Alexander Liggett

Sergeant Alexander Liggett served in Europe and North Africa in the Royal Tank Regiment before being taken prisoner of war by the Nazis in 1943 and 1945.

Sergeant Alexander Liggett (7877628) served in the Royal Armoured Corps during World War Two. Born on 29th April 1909, he was the son of Joshua Liggett and Mary Liggett (née McCullough) of Corcrain, Portadown, Co. Armagh.

The Irish Census of 1911 records the Liggett family at 58 Obins Street, Portadown, Co. Armagh. Alexander, his older sister Mabel “Maisie” Liggett and both parents live at the address. When Alexander was a young boy, his father Joshua Liggett served in The Great War, winning a Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1916. A younger sister Mary “Molly” Liggett was born on 6th September 1916.

Alexander Liggett and his mother Mary Liggett

Edgar family archive photo: Alexander Liggett and his mother Mary Liggett (née McCullough in the late 1960s or early 1970s in Portadown, Co. Armagh. Copyright Scott Edgar - WartimeNI.

In 1930, Liggett enlisted in the British Army. He served as a reservist for 5 years. After training in Dorset, England, he served for several years in India and Palestine. A keen sportsman, he boxed and played football in the military. During his time in India, he played field hockey for the national team.

In India, Alexander Liggett married for the first time. On 10th August 1931, the 22 year old soldier married Patricia Smith in Lahore, West Bengal, India. Patricia gave birth to a daughter, Dawn Liggett on 20th February 1932. It is not known what happened to end the marriage but both Patricia and Alexander would both remarry. Patricia’s 2nd husband would go on to adopt Dawn.

On returning from India, Alexander settled in Portadown, Co. Armagh again, marrying a local girl and having a son named Gordon Liggett. His wife died shortly after the birth of their 1st son.

On 24th April 1937, Alexander Liggett married Kathleen Burns at St. Mark’s Parish Church, Portadown, Co. Armagh. The couple set up home at 10 Bright Street, Portadown, Co. Armagh. At the time, Liggett worked as a weaver with Hamilton Robb Ltd. in River Lane, Portadown, Co. Armagh. He rejoined the British Army in 1938.

Alexander Liggett and Kathleen Liggett

Edgar family archive photo: Alexander Liggett and his wife Kathleen Liggett (née Burns) at their home in Portadown, Co. Armagh in the early 1980s. Copyright Scott Edgar - WartimeNI.

Outbreak of War

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Liggett joined the new Royal Armoured Corps. He served from the beginning of the conflict, seeing action at Dunkirk in 1940.

The Royal Armoured Corps came into existence on 4th April 1939 as war loomed on the horizon. It was a loose collection of the Royal Tank Corps alongside horse cavalry regiments. The Royal Armoured Corps grew throughout the war. Soon they encompassed regular cavalry, Territorial Army Yeomanry and the Reconnaissance Corps.

Through the war, there were up to 200 regiments including training regiments and infantry battalions. The corps divided into armoured regiments that operated in battle tanks. The rest was formation reconnaissance regiments in reconnaissance tanks. Two such regiments made up the Royal Tank Regiment. They operated along with three regiments of Dragoon Guards, two Hussar Regiments, two Lancer Regiments, and one regiment of Light Dragoons.

Sergeant Liggett Completed more than 28 days full service between 3rd September 1939 and 2nd September 1945. For this, he received the War Medal 1939-1945. His medal also featured a bronze oak leaf on the ribbon. This signified he was ‘Mentioned In Dispatches’. The War Medal was still awarded to those who had their service cut short by death, injury or capture.

He also received the 1939-1945 Star awarded for service between 3rd September 1939 and 2nd September 1945. Those whose service ended with death or disability or those ‘Mentioned In Dispatches’ were also eligible. For his part in the Libya campaign, he received The Africa Star 1939-1945.

Sergeant Alexander Liggett

Family Archive Photo: Alexander Liggett (back right), then a corporal, with Royal Tank Corps comrades before leaving to fight in World War Two.

On 17th June 1941, Alexander Liggett went missing in action during the Western Desert Campaign near Libya. The 7th Armoured Division were part of intense fighting in North Africa at the time. Liggett’s name appears on a casualty list for the day. Casualty number 566 reported to the War Office Casualty Section. Less than 24 hours later at 0900hrs, he was back in action. This action was part of the withdrawal from the disastrous ‘Operation Battleaxe’ offensive. This retreat began on 17th June 1941 – the day Liggett went missing. Seven weeks before, his wife Kathleen received an aerogramme saying Sergeant Liggett was “fit and well”.

Mrs. Liggett, 10 Bright St., Portadown has received official intimation that her husband Sergt. Alexander Liggett Tank Regiment, has been reported missing.

Portadown Times, Friday 25th July 1941.

Rommel took the withdraw of the 2nd and 6th RTR as a sign that the British left flank was crumbling and on the night of 16th June, he concentrated both the German 15th Panzer and 5th Light Divisions and struck hard at the left flank of the 7th Armoured Division.

The German attack started at 0430 hrs with 75 tanks supported by artillery and smashed straight through the Division’s lines, with the Germans heading for the crux of the battle at Halfaya Pass. The 4th Indian Division had been pushed out of Sollum and was ordered to withdraw along the coastal plain. At Fort Capuzzo 22nd Guards Brigade were nearly trapped by the advance and General Creagh ordered the surviving tanks of both 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades to fight a defensive battle.

Ably supported by the Support Group, the British tanks fought a six-hour battle, which gave time for the 22nd Guards Brigade and the 4th Indian Division to withdraw successfully. When he found out that his trap had been unsuccessful Rommel was furious. Supported by RAF bombers XIII Corps was in retreat and 17th June 7th Armoured Division was back in Sofafi, where it had started from three days before.

Desert Rats’ Website

Morale was not good in North Africa. The corps lost almost 1,000 casualties and 91 tanks. This included 122 killed, 588 wounded and 259 missing. 58 Matilda tanks and 29 cruisers were out of action. In fact, 81% of the British tanks were out of commission after only three days of the offensive starting. By comparison, the Germans lost 12 tanks over the same period.

Portadown Man Missing

News has been received by Mrs. Kathleen Liggett, 10 Bright St., Portadown, that her husband, Sgt. Alex. Liggett, Royal Armoured Corps, is a prisoner of war. Sgt. Liggett served for seven years in India and Palestine. His father, Mr Joshua Liggett, won the D.C.M. in the last war.

Portadown Times, Friday 1st August 1941.

Prisoner in Italy

In 1943, Sergeant Alexander Liggett was in Prisoner Of War Camp No. 53, Urbisaglia Macerata, postmark number 3300. The camp became known as Sforza Costa. Sforza Costa lay by a railway twelve miles south of Macerata in the Marche region on Italy’s east coast. The camp stood on the western edge of the town about a mile from the railway station. The modern building was a sugar beet refinery but opened as a prisoner of war camp in 1942.

The camp layout was capital E-shaped and constructed of thick concrete. The middle section contained the entrance through a large archway. The north and south wings were tall storage buildings used to hold captured men on one floor with no dividing walls.

The camp stood in a six-acre open area, surrounded by a no man’s land of 15′ between a 10′ inner fence and a 30′ outer fence. Coils of barbed wire topped both fences. Every fifty yards stood a wooden sentry post with a machine gun armed guard.

A Blackshirt Colonel ran the camp. He had taken part in Mussolini’s “March on Rome”. While most of the officers were elderly, they received help from the local Carabinieri. There were two interpreters in the camp when Sergeant Liggett was there. The first, known as “Harry’s Brother” was a waiter, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had worked at the Savoy Hotel. The second, known by “Wee Jock” was from a respected Glaswegian ice-cream selling family. He had returned to Italy for his grandmother’s funeral.

In 1942 and 1943, the number of inmates rose from around 2,000 to over 8,000. The camp was not designed for this many people. There was only one toilet block with a dozen “squatters” and three running water standpipes.

Sergeant William Cooper provided details of the camp. He also claimed the British administration were “too friendly” with the Italian guards. The higher ranking officers were able to smuggle in food and wine for themselves. Those in the lower ranks could never smuggle in escape equipment or radios. When the Italians withdrew from the Axis in 1943, British administration even offered to take over. They would stand guard over their own men until replacement troops arrived.

Alexander Liggett escaped from Sforza Costa in 1943. It’s likely he escaped along with around 1,000 other inmates on 15th September 1943. They took their chance to walk straight out of the camp while unguarded. The Italian guards left after their country surrendered. It took several days for German guards to replace them.

Lenn Dann talks of the escape in his book “Laughing, We Ran”. He claims the British officers paraded their men in the recreation field on the day the Italians left. A senior officer spoke of separate peace and warned them there was no need for “bloody silly heroics”. Those who ignored his plea made their escape after their evening meal. They had no idea when they would next get a chance to eat.

The prisoners of Sforza Costa had similar stories. Many found themselves captured in North Africa during the Tobruk campaign. This was one reason for the swell in numbers in 1942. Those who fled the camp in 1943, headed for the mountainous countryside. Italian families in rural areas gave them a warm welcome. They fed and clothed the men and in some cases gave them work and a bed for several weeks.

Letter from the Camp

8th Letter. Dearest Kathleen here is another letter to you. I’m still going strong, but I still wait for a first letter from you, and of course I’ve had no parcels yet. Still, I’ve got nothing else to do so I can wait.

One of our chaps has died here and he had a lovely funeral. All the soldiers lined the road and some of them walked behind the coffin. It was very impressive. He was married 18 months ago in England. He was only with his wife about a fortnight before he went out to the East. It’s pretty hard lines on her and his mother, still it’s the war and these things will happen.

[Censored]

There is nothing more to say in this letter as nothing ever happens here. I still love you as dearly and I’m longing for the time when we can be together again. I’m always thinking of you sweetheart and I’m always talking to other chaps about you. I’m very proud of my wife. I’ve got no photos. Will you send some darling? You can send in an ordinary letter costing five pence.

Cheerio darling. xx Alex xx.

8th March 1943.

A fellow escapee, Terry Moriarty, wrote to Liggett’s family to let them know he was alive and well after the escape. Many of those who escaped in Italy were later recaptured and detained in the Stalags of Germany. Stalag IVD and IVG in Muhlberg on the river Elbe became infamous. This is not where the war would end for Sergeant Alexander Liggett.

Capture in Germany

The Germans imprisoned Sergeant Liggett again in 1945 and held him in Muhlberg’s Stalag IVB. Stammlager 4B was north of Dresden. It operated for the duration of the war from October 1939 to September 1945. IVB was the largest prisoner of war camp on German soil.

This camp differed to the Italian prison. It held over 10,000 men in a rectangular 1.0km by 0.5km compound. A central avenue divided the camp in two. Today, the area is a dense forest. Ruins of latrines still hide among the trees. There are also carved stones dedicated to the memory of those who did not survive the horrors of the camp. Stalag IVB also served as a Soviet Gulag and held German prisoners after the war’s end.

Postcard from the Camp

Dearest Kathleen it’s now four months since I heard from you and I don’t think you are getting any from me but I’ll keep on dropping a line just in case one gets through.

I’ve made you another remittance of £20 and I hope you get them both, that is, one from me for £15 and this last one for £20. When you get it give five to my mother and tell her to buy something for herself. Cheerio darling. All my love, Alex.

Postcard sent from Stalag IVB on 3rd February 1945.

263765 was the number given to Sergeant Alexander Liggett in Stalag IVB. Those numbered alongside him served in the Durham Light Infantry. Their 15th Battalion had amalgamated with the Royal Armoured Corps in 1942 forming the 155th Regiment. This regiment would press towards the Elbe and take Hamburg in May 1945.

The three men were likely captured together in north-west Germany. German resistance around Hamburg was strong, particularly around Jesteburg. The Wehrmacht would place bombs under bridges to slow down the Allied armoured divisions.

Prisoner 263763 was Sergeant JW McGeogh (4450445). His comrade Corporal D Cameron (4460524) became prisoner 263764. These men would have served together in the 5th Royal Tank Regiment and 155th Royal Armoured Corps. This infamous group was part of the 7th Armoured Division; The Desert Rats.

Life after the War

The British Army demobbed Sergeant Liggett 2 months after World War Two ended. He returned to civilian life, undernourished and on a special diet like many other former prisoners of war. On his return home, he worked at Wilson’s Canning Factory on Castle Avenue, Portadown, Co. Armagh. He would later work in the Post Office sorting office for 27 years until his retirement. After this, he worked for a short time in security at Craigavon House until his 70s.

Alexander Liggett and Kathleen Liggett had 4 children of their own. June Liggett was born on 7th June 1946, Thomas Alexander Liggett (known as Philip) was born on 25th November 1949, Desmond Joshua Liggett was born on 5th September 1951, and Kathleen Susan Liggett was born on 3rd January 1954. Thomas Alexander Liggett died in a tragic accident at the family home on 7th June 1957.

In December 1946, former Sergeant Alexander Liggett received a Christmas card from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The sender was another former prisoner at Stalag IVB, Harry Rose-Innes, author of 'Po Valley Break'.

Alexander Liggett's Grave

Edgar family archive photo: The grave of Alexander Liggett, his mother Mary, wife Kathleen, and son Thomas ALexander (Philip) in Drumcree Parish Church, Portadown, Co. Armagh. Copyright Scott Edgar - WartimeNI.

Alexander Liggett was well-known in Portadown from Shamrock Park Social Club to Armagh Road Church. He was also a member of Corcrain Purple Rocket LOL 339 and Kilmoriarty Royal Black Preceptory 267. Alexander Liggett lived at 12 Granville Square, Portadown with his wife Kathleen and son Joshua.

Alexander Liggett died at Craigavon Area Hospital, Portadown, Co. Armagh on 29th November 1986 aged 77 years old. His grave is in Drumcree Parish Church, Portadown, Co. Armagh.