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Brigadier Philip Pope

Artillery officer who disguised his bravery in the Western Desert in a series of light-hearted letters home.

PHILIP POPE was an artillery officer of dash and initiative who won the MC and DSO in two early campaigns of the Second World War. He was mentioned in dispatches in a third and then took part in the North West European campaign from Normandy to the Rhine. Despite the obvious dangers, his letters home reflected a light-hearted attitude to the vagaries of fortune, especially in the ebb and flow of the Western Desert battles.

He won his MC in the unexpectedly bitter campaign against the Vichy French in the Middle East in June and July 1941. The swiftly successful German drive through the Balkans raised concern that Hitler would next strike through the Caucasus and Palestine to the Suez Canal. Churchill ordered a pre-emptive occupation of Syria and Lebanon, with some hope that the French forces there would declare for General de Gaulle. Instead they resisted fiercely, not least the units of the Foreign Legion.

Pope was a youthful battery commander of 1st Field Regiment RA supporting a brigade of 10th Indian Division. With the infantry held up by enemy on high ground to the flanks, his brigade commander asked how he could help. "We could charge," replied Pope, and proceeded to do so. His tactic of leapfrogging gun troops forward from one fire position to the next, with those in the rear giving covering fire, did the trick. A white flag was hurriedly run up shortly after his close-range bombardment of the main position began.

This was his second campaign in 1941. Earlier he had commanded the same battery during the defeat of Italian forces in Eritrea, from where they had made a tentative advance into Sudan the previous July. The Italians fought well in this campaign, making determined stands at Keru, Agordat and for 55 days at Keren. They had the more modern aircraft and, as the bare hills gave scant cover, British and Indian artillery batteries had a key role in supporting the attacking infantry on to their objectives. Two thousand three-ton truckloads of 25-pounder ammunition were brought forward for the final battle of Keren. Pope’s battery supported a brigade of 4th Indian Division, and he was mentioned in dispatches.

He commanded a battery of 25 Field Regiment RA during the Eighth Army’s reverse in June 1942, when Sir Ian Ritchie withdrew from the Gazala Line after a series of largely ineffectual attacks on the German Afrika Korps and three Italian divisions. On June 21 Rommel took the fortress of Tobruk where Pope's battery had sought refuge, but after destroying his guns and vehicles he and a group of four officers and 17 men avoided capture. They faced a seemingly impossible march to safety, yet his letter home later concentrated on the lighter aspects.

After making for the nearby Mediterranean coast, they followed it eastwards with the intention of catching up the withdrawing Eighth Army. Together with others who had managed to get away from Tobruk, they marched by night to escape detection and the heat, bathing in the sea as often as possible to compensate for the shortage of drinking water. After several days, with everyone exhausted and hungry, Pope struck inland for the desert road in the hope of capturing an enemy truck — and found one with six Italian soldiers asleep in the back. The planned silent attack woke them, but a revolver in the ribs persuaded the driver to start up, whereupon his comrades jumped out.

Encouraged by this success, Pope ordered the Italian driver to head eastwards along the coast road, ignoring the man’s despairing cries of "aqua" on the assumption that he — like everyone else — was thirsty. It was not too long before he realised that it was the radiator that needed water, not the driver. The truck ground to a halt during an early morning mist, but was fortuitously close to a food and fuel dump, ensuring survival that day. Shortly before dark, a large Italian ambulance drew up near by and Pope’s party had no difficulty in overcoming the crew, cramming inside and driving on to safety. He was awarded the DSO for his gallantry during the Gazala battle and enterprise in getting his surviving officers and men back.

After a brief period as second-in-command of 3rd Regiment RHA in the runup to the Battle of Alamein, he attended the wartime staff course at Haifa. On return to England, he was appointed Brigade Major Royal Artillery of the 51st Highland Division, which landed as part of 1st Corps on D-Day. He served with this division throughout the breakout battles from the Normandy bridgehead, the crossing of the Seine and the advance through the Low Countries to the Rhine.

Philip William Gladstone Pope was the son of Lieutenant P. G. Pope, RA, who was killed at Passchendaele in 1917. He was educated at Rugby School and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, from where he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1933. His early service was in England and Singapore, where he commanded a troop of heavy anti- aircraft guns at RAF Changi — luckily being sent to the Middle East in 1940.

After the war he had a successful regimental career, commanding E Battery 1st Royal Horse Artillery in Egypt and 2nd Regiment RHA in Germany. Subsequently he commanded 5 Infantry Brigade Group in the Army of the Rhine, 1959-61, the Mons Officer Cadet School at Aldershot, 1962-63, and the Royal Artillery Training Brigade at Woolwich, 1966-67. He was an ADC to the Queen, 1964-68. He retired from the Army in 1968 to join the Westland Group in Yeovil.

He married Christine Hartshorne in Cairo in 1942. She survives him along with their son and two daughters.

Brigadier Philip Pope, DSO, MC, was born on April 25, 1913. He died on July 30, 2002 aged 89.