The Search for the Soldier Without a Name (Part 2) – An encounter in the desert

This was a foolish act that cost the Italian officer everything he had.

Everything dear to him, was taken off him, including those black and white photographs I now have.

My grandfather, William Smillie and grandmother Betty on their wedding day. They married just before my grandfather headed off to war.

That act took place somewhere in the Western Desert probably in 1942 or 1943. The Italian, a career soldier perhaps a major or even a colonel had been forced to surrender to a unit of the British 8th army.

The soldier who stepped forward to accept that surrender was my grandfather William Findlay Smillie. What happened next ensured that those pictures landing in the possession of my family.

Now I am trying to give that Italian officer a name and discover his fate. So far it has been a difficult journey, and as I have said before any suggestions or tips are welcome.

This is how my grandfather, came to have those pictures.

When World War Two broke out, my grandfather thought it would be over soon.

That is why when the British navy wanted him to sign up for five years, he turned them down.

He believed the war would be over by Christmas. Maybe if he knew what was ahead, he would have opted for those five years on the open seas.

Granddad signed up with the Royal Tank Corps and was sent to Egypt to fight in the Western Desert. He trained as a tank driver but soon volunteered for an outfit that was to gain a fierce some reputation.

Two LRDG trucks armed with water cooled Vicker...

Two LRDG trucks armed with water cooled Vickers guns (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Long Range Desert Group or the LRDG were a multi national bunch of volunteers who moved hundreds of miles behind enemy lines on reconnaissance and raiding missions.

At its peak the LRDG only numbered about 350 men.

They attacked airfields and ferried the then newly formed Special Air Service (SAS) on commando raids deep into enemy territory.

One such mission, which my grandfather said he was a part of, was Operation Flipper.

During this operation the LRDG assisted in an attempt to assassinate the head of the German Afrika Korps General Erwin Rommel. They missed the Desert Fox.

Rommel conversing with his staff near El Aghei...

Rommel conversing with his staff near El Agheila, January 12, 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Granddad didn’t talk much about his war experiences , I suspect he witnessed a lot of horrible events.

But one of the stories he did tell was of taking an Italian officer prisoner. I don’t know where this happened, if he told me I have since forgotten.

A high ranking officer I recall him telling me, who didn’t appear happy at having to surrender.

As my grandfather approached, the officer did something that could have cost him his life. He spat in my grandfather’s face.

My grandfather reacted by slamming the butt of his rifle into the Italian’s face.

He then did something, he said he had never done before, he stripped the officer of all his belongings, including those ten photographs.

One of those looted photographs and the Italian officer

What happened to the Italian after that, he didn’t say.

His actions were brutal, yes. But this was war, and I suspect that just minutes earlier that same officer and his men were probably trying to kill him and comrades.

My grandfather went on to take part in the battle of

El Alamein

then chased Rommel through Libya and Tunisia.

His war ended in July 1943 when his Sherman tank took a direct hit from a German 88, in Sicily. The first shell hit one of the tank’s tracks disabling it. The second hit the Sherman in the turret. He was the only crew member pulled out alive.

Severely wounded, he took no further part in the war.

He died in 1998, aged 80.

As for that Italian officer, all that remains of him is an image on a series of photographs, his name and story obliterated by an act in the desert.

About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
This entry was posted in Smillie family history, The search for the Italian officer, Uncategorized, world war two and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Search for the Soldier Without a Name (Part 2) – An encounter in the desert

  1. Theresa says:

    Really interesting. One of my sister’s old boyfriends had a WWII helmet he picked up at a scrap yard and sometimes he use to wear it to parties. It always freaked me out thinking of where that helmet had been and what it had witnessed, now just to be part of a drinking game.

    • It also use to freak me out, people wearing old WW11 stuff. I knew a guy that use to go fishing wearing an nazi cap, with the swastika brazen on the front. He didnt seem to understand what the Nazis stood for.
      Only fished with him once.

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