In the aftermath of the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Afrika Korps was in full retreat and in the chaos of withdrawal the Germans had to abandon countless pieces of equipment and personal items. Following closely behind were the advancing Allied forces including Driver Alf Jackson of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). Jackson had the vital task of transporting water to frontline troops but after El Alamein he was part of an RASC convoy passing through the Halfaya Pass near the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Known as “Hellfire Pass”, the high escarpment area had been a strategically vital thoroughfare for both sides before El Alamein. After Jackson passed through he chanced upon a large abandoned German camp, which he believes was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s abandoned headquarters. Jackson told History of War the eerie tale of how he discovered an elaborate but rare Nazi victory plaque in the ghostly heart of the Desert Fox’s operations.
When did you join the British Army and what did your tasks as a driver consist of?
I originally got my papers when I was 19 but got delayed until I was 20. I then went to Scotland and we got on the ship and finished up in the desert in 1941. I served about a year and three quarters in the desert. I was on water supplies for most of the time right up until we got to Tripoli and then we drove all the way back down to Egypt before we finished up in Italy.
What did the RASC do during the Second Battle of El Alamein?
We weren’t at the battle itself; we were supplying water. We were coming up at the tail end of the battle driving water tankers. Soldiers would come back with their empty cans, drop them off and pick up full cans for the frontline troops. We were not actually in the battle line but we weren’t far off.
Can you describe the circumstances that led to you discovering Rommel’s headquarters in the Halfaya Pass?
We were carrying water when we got to Halfaya Pass. We couldn’t use the pass because the Germans had blown it up so we had to come over the rocky desert. How the tyres on the lorries withstood it I don’t know but we were loaded up with flimsy two-gallon cans of water that used to leak.
Just as we got to the top of the hill almost into Halfaya there were hundreds of Germans and Italian prisoners surrounding us. The Germans were shouting out, “Drinking wasser! Drinking wasser!” They were asking for drinking water and of course we were carrying it all. There were two of us on the truck and a lot of these cans leaked so the other driver said, “By the time we get going these cans will be empty. Give them the leakers.” There were hundreds of Germans surrounding us-we couldn’t move. I went in the back of the truck to sort the leaking cans and gave them to them. They thanked us and off they went. Hundreds of them walked back down to our lines to give themselves up but when we got over the top into Rommel’s camp the South Africans were already there.
What did you see in the camp?
We stopped and got out. There was a small German monoplane with a black cross and green camouflage parked on grass. Can you imagine grass in the desert! It looked ready to take off but the engine wasn’t running.
I walked up to the side door and to my surprise and shock there was a German officer sitting there at the controls. He was a big fellah and I think he was Rommel’s second-in-command. He wore a full blue-green uniform with all the decorations and peak cap. His eyes were open but he was dead, which was a shock because I thought he was alive. If they were captured they all had means to take poisoned tablets. I think that he couldn’t get away so he just sat there and took the poison.
What items did you discover in the camp?
Rommel’s big white tents were there and I turned around and went into the “entrance”. In front of the tents was a concrete pathway and lined up on either side were officers’ backpacks all ready to be put on vehicles to be taken away with them. But of course they were all captured and their kit was still lined up on this pathway in front of the tents.
I knew they were officers’ backpacks because they had a fur backing to them and it was only officers that had fur backing. All their personal belongings were still in them. One had a shaving tin and I took the lid off and there was this beautiful wristwatch in there still running. I didn’t want it so I put it back again.
How did you discover the plaque?
When I came to the end of this row of backpacks there were several boxes on top of one another and I could see that there was tissue paper sticking out. I wondered what they were and went to have a look. I pulled one out and discovered this plaque.
There were hundreds of them but I don’t know what they were going to do with them. I suppose they were going to issue them to officers because underneath the enamel design there is a space but there are no names on them. I took one and brought it home with me. It was something you’d never dream of seeing in the middle of the desert.
What are the details on the plaque?
It’s marvellously done and not very big at about four inches across and seven-eight inches down. According to this plaque, they’d invaded Britain alongside all the European countries that they’d invaded. All the invaded countries are in red including England. Of course they didn’t do it but it just shows you the way their minds worked. It had already been made and they hadn’t even invaded us!
On the water between the two countries is a gunboat that has the tip of the gun pointing at London. Right across the whole thing is the Afrika Korps symbol, which is a palm tree. On the top of the whole picture is a German eagle and at the bottom is a swastika.
Have any experts been able to work out its importance or value?
I took it to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and the chap looked at it and said, “I think I’ve seen a couple like these before but the chaps that had them didn’t know where they’d found them.” I said, “Well, this one came from Rommel’s headquarters and this is where they were.” But they didn’t use it on the programme so it never got shown. They had no idea what it was worth; all they knew was what they could see. It was probably an award of some sort but at the time there was no one there to ask because the camp was empty.
What did you think of Rommel as a commander?
Apparently he was a gentleman from what we’d heard about him. We weren’t that scared of him as a general or a man; he was a bit like Montgomery. They used to say to us when we were going up the line that if we got captured he’d give you a cup of tea and send you back again!
Images courtesy of Alf Jackson