Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Major Tom Bird DSO, MC, hero of Alamein and Desert War

Major Tom Bird DSO, MC, hero of Alamein and Desert War

MAJOR Tom Bird DSO, MC, hero of Alamein and the Desert War, died at his home in Turville Heath, where he had lived for 40 years, on August 9. He was 98.

He was born and brought up in nearby Fawley and was very much a man of the Chilterns, who rode its paths and shot its valleys and woods.

He was a fine sportsman who played cricket for Henley and Berkshire. He was High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1989.

As a distinguished architect, he designed and remodelled many classical country houses, including Hall Barn, near Beaconsfield, for Lord Burnham.

Bird was a modest soldier but was one of those rare men that actually turned the tide of battle.

At the height of El Alamein (October 23-November 24, 1942) Bird’s regiment, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, was in a small depression 2,000 yards in front of the British forward position, codenamed Snipe.

On October 27 Rommel threw his armour at the beleaguered battalion but throughout the heat of a long day Bird’s anti-tank company, which he commanded, destroyed and stopped all the advancing German and Italian tanks.

At first light that morning, Bird had stood in the open, desperately repositioning his new six-pounder guns so they had good fields of fire.

He was lucky to survive this blatant action; his second-in-command was killed.

But at midday a crisis developed and the battling riflemen of 2RB seemed about to be overwhelmed — some six-pounders were knocked out and those that could fire were out of ammunition. Enemy tanks lurched forward.

Rifleman R L Crimp, who later published his diary account (Diary of a Desert Rat, 1974), saw what happened next: “Several guns are now completely out of ammo. The situation’s so bad that two officers of S Company (Tom Bird and a platoon commander), try to effect a redistribution of what remains by jeep.

“They travel slowly over the dunes (four-wheeled drive carrying them on), quite heedless of the machine gun bullets slashing the air around them and Panzers potting straight at them, collecting odd rounds from knocked-out guns or the guns of knocked-out crews, and taking them to guns that can still strike back.

“One bullet amongst the ammo on board and the lot would go sky-high.”

The battle raged on until nightfall but this drastic action had saved the battalion. It prevented Rommel crashing through the British lines, causing havoc.

Without it, the Battle of Alamein could have been very far from the decisive victory, Churchill’s “end of the beginning” that we celebrate.

Col Vic Turner, 2 RB’s commander, was later awarded the Victoria Cross for, as his citation stated, “an example of leadership and bravery which inspired his whole battalion”.

Turner regarded this as a VC for his men. Bird, “an inspiration to all ranks”, was awarded the DSO for his “courage and leadership” (his men thought he should have received a VC too).

The citation continued: “Major Bird paid no heed to his own safety… He was always at the critical point… directing the fire of a gun whose No 1 was wounded, loading another… fetching ammunition and cheering his men. All this he did under intense fire.”

At the height of the battle Bird, always crippled with shyness, had promised himself that if he survived he would never go to another dance. But he did. His American wife, Alice, who died in 2015, loved dancing.

When the battle was over he felt no elation (his company had lost most of 2RB’s 70 casualties): “Friends lay dead and we had lost all our guns; all my officers had been killed or wounded… it didn’t seem to me like a great victory.”

But it was. The enemy had lost about 60 irreplaceable tanks, self-
propelled guns and artillery pieces, to 300 riflemen. Newspapers back home called it “the finest action of the war”.

Bird, who was wounded in the head towards the end of the day, struggled on but eventually collapsed.

Before Snipe, Bird was already a desert legend for his aggressive night patrols and for capturing an astounding number of Axis prisoners.

He had won two Military Crosses. One of his battalion’s riflemen, Victor Gregg, called him “a man of exceptional courage”, adding: “When all seemed to be lost, there would be Dicky boy, calm and seemingly aloof from the dangers around us...” (Rifleman, 2011).

Recuperating from his wounds, Bird served as aide-de-camp to both Field Marshal Wavell, whose son was a friend, and Field Marshal Auchinleck in India before returning to his regiment. He was blown up by a mortar during 30 Corps’ drive to Arnhem in September 1944 and dragged to safety by the present Lord Saye and Sele. His fighting war ended.

Bird served with distinction as aide-de-camp to Field Marshal “Jumbo” Wilson in Washington, where he dined with Mountbatten and the Duke of Windsor and was privy to the date of D-Day and the secret of the atom bomb — both secrets he would have preferred not to know as he tended to talk in his sleep.

He met most of the great names of the war. He spent a day with Eisenhower in Potsdam mending a fountain, joked with Churchill and spent a few days with the Chindit commander Orde Wingate, who he thought “quite mad”.

Antony Eden said to him: “I have heard all about you” (the story of Snipe had been in the papers).

When in the desert he would be sent for by Wavell to join his family for charades.

Tom Bird was educated at Winchester College, where he excelled at drawing and cricket, and the Architectural Association. After the war he set up an architectural partnership with a fellow Desert Rat Richard Tyler. Country Life called his neo-classical houses “dignified and well-proportioned”.

In later years he was the subject of articles and documentaries, even a novel (Alamein by Iain Gale, 2010) in which he is the hero (“Killing had become second nature to Bird…” says the jacket blurb).

Bird retired in 1985 “when bricks went metric”, as he put it, although he did the occasional design for a friend, like the millennium folly he built for the late Sir Alistair Horne in Turville.

He never lost his love of sketching, or whisky at 6.45pm. He leaves a daughter, Sarah, and two sons, Antony and Nicholas, who run Bird Battlefield Tours.

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