Sergeant Alexander Liggett (7877628) served in 7 Royal Tank Regiment during the Second World War. Born on 29th April 1909, he was the son of Joshua Liggett and Mary Liggett (née McCullough) of Corcrain, Portadown, Co. Armagh.
According to the Irish Census of 1911, the Liggett family lived at 58 Obins Street, Portadown, Co. Armagh. Joshua Liggett, Mary Liggett and their 2 children, Alexander and older sister Mabel “Maisie” Liggett shared the family home. Before long, Joshua Liggett would be serving in France with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. In 1916, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and his wife Mary gave birth to Mary “Molly” Liggett on 6th September 1916.
On 23rd April 1925, Liggett travelled to the city of Armagh, Co. Armagh to enlist in the Tank Corps. Military records held at The Tank Museum, Bovingdon, Dorest, England give his age as 18 years and 3 days old but in reality, Liggett was still 4 days short of his 16th birthday. By then, already employed as a linen weaver, he gave his next of kin as his father Joshua Liggett of 71 Charles Street, Portadown, Co. Armagh and set forth on a life of adventure.
India, Palestine, and back to Portadown
Records of Liggett’s early years in the British Army are sketchy. Anecdotal evidence suggests his age may have been found out leading him to rejoin in 1930. From 1930, he served as a Reservist for 5 years, undertaking training at Aldershot and Catterick, England. Soon, he would be travelling across the world, serving overseas for several years in India and Palestine. During his formative years in the forces, Liggett was a keen sportsman, boxing and playing football in regimental teams. Stories passed down through the generations suggest he may also have played field hockey for the Indian national team.
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 go on to remarry. Patricia’s 2nd husband later adopted Dawn.
On returning from India, Alexander once again settled in Portadown, Co. Armagh. He married a local girl who died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s son Gordon Liggett.
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. By this time, Liggett had returned to his old occupation as a linen weaver with Hamilton Robb Ltd. in River Lane, Portadown, Co. Armagh. However, by 1938, the threat of war on Europe was very real. On 13th October 1938, Alexander Liggett enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps.
1940: Arras and Dunkirk
The Royal Armoured Corps formed on 4th April 1939 as the British Army reorganised in preparation for an inevitable war. The Corps grew in number throughout the war but in 1939, it was a loose collection of the Royal Tank Corps alongside some Horse Cavalry Regiments. Liggett received a posting to 7 Royal Tank Regiment.
In May 1940, 7 Royal Tank Regiment departed for France alongside 4 Royal Tank Regiment and 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. The Regiment was among the thouands of British military personnel forced back towards Dunkirk. When German forces invaded the Low Countries on 10th May 1940, the British Army only had 4 Royal Tank Regiment and 7 Royal Tank Regiment to face the Wehrmacht’s 10 Armoured Divisions. The speed of the German military advance left little time to train the British tankers. Many of the men had no experience in driving on the right-hand side of a road.
Both Tank Regiments found themselves secluded in the Sonian Forest, south-east of Brussels, Belgium. On the move, the tanks came up against Stukka Dive Bombers, Messerschmitt ME 109s, as well as roads filled with thousands of fleeing refugees.
By 21st May 1940, 7 Royal Tank Regiment was in the thick of fighting near Arras alongside 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. The Tank Regiment consisted of 23 Matlida Mark I Tanks and 16 Matilda Mark II Tanks. Confusion reigned and imposed wireless silence hindered the Regiment. As too did the slow speed of the heavy Mark II tanks, the congested roads, and the network of trenches dating back to The Great War.
In the chaos, 7 Royal Tank Regiment achieved some success, taking out 2 Anti-Tank Batteries, 2 German Tanks, and an 88mm Gun. Casualties, however, were heavy and among the dead was Commanding Officer ieutenant Colonel H.M. Heyland D.S.O. Crews from 4th Royal Tank Regiment and 7th Royal Tank Regiment gave a good showing but suffered heavy losses.
What remined of the Regiments, returned to England across the English Channel on 27th May 1940. Without vehicles, the soldiers made their return on a pair of Isle of Man Steam Packet Ferries; ‘Mona’s Isle’ and ‘King Orry’.
It may well be asked whether two battalions have ever had such a tremendous effect on history as 4 RTR and 7 RTR achieved by their action at Arras. Their effect in saving the British Army from being cut off from its escape port provides ample justification for the view that if two well equipped armoured divisions had been available the Battle of France might also have been saved.
Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart
1940: The Western Desert
Following the Dunkirk Evacuation, 7 Royal Tank Regiment under new Commanding Officer R.M. Jerram D.S.O., M.C., Adjutant Captain Jock Holden, and Regimental Sergeant Major Fowler, reformed at Twesledown, Fleet, Hampshire, England. The Regiment undertook 6 weeks’ training at Braco, Perth and Kinross, Scotland.
On 21st August 1940, 7 Royal Tank Regiment were once again bound for the front. Soldiers and Matilda Mark II Tanks arrived at Port Said, Egypt on 24th September 1940. In utmost secrecy, the Regiment moved on to Maaten Bagush, Egypt, conceling tanks beneath Bedouin tents, and moving only under the cover of darkness. In the Western Desert, the Regiment supported 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, 4th Indian Infantry Division as part of the British Western Desert Force.
On 5th December 1940, Western Desert Force began their advance on Sidi Barrani. Operation Compass was underway, and on 8th December 1940, a diversionary attack allowed the tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment to take position. A Squadron took the leads, followed by Regimental Headquarters, B Squadron, and D Squadron. Caught unaware, the 23 Italian Fiat tanks were soon dispatched.
Despite coming under artillery fire and attack from Italian planes, A Squadron, B Squadron, and Indian Infantry siezed Nibeiwa. Having taken several thousand Prisoners of War, the Regiment rallied, refuelled, and rearmed. The next advance on Tummar West was also a success with 2,000 Prisoners of War taken and only 7 Royal Tank Regiment soldiers injured. Tummar East soon fell too and by nightfall, much needed repairs could be carried out on the Matildas. The successful advance of 7 Royal Tank Regiment continued and by dusk on 10th December 1940, Sidi Barrani was taken.
1940: Bardia and Tobruk
By 27th Deember 1940, the 22 Matilda Mark II’s of 7 Royal Tank Regiment were 90 miles west of Sidi Barrani, closing in on Bardia. There, they supported 6th Australian Division and the Bardia Garrison surrendered on 7th January 1941. Several members of the Regiment were recommended for awards, and Major General I.G. Mackay (Australian Divisional Commander) claimed that each tank of 7 Royal Tank Regiment was like an extra Battalion to him. Soon after, 7 Royal Tank Regiment adopted ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as the Regimental Quick March.
The progress across the Western Desert continued apace and 7 Royal Tank Regiment took part in the assault on Tobruk on 21st January 1941. Now down to 18 servicable Matildas, they took the Tobruk Garrison by 1700hrs the following day. The attack took another 25,000 Prisoners of War, 87 Tanks, and 208 Guns.
This crowned the most striking sequence of successes achieved by any regiment in the RTR, or in the RAC, or in the British Army – during the war. Indeed the history of warfare shows no case of a single fighting unit having such a great effect in deciding the issue of battles and of a campaign. The record of 7 RTR in this campaign is peerless – by any measure, and in the strictest sense of the term.
Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart
There has never been a story quite like that of 7 RTR in December 1940 and January 1941 and, since war has changed so much since then, it seems there never will be again.
1941: Operation Battleaxe
The advance of Western Desert Force came to an end on 12th February 1941 when the British Government oredred General Wavell to halt. Soon, air support diminished and experienced Brigades broke up to focus on repelling the German invasion of Greece.
By 24th April 1941, the Greek Army had surrendered and the British Forces on the Mediterranean island were overrun. Meanwhile, General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps made moves in North Africa. In the desert, tank crews began to hear German songs such as ‘Lili Marlene’ coming through on their wireless.
Having arived in Tripoli in March 1941, Rommel’s forces bypassed the British at Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border by 13th April 1941. At Tobruk, D Squadron, 7 Royal Tank Regiment repelled German attacks along with 2 Squadrons of 1 Royal Tank Regiment, and the rest of 9th Australian Division.
General Wavell launched Operation Battleaxe on 15th June 1941. The aim was for 4 Royal Tank Regiment to lead 11th Infantry Brigade and 7 Royal Tank Regiment with 4th Armoured Brigade to sieze Fort Capuzzo. Battleaxe was a disaster, and the tanks were outclassed by the new 88mm guns of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The British Forces lost more than half of their tanks on the first day of Operation Battleaxe. By the 3rd day of the Operation, 17th June 1941, the British tanks had withdrawn to avoid being encircled by the Germans and Sergeant Alexander Liggett’s war in the desert had come to an end
On 17th June 1941, Liggett’s name appears on Casualty List No. 568. Updated records from soon after, show his name on Casualty List No. 587 (WO 417/27); no longer a casualty, officially missing. By Casualty List No. 600 (WO 417/29), the latest information was that the Sergeant was a Prisoner of War in the hands of Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Only 7 weeks earlier, his wife Kathleen Liggett had 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.
Throughout the summer of 1941, word filtered back of the fate of those missing in the Western Desert.
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.
1943: Camp 53, Italy
By 1943, Sergeant Alexander Liggett was a Prisoner of War at Camp 53, Urbisaglia Macerata, Italy (WO 392/21). The camp, known as Sforza Coasta stood next to the railway lined around 12 miles south of Macerata on the east coast of Italy. Prisoners marched about a mile from the railway station to the main camp buildings, which had once been a sugar beet refinery.
Opened in 1942, the Capital E-shaped camp was built of thick reinforced 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.
1943: The Italian "Escape"
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.
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.
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.
Letter from Camp No. 53, Sforza Costa, Italy – 8th March 1943.
1945: Stalag IVB, Germany
By 1945, Sergeant Alexander Liggett was a Prisoner of War at Stalag IVB, Muhlberg, Germany (WO 392/11). There are no details of how Liggett came to be recaptured and issued with the P.O.W. number 263765. Following the “escape” in Italy, friend and fellow escapee Terry Moriarty had written to Liggett’s wife to let her know Alex was alive and well.
The Muhlberg Stalag or Stammlager was the largest Prisoner of War Camp on German soil by 1945. Over 10,000 men found themselves contained in a rectangular compound measuring 1.0km by 0.5km.
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 following the Second World War.
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, Germany on 3rd February 1945.
Medals Awarded to Sergeant Liggett
For seeing active service between 3rd September 1939 and 2nd September 1945, Sergeant Alexander Liggett received The War Medal 1939-1945. The added Bronze Oak Leaf signifies he may have been Mentioned in Dispatches. He was also a recipient of The 1939-1945 Star, and The Africa Star 1939-1945.
1946: Postcards and the Po Valley Break
In December 1946, Alexander Liggett received a Christmas card from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The sender was another former Prisoner of War at Stalag IVB, Harry Rose-Innes, author of 'Po Valley Break'. Whether Liggett and Rose-Innes were together during the latter's documented Italian escape remains a mystery.
Life after the War
A final document (WO 417/04) from the National Archives at Kew, London, England states Sergeant Liggett was no longer a Prisoner of War. A little over 2 months after the end of the Second World War, Sergeant Liggett was a free man, demobbed and returning to Northern Ireland.
Like many former Prisoners of War, he went back to civilian life, undernourished and placed on a special post-war diet. He took up work at Wilson’s Canning Factory on Castle Avenue, Portadown, Co. Armagh.
Alex would later work in the local 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.
Liggett and his wife 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.
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. In later life, he lived at 12 Granville Square, Portadown, Co. Armagh with his wife Kathleen and son Joshua.