery, held the Sidi Muftah box between the Trigh el Abd and Trigh Capuzzo, along which the enemy cut supply lines through the British minefields. The brigade kept the supply lines under artillery fire and, although it was unable to stop the flow of traffic, it made the route so ineffective that the enemy armoured divisions to the east of the minefields were reduced to a parlous state for petrol, ammunition and food. Their water ration was down to half a cup a man. Against this isolated brigade, the enemy committed parts of 15 Panzer, Trieste Motorised and 90 Light Divisions, supported finally by heavy bombing attacks.

Panzerarmee Afrika said in its daily battle report:

“The encircled enemy, supported by numerous infantry tanks, again resisted most stubbornly, each separate element within the fortress-like strengthened defences had to be fought for. The enemy suffered extraordinary heavy, bloody losses. Eventually the operation, which also caused considerable losses to our troops, ended in complete success”

28 May: 4th Armoured Brigade attacked a battle group of the German 90th Light Infantry Division. The 7th Armoured Brigade harried enemy positions near Bir El Gubi. The German 15th Panzer Division came to halt near the Knightsbridge Box, being seriously low on fuel and ammunition.

29 May:  The German advance had stopped. The Germans started to open lanes through the British minefield, but they were engaged by artillery from Knightsbridge and the Guards. The Axis forces awaited the British counterattack in the open desert east of Knightsbridge, with the British minefields and the Guards Box still at their rear. The German plan was for the British tanks to waste themselves against a well dug-in anti-tank screen, but a sandstorm blew up and the British attack did not really develop, with the 4th Armoured Brigade not attacking until the evening to engage the German 90th Light Infantry Division again, near Bir-el Harmat.

30 May:  Rommel had been forced to concentrate his forces in a defensive position near the 150th Infantry Brigade Box, as his original position was not tenable and various attacks took place all day. On 31 May the British thought they had Rommel cornered and he himself contemplated surrender, but the Italian Trieste Division managed to open a route through the minefield and get a supply column to him. As the British had not attacked in any real form, the Axis forces took the offensive again with a fierce assault on the 150th Infantry Brigade Box, supported by Stukas, along with attacks on the French in the Bir Hakeim Box.

1 June:  The 150th Infantry Brigade Box fell at noon, with the fighting now opening up between the Guards and the Bir Hacheim Boxes. The 7th Motor Brigade continued to operate in “Jock columns” in no-mans land, shooting up enemy positions and transport. Rommel now struck out of his defensive positions in the Cauldron, with the British putting in attack after attack. At this time Major-General Herbert Lumsden commanding 1st Armoured Division, attempted to a combine forces with what was left of 7th Armoured Division, but unfortunately this was not possible and a valuable chance to mount a coordinated counter-attack by both armoured divisions was lost.

Withdrawal from the Gazala Line

14 June:  Auchinleck authorised Ritchie to withdraw from the Gazala line. Stuck in boxes to the north of Knightsbridge, cut of by the Axis who were swarming towards Tobruk. 50th Northumbrian and 1st South African were ordered to break out east while the 15th and 21st Panzer tried to cut them off. The defenders in the El Adem Box and two neighbouring boxes held firm and the 1st South African Division was able to withdraw along the coastal road practically intact. The road could not accommodate two divisions so the remaining two brigades of the 50th Northumbrian had to find an alternative. They could not retreat directly east because of the presence of the Axis armour so, instead, they attacked south west breaking through the lines of the Italian X Corps’ Brescia and Pavia Divisions and headed south into the desert before turning east and heading back to friendly territory. Weary units of 7th Armoured Division managed to delay the German armour allowing most of the 50th Northumbrian to escape and the 1st South African Division, withdrawing along the coast road lost only its rearguard. By now most of the 8th Army was in retreat to the El Alamein line.  General Auchinleck took direct command of the Eighth Army from General Ritchie, reversing the earlier decision to stand a Mersa Matruh and ordered a withdrawal to the secure line between the Qattara Depression and El Alamein.

27 June:  Mersa Matruh fell. By now the Western Desert was a full of mixed up units all heading east, and with both sides using each others transport it was difficult for both air forces to know who to attack and mistakes were made by both sides. This retreat became known as the ‘Gazala Gallop’.

Action involving 6/DLI [4]

12 June: the fall of Bir Hacheim left the 1st South African and 2 brigades of the 50th Division holding the Gazala Line – increased enemy pressure from the west and the east with fierce tank battles as the battle neared conclusion.  It was only a question of time before the enemy reached the coast and cut off the escape of the South Africans and the 69 and 151 Brigades.  In view of the critical situation, it was decided that the 2 Northumbrian brigades would break out through the Italian Lines to the west, turn southwards and continue until well clear of the enemy formations.  The area around Fort Maddalena on the Egyptian border to the east some 150 miles distant was the objective.

The Battle of Gazala in June 1942

The 8/DLI was given the task of attacking westwards and opening and holding the corridor to enable the rest of the 151 Brigade to break out.  The 6/DLI was divided into 3 independent groups:

First Group commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Battiscombe:

  • 1 South African Armoured Car
  • “C” Company (Capt. R.B. Proud) less 1 platoon
  • “D” Company (Major R.L. Cummins MC) less 1 platoon
  • 2 sections of carriers
  • 2 detachments of mortars
  • 3 anti-tank guns
  • 1 detachment of “B” Echelon
  • 1 Troop 452 Battery 74 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 1 sub section 505 Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • 1 section 11 platoon “C” Company, 2/Cheshires
  • Regimental Aid Post

Second Group commanded by Major W.I. Watson:

  • 1 South African Armoured Car
  • “A” Company (Captain G.L. Wood)
  • HQ Company (Capt. R.E. Overden)
  • 4 detachments of mortars
  • 1 section of carriers (Capt. M.J. Kirby)
  • 3 anti-tank guns
  • 1 detachment of “B” Echelon
  • 1 detachment of 505 Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • 1 detachment 149 Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps

Third Group commanded by Major M.R. Ferens, acting as Brigade Rearguard:

  • Outpost platoon
  • 1 section carrier platoon (Lieutenant Boys-Stones)
  • 1 section anti-tank platoon
  • Platoon HQ
  • 1 section of “C” Company, 2/Cheshires
  • 1 detachment of 505 Field Company, Royal Engineers
  • “F” Troop 452 Battery, 74 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery

Each group would move in single file and once clear of the bridgehead would travel independently south westwards for 40 miles on a bearing of 190°. “Auckland Gap” in the minefield had been widened to 100 yards across by 505 Field Company, Royal Engineers.

14 June: by 7.30pm the First Group had passed through Auckland Gap and formed up ready to start.  The Second Group just inside the Box, was also ready to start.  8/DLI reached its objectives and held the flanks with bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Major Watson commanding the Second Group described events:

“…there was another horrible explosion as the truck Capt. Thomlinson was navigating for the Colonel struck a mine.  The driver Private Campbell was killed…this was the signal for which the Italians were waiting.  Flares were immediately sent up into the darkness where they hung in the sky to light up the whole of the surrounding desert.  Then bullets began to stream overhead and the Italians wildly fired at the naked vehicles…Occasionally, a truck would be hit but still the firing was wild.  Then came another column careering past on the right, regardless of the danger that lay ahead and in a matter of moments, 6 of its vehicles were blazing furiously.  Other vehicles seemed to be burning far and near, turning night into day and tracer shells were streaking through the darkness….”

Corporal Bert Davies remembered his experiences:

“It was getting dark as we approached the minefields there was lots of shelling and machine-gunning in front and to our right there were 5 vehicles already hit and in flames…”

The first 2 columns of the Battalion continued on their way across “Many Tracks” clearly identifiable by the soft sand and the many ruts made by the constant stream of enemy vehicles that had passed that way and they made their way over the desert to the concentration area near Fort Maddalena.  Vehicles broke down, men were rescued and over the next few days a variety of vehicles limped to safety.

15 June: Returning to the bridgehead, the number of vehicles passing through the corridor had dropped to a minimum and neither the 9/DLI nor Major Ferens’ rearguard had appeared.  The command was face with 2 options:

  1. Stick to the plan and go through the corridor
  2. Take the coast road to Tobruk

The enemy were on full alert.  Heavy losses could be expected.  The 9/DLI decided to take the coast road and the rearguard followed.  Major Ferens’ rearguard attached itself to Major Slight’s column (9/DLI).  The rearguard now consisted:

    • 1 Platoon “C” Company, 6/DLI
    • 1 Platoon “D” Company, 6/DLI
    • 1 section carriers 6/DLI
    • 1 section anti-tank guns, 6/DLI
    • Platoon HQ and 1 section 11 platoon, “D” Company, 2/Chechires
    • 1 detachment 505 Field Company, Royal Engineers
    • “F” Troop, 453 Battery, 74 Field regiment, Royal Artillery
    • Detachment 149 Field Ambulance

2.00am: the rearguard moved off and at 7.00am the Gazala Pass was reached.  The road was blocked off by tanks and a German field battery was in position.  An engagement ensued however the rearguard broke through and the column reached Tobruk.  Major Ferens rejoined the battalion at Bir Thalata on the morning of the 17th June.

The service record of Corporal Snowdon has not been researched so it is not known in which company he served – probably “A” Company formed at Bishop Auckland.  It is likely that he was in the Second Group that broke out and his vehicle may have hit a mine or could have been hit by artillery or machine-gun fire.  He has no known grave.  It is therefore assumed that he could not be saved and perished on the battlefield.  There were 2 soldiers killed in action 15 June 1942, Corporal T. Snowdon and Private N.S. Campbell [mentioned in Major Watson’s account above.]  Up until that date, a total of 13 men had been lost during the month of June.

Harry Moses concludes:

“50th Division had carried out a remarkable feat and whilst the losses in men were not as great as expected – 96% of those who had started out from the Gazala Line reached the Egyptian frontier – the loss of equipment and materials was considerable…by late morning on the 19th of the month, 21 officers and 628 OR had rejoined.” 

Corporal T. Snowdon was one of 3 Evenwood men to lose their lives serving with the 6/DLI.  The others being 4456682 Private J. Stephenson killed in action 28 June 1942 and his older brother 4394935 Private T.F. Stephenson killed in action 9 October 1944.

Memorials to commemorate Corporal Thomas Snowdon: The Alamein Memorial, Egypt. [5]

 4456396 Corporal T. Snowdon is commemorated at column 67, the Alamein Memorial which forms the entrance to Alamein War Cemetery. The Land Forces panels commemorate more than 8,500 soldiers of the Commonwealth who died in the campaigns in Egypt and Libya and in the operations of the Eighth Army in Tunisia up to 19 February 1943 who have no known grave.  It also commemorates those who served and died on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Persia.

St. Paul’s Church, Evenwood

 The family of Corporal Thomas Snowdon presented the Book of Holy Communion to the church in commemoration of their son and brother.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] 1939 England & Wales Register

[3] “Great Campaigns of World War II” 2002 Little, Brown & Co. p.86-89 & &

[4] “The Faithful Sixth: A History of the Sixth Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry” Harry Moses p180-184

[5] CWGC