Although I do not smoke, I do occasionally pick up bits of militaria with a smoking connection, the ubiquity of this habit for much of the twentieth century ensures there are many interesting military related items of tobaccanalia out there. Tonight’s object is a heavy carved ashtray:This is made from a piece of grey marble, nicely finished and polished smooth:What interests us however is the inscription around the edges that indicates it was made as a souvenir for the Royal Engineers during their campaigns in Northern Africa in 1942 and 1943:In the centre is a carved formation badge for the First Army:This badge consists of a shield, with a crusader cross on it and a sword superimposed upon it, this formation was assembled for the allied landings in Operation Torch.
Ronald Sargeant was an engineer in North Africa, with the Eighth rather than the First Army, but his experiences give a good indication of the sort of work the Royal Engineers were involved in during the campaigns here:
On October 23 Montgomery mounted an attack against the German line at Alamein. He had received reinforcements from Britain of tanks, guns, etc and the guns (900) were massed on the front and for the start of the battle fired a barrage the like of which had never been seen before. Our job in the battle was to remove mines in the German minefields to make gaps for the infantry and tanks to pass through safely.
The Germans had roughly 20-30 different types of mines, which we had to learn how to defuse. The most famous was the Tellex mine, which was for use against tanks and when it was laid could be booby trapped. Another was the anti-personnel mine which when trodden on jumped up about 3 feet in the air and exploded. All that showed above ground were three small antennae, which were very difficult to see but both types were picked up on the mine detection which was very much like a vacuum cleaner.
The Battle of Alemein in 1942 was the turning point of the war in the desert and the German and Italians were pushed back past Tripoli. We had a victory parade in Tripoli marching down the main street behind bands of bagpipes, but after that it was on to Tunis (capital of Tunisia). Before that the 1st Army and Americans landed in Algeria so the Germans were pinched between two armies, 8th in the east and 1st in the west and it wasn’t long before the Germans and Italians surrendered and the war in North Africa was over.
Here we see a sapper clearing mines in Tunisia in 1943: