Richardson, James Alexander Colquhoun
James Alexander Colquhoun Richardson was the elder son of Major General Alexander Whitmore Colquhoun Richardson CB., DSO of Roughwood, Fleet, Hampshire and Agnes Mackay Richardson, the daughter of Alexander Thackeray JP of Glan Ely, Glamorgan.
Like his younger brother, Guy Colquhoun Richardson (I 1934-1939) he came to Winchester from Tom Pellatt’s School, by all accounts a school lacking in any form of comfort, near Langton Matravers in Dorset. He played soccer and cricket for his House, in rowing was a member of 2nd IV and coached a winning Hewett Cup boat. He was a very efficient NCO and a strict disciplinarian as a prefect. He won Recruit Cup as Lance-Corporal in the OTC, and, after leaving Winchester, was a Sergeant at Sandhurst, passing out of that establishment in 1935 to join the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, of which he was Adjutant when war broke out.
2RTR went to France, sailing from Southampton, arriving in Cherbourg on 23rd May 1940. They saw action at Abbeville on 27th May but from then on the regiment was in retreat, eventually being evacuated from Brest and Cherbourg on 16th June.
They reformed at Camberley and were given orders for overseas on 10th August, sailing from Liverpool for the Middle East on board the liner “Duchess of Bedford”. After a journey of some five weeks they arrived at Suez and commenced desert training.
On 7th December 1940, 2RTR, as part of 4th Armoured Brigade, were involved in the Allied attack into Italian-controlled Libya, with Richardson’s battalion being sent to Sidi Barani. J. Palmer, a member of the battalion, later recalled: “Our new tanks were A-13 cruisers which were a great improvement on the old light tanks we had had in France. They were quicker and much more mobile. The lads liked them and they had better guns…….. For two days we pummelled away at the Italian and Libyan troops, holed up in their little desert outposts. Gradually, with support from Australian and Indian troops, Sidi Barrani and Sollum were recaptured. We rumbled and crashed up rocky wadis and across salt-flats, fighting running battles with light Italian M-14 tanks. It was much more open fighting than we had experienced in France. But the dust, oily petrol smell, smoke, cordite fumes, screech of shells, and crump of the guns were as before. At least in this present situation we knew what we were chasing and shooting at… It was a straightforward affair: hit them, or they would hit you…….. . During these battles, there was the constant chatter of machine-guns and the fluorescent arcs of tracer bullets. Then all would be still before the infantry went forward and mopped up. It was only then we became aware of the ache in our legs, the burning in our eyes, and the feeling of nausea that enveloped us. One of our HQ tanks had got its traversing gear jammed and could not swing its gun. It had been going straight towards an anti-tank gun, well sited in a gun pit. Without deviating right or left, the driver had stormed straight at the gun. Although the gunner had him right in his sights, the tank driver continued forward, and crushed the lot. The Libyan and Italian troops didn’t put up much resistance once we had over run their guns and put their armour to flight, or put them out of action. Collecting the prisoners was a bit of a problem though, there were so many of them!”
Indeed, by December 10th, 2RTR had captured over a thousand prisoners.
2RTR rested over Christmas before taking part in the capture of Tobruk on 21st January 1941 . From Tobruk the battalion advanced to Mechili and on 24th January saw action against Italian tanks when it was noted that “Captain Jim Richardson of ‘C’ Squadron had a field day.”
‘C’ Squadron, along with ‘A’ Squadron then set off across the desert to cut off the Italian forces making for the Libyan coast. The coastal road was blocked at Beda Fomm, just south of Benghazi, in the nick of time by a scratch force made up of detachments from 11th Hussars, 4RHA, and 106 RHA – the latter including two Wykehamists, Lieutenant Barry Domvile (C1930-1935) and Captain John Colpoys Haughton (F1926-1932 (both killed in action later in 1941). The infantry component of Combe Force – 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade – contained three Wykehamists: Christopher Sinclair (I1929-1934), John Davies-Scourfield (B1929-1934), and David Orme Wilson (A1926-1932) (killed in action December 1941).
The Battle of Beda Fomm took place on 6th February when a huge Italian force entered the area around the road block and came under fire as British units arrived. That evening the Italian 1st Ariete Armoured Division tried to force its way through and it fell to ‘A’ and ‘C’ Squadrons of 2RTR to stop them. ‘A’ and ‘C’ Squadrons, commanded respectively by Major Strong and by Richardson, now a Major, arrived at dusk, and went straight into action. ‘A’ Squadron destroyed two groups of Italian tanks but then found itself in some difficulty until Richardson’s ‘C’ squadron came to its assistance.
“We came round the Pimple (a small hillock nearby) and hit the road. Straight alongside the column we crashed, firing as we went and as fast as we could. Trucks burst into flames, and within minutes the road was blocked with blazing lorries. The Italians were in complete panic, with men jumping out of their trucks and firing blindly at anything. Machine-guns spluttered, and we could hear the pinging of bullets hitting the side of our tank. The air inside was filled with smoke and cordite; all the gunners were firing as fast as they could load. There was no need to select targets – every shot was a hit. Anti-tank guns were man-handled out of their column and were fired at us at point-blank range. Men were throwing hand-grenades at us as we screamed along the convoy. The Italian tanks were scattered all around us, firing away, but in absolute panic. They were even hitting their own lorries: on some occasions, even their own tanks.
The dust was so thick, we couldn’t see more than a couple of yards. Everything was burning, and there were the horrible sounds of screaming and dying. Tanks were blazing and the ammunition inside was exploding as they were hit. Some of our tanks were also hit, with the crews scrambling out of the blaze and dashing to the shelter of the rocks. The air was full of the whine of bullets as hot shrapnel came raining down. Smoke was swirling around and the sound of explosions rent the air. The noise was unbelievable. Two or three of our tanks pulled out to replenish ammo from behind the Pimple. When they returned, it was as if they were stricken with a blood-lust. The whole operation was over in less than two hours: after that there was nothing left to hit. All the convoy was burning; all their tanks had been hit or abandoned… The wounded were crying, screaming and dying. It was sickening… Our casualties had been minimal: just a few shrapnel wounds, metal splash, gun-shot wounds and burns. To this day, I know that the carnage for ever scars the minds of all those tank crews involved.”
Between them, “A” and “C” Squadrons accounted for a further 15 tanks.
Richardson then asked permission to attack and re-take “the Pimple” and, after a struggle, recaptured the mound and another ten tanks. He took over completely as the remnants of ‘A’ and ‘C’ Squadrons were merged, and ammunition was commandeered from HQ Squadron. In the fighting which followed, three M-13s were destroyed but four tanks of 2RTR were hit, including Richardson’s.
“Jim Richardson, a Squadron Leader of 2nd Tanks, takes all the honours for the battle. Putting his eight cruiser tanks around a pimple-shaped mound on which stood the mosque of Beda Fomm, he broke up wave after wave of Italian tanks.” (“Winged Dagger” by Lt. Roy Farren. Collins 1948).
Richardson by now only had 4 tanks left and the action petered out. However by dawn on 8th February the Italian forces, believing themselves outnumbered, surrendered with 2RTR alone taking over 15,000 prisoners. Over 100 Italian tanks were found in front of 2RTR’s position, at least 48 of them destroyed. 2RTR had lost three men killed and four wounded in the entire battle.
For his actions “handling his Squadron in a brilliant manner” Richardson was awarded the DSO.
From then until September 1941 he was attached to GHQ in Cairo, and after a spell at the local Staff College in Haifa, was temporary acting Lieutenant Colonel and an instructor. He gained release to be GSO2 in 7th Armoured Division who were then deployed to cover the southern flank of the Gazala Line, the series of defensive boxes running from Gazala into the desert. The German advance, however, was so swift that 7th Armoured Division HQ was over-run, and Richardson, amongst others, was captured. The prisoners were well treated, given water, oranges and chocolate by their captors. After nine hours in captivity Richardson with two others, managed to escape.
He was on the staff of 2Armoured Brigade in the fighting of July 1942 around El Alamein. The British had been driven back from the Gazala Line, and by July 3rd the staff in Alexandria were expecting Rommel’s imminent arrival. Richardson was now delegated to command a combined force of 2 Armoured Brigade and some artillery. The War Diary records on 9th July 1942 that “Major J A C Richardson’s force left” and the following day that “Reports from Australian Field Ambulance that Major J A C Richardson had been wounded and was on D1 list…”. His death from wounds was recorded on 12th July 1942.
His wounding was witnessed by a fellow Wykehamist, Lieutenant Christopher I W Seton-Watson (Coll. 1931-1937) then serving with a detachment of 2 Royal Horse Artillery, which formed part of Richardson’s column. “Australian infantry attack at 0330; huge barrage. Our column dispersed at 0530. Shortly afterwards Jim Richardson, Bill and I were standing around, awaiting orders, when a stray 105mm shell dropped right beside us. Jim was seriously injured, and died of his wounds next day.”
He lies in grave XVII.G.23 of the El Alamein War Cemetery. In The Times of July 10th 1945 there appeared the following notice:
In constant, proud and treasured remembrance of Major James A.C. Richardson DSO, RTR, mortally wounded, July 10th 1942, near El Alamein, aged 26. “And through the years shall shine their undimmed youth, Whose dauntless courage was the living breath Of Freedom and of Chivalry and Truth.”
He is commemorated on the Fleet War Memorial : http://www.ipernity.com/doc/286273/24475335
- Surname: Richardson
- Forenames or initials: James Alexander Colquhoun
- House: I
- Years in School: 1929-1933
- Rank: Major
- Regiment: 6th Royal Tank Regiment
- Date of Birth: 21st October 1916
- Date of Death: 11th July 1942
- How Died: Died of Wounds
- Location in War Cloister: Inner G1
- Decoration: DSO
- Burial Site: El Alamein War Cemetery: Grave XVII.G.23