Object Advent Calendar Day 16

For today’s object we have a blog written by Evelyn, one of a number of volunteers at the Black Watch Castle and Museum. Evelyn works with the Archivist, Richard McKenzie, and is currently involved in a project to create a database of all the soldiers who served in The Black Watch during the First World War. Currently her database stands at around 15,000 soldiers and if you visit the archive you might well catch a glimpse of her. She will be the lady wandering about muttering obscure things such as “S/16784, Amiens 1918,” or “T Campbell, not J, T, Sergeant, Ypres Reservoir.”

Rm8+W5 (18) (640x447)

The Day the Black Watch Chose to Die

In an article written by the novelist Alistair McLean in the Sunday dispatch on 12th July 1959, he recounts the pivotal moment in the North African Campaign when the 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch were pinned down during Operation Crusader, which was designed to drive Rommel out of Cyrenaica and raise the siege of Tobruk, was launched at dawn on 18th November 1941.  Comprising the Allied and Commonwealth Forces.

The German fixed machine-guns and Schmeizers waited till the last moment, then opened up with every weapon they had in a concentrated and deadly fire, the stuttering crash of their automatic guns now punctuated by a long and irregular series of sharp explosions as the tanks, back on course, ran fair and square into the minefields, their advance grinding to a complete stop.

B Company of Black Watch couldn’t stop. They could have flung themselves flat on the murderous and defenseless plain but even in full view of the enemy and been picked off one by one: they could have fled and still be killed OR they could have elected to fix bayonets and die facing the enemy.  So they fixed bayonets and charged and died facing the enemy.  It was  against all the laws of chance that more than a handful could ever have survived the almost solid curtain of lead that swept across the blood-soaked plain and the laws of chance had them inexorable way.  B Company was virtually annihilated and only a handful ever reached their objective.

That handful took the post and then the 11 survivors pushed on for ‘Tiger’ with other companies of The Black Watch…..

….. Meantime The Black Watch under indescribable intense vicious and accurate fire from hundreds of machine guns, rifles and mortars, were in bad trouble.

The attack faltered, stopped and then out over the plains of Tobruk skirled the high, harsh wail of the bagpipes.  The sound of Pipe Major Roy – shot three times but still carrying on – and then Pipe Serjeant McNicol playing ‘the Black Bear’ – the tune played only when all seems lost.

The effect was miraculous.

Observers in the royal Horse Artillery who so magnificently supported the attackers were appalled – and enthralled – by the spectacle before them. They had heard of the suicidal courage of Highlanders attaching to the sound of the pipes but never quite believed it but they saw it now and they never quite believed it but they saw it now and they never wanted to see it again.

For the shocked observers of this crucifixion of one of the finest Regiments this is the memory that will always remain…..

…..The survivors never stopped, never swerved, never thought to take shelter except for a brief pause for the tanks to come up and they took ‘Tiger’ at the point of a bayonet.

When it was over 24 out of 32 officers and 440 of the 600 men of The Black Watch were lying dead and wounded on the plains of Tobruk.

How do I know this, my father, Jim Bertie, was one of the survivors, he never spoke about it and I was to find out while searching the archives to know how much of hero he was.

Did Survivors Syndrome/Guilt play a part for with his hand raised, his last words were ‘Wait, I’m coming’.


About blackwatchmuseum

The Museum of The Black Watch offers an insight into one of the British Army's if not the world's most famous fighting units. Scotland's Black Watch is an elite military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries.
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