Ray Ellis, the last soldier to fire on advancing German troops in the important World War II ‘Battle of Knightsbridge’, sadly passed away on Tuesday last week, aged 94.
He was also the last surviving veteran from the 1942 battle, which was one of the most celebrated acts of bravery in the Royal Artillery’s history and saw the 107th Regiment of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars virtually wiped out.
According to reports, former Hussar Captain Gil Aldridge hailed Mr Ellis as the last soldier to fire on the Germans at the end of the battle. Ordered to 'fight to the last man and the last round', they stuck to their guns as their comrades fell around them, reported the Daily Mail.
Mr Ellis got captured in the North African desert and taken to a Prisoner of War camp in Italy — shipped from Libya. He was among 90 men from his regiment who were captured at the Battle of Knightsbridge.
Amazingly, the plucky soldier managed to escape though by marching out of the main gate as if on a work party and then hid in the mountains for a year. A young Italian girl then found him and then led him to her sympathetic farming family who took him in.
In later life Mr Ellis returned regularly to visit the family in the hill village of Massa Fermana, near Ancona, Italy, who helped save his life. He even ended up naming one of his daughters, Nerina, after the girl who discovered him.
After his dramatic experiences, Mr Ellis then wrote a book published last year about his experiences in the Battle of Gazala in 1942, called 'Once a Hussar'. He was also invited to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to talk to recruits about his experiences.
Describing the events of the last day of the battle on June 6, 1942, Mr Ellis described how he remained at his 25-pounder gun and witnessed the death of the shirtless comrade beside him.
He said: "My regiment had been given the order to fight to the last man and the last round and not to retire, and this painting shows our position after a long day's battle. I fought in that battle.
"The regiment was almost wiped out - but by some miracle, I was the last man virtually, and I fired the last round. That round, which was at about six o'clock at night, hit a Mark IV tank.
"Then the man standing at the side of me was killed because a German tank had come up behind us and fired its machine gun, almost point blank. And I took a deep breath and waited for mine.
"For some reason the tank didn't fire and I survived and am still here. You feel guilty for having survived. I found my comrade Jim Hardy lying nearby. He had been cut in two.
"I took his water bottle and drank his water. I was in tears when I was taken prisoner.'
Col Tim Richmond, Honorary Colonel of the South Notts Hussars, said: "We regarded Ray and all those who fought as a band of brothers at Tobruk and Knightsbridge as heroes and the sacrifices that they made will never be forgotten."
Searching for an ancestor who was once a Prisoner of War?
Forces War Records have gathered and transcribed the Italian Prisoner of War camps nominal rolls directly from the National Archives, under reference WO392/12 ‘Imperial Prisoners of War in Italy’. For anybody researching a Prisoner of War, this could prove to be a crucial source of information, perhaps offering a missing jigsaw piece to your genealogy puzzle. The records are likely to include: name, initials, rank service number, regiment/corps, and final Italian camp location. The vast and ever-growing Forces War Records database is cross-referenced — so you may even find out further nuggets of information from this one search.
During the Second World War, over 170,000 British Prisoners of War were captured by German and Italian forces, after defeats in France, North Africa and the Balkans. The majority of men were caught between 1940 and 1942 and then imprisoned in POW camps stretching from Nazi-occupied Poland to Italy. Over 75,000 of those that were held by Italy were recorded by the ‘Casualty (PW) Branch of the Directorate of Prisoners of War’ in London, during the war.