It was not just the searing heat of the day, hot enough to boil an egg on the bonnet of a lorry, or the sand that nestled in every crevice of the body, or the shivering cold of the starlit nights, that the British and Commonwealth troops had to battle in the North African desert – it was also the tough and determined Axis forces under their brilliant leader, Erwin Rommel.
The actions which resulted in the awarding of twenty-nine VCs in the Desert War included that of stretcher bearer Private Anderson walking alone into the gunfire of the enemy to rescue wounded comrades, not once, but time and time again until he too was shot and killed. Lieutenant George Gunn, who, at Sidi Rezegh, found his troop of the Royal Horse Artillery facing the onslaught of sixty German tanks. One by one the guns were put out of action, the crews killed or wounded. Eventually, only one gun was left, manned by the twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant and his sergeant. Regardless of the odds, Gunn fought on until he too was killed, shot through the head.
The fighting in North Africa was not just in the harsh extremes of the rolling desert, but also the barren mountains of Tunisia, and the coastal strips of Libya. In every battle, every maneuver, the terrain was the limiting or enabling feature – and it was over that unforgiving ground that twenty-nine men distinguished themselves and were awarded the highest of all gallantry medals, the Victoria Cross.