Private John Stephenson 1917 – 1942

4456682 Private John Stephenson, 6th Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry was killed in action 28 June 1942 aged 25 and is commemorated on the Alamein Memorial and the Evenwood War Memorial.[1]

Family Details

 John was the son of Joseph and Rachel Stephenson and there were at least 7 children Elizabeth, Ada, Thomas, Joseph, John, Harry and Violet.  The family lived at the Centre, Evenwood.

Service Details [2]

 The service record of Private J. Stephenson has not been researched therefore we do not know when he joined up.  This research will examine the events surrounding the date of his death.

 John and Harry Stephenson

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

 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.

Mersa Matruh and the withdrawal to El Alamein

As the British retreated towards the frontier, Rommel switched his attack to Tobruk.  The assault against the fortress commenced 20 June 1942 and it surrendered the following day.  It was a great psychological blow to the British people.  Churchill was shocked.

General Auchinleck wanted his defensive line at El Alamein between the sea and the Qattara Depression, considered impassable and his troops made for there.

27 June:  The 50th Division was in the area of Mersa Matruh and in danger of being surrounded.  The Germans shelled the British positions for most of the day, the brunt of which fell upon the 9/DLI.  British artillery replied hitting targets to the south and south west. By 9.00 am the battalion was not in communication with HQ and it put up heroic resistance that stemmed German attacks until it was completely overrun and survivors captured.

It was in this action that Private Adam Wakenshaw was awarded a posthumous VC for courage and devotion to duty.

With the 9/DLI removed from the battlefield, the 8/DLI occupied the central position with an open flank on the left.  Fortunately, there was a lull as the enemy prepared for the next attack.  The British decided to attack the German lines of communication some 5 miles to the south of their positions.  The objective was to cut off and disorganise enemy lines.  The order of march of the 151 Brigade column was:

  • 8/DLI;
  • Tactical HQ 151 Brigade;
  • 6/DLI with attached batteries of the 74th Field Regiment, RA. – the 6/DLI column was made up of “C” and “D” Companies and elements of “S” Company.

At 8.05pm the battalion moved towards the start line in close desert formation.  It was reached at 8.30pm and harassed by intermittent shelling.  As it moved off heavy anti-tank gun fire was encountered.  The 10th Indian Division was moving south and to the east the 69 Brigade moved in the same direction.  It was almost impossible to identify friend from foe since Germans were using many captured British vehicles.  The objective was reached then orders were received to return via the same route to the Wadi El Zarga area.  The enemy was alert, crossfire from anti-tank and machine gun fire destroyed more trucks and inflicted casualties.  The Battalion rearguard under Capt. Ovenden included some 6/DLI under Lieutenant Redway and it suffered losses:

  • 4 killed
  • 14 wounded
  • 53 missing

Harry Moses comments:

“The danger in which the 50th Division now found itself cannot be overestimated, far more difficult than the Gazala breakout.  There had already been heavy losses in vehicles and weapons.  The enemy was in close contact and it would be extremely difficult to break away unseen.  The Division was faced with armour not infantry.  There was a full moon on the night of 28th-29th June.  The route led through ravines and wadis leading off the coastal plain before the open desert could be reached.  Furthermore, the enemy was very alert following the raid carried out the previous night.  The prospects were not good….At 10.30pm the column set off on its perilous journey. ”

The following fatalities are recorded:

28 June:

  • Lance Sergeant F. Johnson
  • Lance Sergeant W. Robinson
  • Private J. Pears
  • Private J. Stephenson

29 June:

  • Lance Corporal J.R. Newstead
  • Lance Corporal G.S. Walker
  • Private G.K. Dawson
  • Private R. Dewar
  • Private W. Marshall

Private J. Stephenson was killed in action 28 June 1942 and he has no known grave.

5 July:  6/DLI assembled at Mareopolis.  Since leaving the Gazala Line, it had suffered heavy losses – about 300 men had been killed, wounded or missing.  Between 7 February and 5 July there had been 30 Other Ranks killed.  Casualties amongst the officers were 1 killed, 6 missing and 4 wounded.  The loss of equipment and vehicles was most serious – there was virtually no transport.

Private John Stephenson is commemorated on The Alamein Memorial, Egypt[3]

 4456682 Private J. Stephenson is commemorated at column 70, on 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.


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] “The Faithful Sixth: A History of the Sixth Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry” Harry Moses

[3] CWGC