Unlike many of my previous articles, this one is not centred on the Indian Subcontinent but relates to an unusual event that occurred during the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt during the Second World War. It makes for an interesting story that I want to share with readers.
In the fluid battles in the desert of North Africa during the Second World War, it was not uncommon for senior commanders to suddenly find themselves within the midst of the enemy. In the early stages of the campaign, a German motorcycle patrol captured two British generals –General Philip Neame, the commander of the British forces in Cyrenaica, along with his advisor General Richard O’Connor, who had earlier defeated the Italian Army in North Africa. During Operation CRUSADER, Rommel and his staff found themselves behind Allied lines several times. On one occasion, he stopped at a field hospital of the New Zealand Army, inquired if they needed anything, promised them medical supplies and drove off unhindered. However, on the 4th of November 1942 a very unusual event occurred – the seemingly voluntary surrender by a very senior, capable and highly respected German general.
It was the opening stages of the decisive offensive at Alamein. The Eighth Army had succeeded in breaking into Rommel’s defences and was now ready to launch the breakout phase codenamed Operation SUPERCHARGE. The point of application had been rapidly switched south from the coast, into the sector covered by an Italian Corps and the Deutsches Afrika Korps commanded by General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma. He was one of the most experienced Panzer commanders during the first half of the Second World War. He had fought in the First World War, taken part in close to two hundred combat actions during the Spanish Civil War, and commanded panzer divisions during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. He had also taken part in the crucial 1941 winter battle for Moscow. In his memoirs titled Panzer Leader, Guderian who commanded Panzer Group II during the invasion of the Soviet Union, remarked on von Thoma: “He was one of our most senior and experienced panzer officers; he had been famous for his icy calm and exceptional bravery both in the First World War and in Spain.”
On the 4th of November, the 10th Royal Hussars were advancing in the vanguard of the 2nd British Armoured Division. There had been a sharp engagement in the morning when they had been held up by German tanks and succeeded in destroying six of them. Captain Singer, who was commanding the Reconnaissance Troop of light Dingo Armoured Cars, was moving in the forward areas collecting prisoners from the destroyed enemy tanks. He spotted a single German tank moving to a flank and indicated it to one of his tanks which fired and hit it. As the German crew bailed out, Singer went forward to capture them. The war history of the 10th Royal Hussars records: “As he [Singer] approached the German tank, its commander who had got out of the burning vehicle started walking towards Singer with his hands raised. Grabbing a Thompson sub-machine gun, Singer dismounted from his Daimler and took the German prisoner. This was no ordinary prisoner though; this was the acting Commander of the German Afrika Korps, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma.”
Just before the decisive Battle of Alamein, von Thoma had been posted to North Africa. Rommel had been convalescing in Germany and returned only days before Montgomery unleashed his offensive. In the face of rapidly mounting losses and dangerous penetrations into his lines, Rommel prepared to withdraw. However Hitler intervened and instructed Rommel: “As to your troops, you can show them no other way than that to victory or death.” Appalled at this controversial order, von Thoma declared it “madness”, mounted one of the tanks guarding his headquarters and drove to the apex of the battle where his tank was hit and he was taken prisoner. Rommel later opined that von Thoma was probably seeking his death in battle while other staff officers quietly speculated that he went to the front to deliberately surrender.
Captain Singer was ordered to take Von Thoma back to the brigade headquarters and then onwards to the headquarters of the Eighth Army. In a photograph taken when the two generals met, von Thoma is saluting and the expression on the face of General Montgomery seems to be asking the German, “Where have you dropped in from?” However, he then condescended to shake hands with his captive. The war in North Africa was one of the few theatres where a code of chivalry was practised by both sides. That evening, von Thoma dined with Montgomery at his headquarters. When the news got to UK, there was a complaint by a member in the House of Commons that Montgomery had invited a defeated German general to dinner in his desert caravan. “I sympathize with General von Thoma,” responded Churchill gravely. “Defeated, in captivity and…… [a long pause for dramatic effect], dinner with Montgomery.” Churchill was reflecting back to his visit to the Eighth Army in North Africa before the battle. He, too, had dined with Montgomery – who neither smoked nor drank.
Liddell Hart, the author and military thinker, later recorded von Thoma’s reaction to Montgomery’s revelations over dinner. “I was staggered at the exactness of his knowledge”, confessed von Thoma. “He seemed to know as much about our position as I did myself.”
Of course Montgomery knew a lot. He was one of the few Allied commanders who was given access to the ultra-secret information that the Allies had on the German plans by breaking the codes used by the German Enigma and other cypher machines. A film released in 2014 called The Imitation Game tells the story of how Alan Turing and his team cracked the code at Bletchley Park. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
After delivering von Thoma, Captain Singer returned to the regiment the next morning, just in time to again lead the advance with his Reconnaissance Troop. Operating in lightly armoured wheeled vehicles on the very edge of the frontline was dangerous work. The troop captured the crew of a German 88 mm gun that was limbering up to make a getaway but as it again moved forward, a second and as yet unseen Eighty-eight opened fire – hitting two of the scout cars. One of these was that of Captain Singer and the Eighty-eight ripped the vehicle apart and instantly killed the officer. When he was told of Singer’s death, von Thoma was greatly upset and sought permission to write to his widow, which was granted and a letter was duly sent. Grant Singer was a very wealthy officer. He had been adopted shortly after birth by a member of the American Singer family who were very rich, in no small part from their (now) world famous sewing machine company. When Grant’s father died in 1934, he left an estate in UK worth a million pounds sterling – which meant that Grant had no need of either seeking full-time employment or a career in the army.
Before von Thoma was taken to captivity in UK, he expressed regret at leaving Egypt without seeing the pyramids at Giza. And the British obliged him. Lieutenant Murray Wrobel, who served in the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre and spoke German, was assigned to escort him and had a picture taken with von Thoma in front of the pyramids. Worbel’s abiding memory of this assignment was the encyclopaedic knowledge of the pyramids that von Thoma enthusiastically demonstrated.
While in captivity in the UK, an indiscretion by von Thoma provided the Allies valuable first information of the German rocket programme. The British had been receiving pieces of information about the program since 1939 but they had no means to verify whether the reports were accurate. Many suspected it was the work of German intelligence, trying to trick the British into chasing false leads. These rumours were confirmed in March 1943 through a conversation between von Thoma and another PoW, General Ludwig Crüwell, in their cell – which was bugged. Von Thoma confided that he had visited a site where long-range ballistic missiles were being tested and even named the location: Peenemünde, an island in the Baltic Sea.
Now that they knew what they were looking for; Allied intelligence started pulling together pieces of the puzzle. A variety of different data, carefully used, helped them gain a fuller picture of the importance of the Research Centre at Peenemünde. British reconnaissance flights brought back unmistakable images of rockets at the facility. In fact, the facility was developing guided missiles and long-range ballistic missiles better known as the V1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile. In August 1943 a massive bombing raid was launched against the research facility which was destroyed and the development and production of the rockets was severely disrupted.
Von Thoma was a very seasoned officer and I can’t help wondering if he deliberately leaked the information because he was fed up with the war. He did not survive long after the armistice and died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 58 years.