Bill Wyatt: Soldier who was awarded the Military Cross after he had pulled his crewmen from their blazing tank in Italy in 1942

He was sheltered in a Rome seminary and given the papers of a young Irish priest who had died

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The Independent Online

Bill Wyatt’s destiny was fixed in the see-saw battles of the Second World War led by Auchinleck pitched against Rommel in North Africa in early 1942, and in the changing fortunes of Italy, as she switched sides from Axis to Allies the following year.

His spectacular rescue of two of his crewmen from a blazing tank while under enemy fire in January 1942 won him the Military Cross; and his later adventures as an escaped prisoner in Rome under German occupation in 1944 were of the sort from which at least one film, starring Gregory Peck, was made.

In his enthusiasm to reach the front line the 2nd Lieutenant in the 10th Royal Hussars had transferred from an instructor posting at home. He had had barely six months of campaigning at the head of a troop of Crusader tanks across the deserts south of Benghazi in Western Cyrenaica in Libya before being captured.

After joining the Western Desert base camp at Amariya, near Alexandria, Egypt, in December 1941, Wyatt took part with the regiment in a formation dash westwards by the 150 tanks of 2nd Armoured Brigade from Mersah Matruh on the Mediterranean coast, the 10th RH coming under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel (later Brigadier) Roscoe Harvey, the celebrated National Hunt horseman dubbed, because of his inspirational leadership, “the Prince Rupert of modern warfare”.

But the eager cavalrymen could not know of the discord at the top of British command at that time, nor of Rommel’s access to reinforcements that were getting through despite British attempts to blockade. They were to endure hard-fought defeats, their tanks unable to match the superior firepower of the Germans, whose guns were effective at 1,000 yards or more. “English tanks had two-pounder guns which were only able to fire over half that distance,” Wyatt explained many years later.

The two battles in which Wyatt and his crews were obliged to advance under a hail of shot before being able to open up with their own guns would, in the long run, weaken Rommel’s forces enough for the British to gather strength for victory that October at El Alamein.

The first battle, on 23 January, in which the Germans captured Saunnu, south of Benghazi, reduced the 10th RH by the end of the day to eight tanks. Saunnu was Wyatt’s baptism of fire: his tank was hit and burst into flames. His gunner was killed. He managed to pull the wounded wireless operator clear from the quickly brewing bowels of the Crusader, but realised his driver was trapped, and went back towards the inferno. The gun was blocking the only way out, and so Wyatt, despite being fired at by the enemy, climbed on to the hot tank hull, wrenched the gun aside and got both men to safety.

The second battle, on 27 May and after, heralded Wyatt’s captivity. The British were defending the fortified “Knightsbridge Box” and a large fuel store, sustaining such crippling casualties that 2nd Armoured Brigade and 22nd Brigade had to be merged into one formation.

“At about 14.00h, 2nd Armoured Brigade joined in the fighting with a flank attack on 15th Panzer’s 115 Motorized Infantry Regiment”, an account says. They were eight miles north-east of 22nd Brigade on the Trigh Capuzzo [road] between “Knightsbridge” and El Adem.

Wyatt and his crew were all wounded and ended up stuck in a damaged tank amid a German minefield. All were taken prisoner. The Germans handed them to the Italians, and by way of a series of prison camps, Wyatt found himself incarcerated in Rome on 8 September 1943 when, after the fall of Benito Mussolini, Italy made an armistice with the British and Americans.

Wyatt made a break for it just as the Germans were approaching to occupy the territory of their erstwhile ally, and found help among Rome’s many priests. He was sheltered in a seminary, and presently furnished with the papers of a young Irish priest who had died, whose height and physical features had been similar to his own.  

On hearing that the seminary was to be searched, Wyatt went with one of its priests to seek refuge in the Vatican using his false papers. “My heart was in my boots,” he remembered – but the papers worked: “We got past the Swiss Guards at the gate without difficulty”.

It was felt unwise to linger inside for long, and he spent another six months in a different seminary, in constant danger of discovery, before the Allies arrived in Rome in June 1944 and he was able to travel home.

Stories such as his stirred the director Jerry London to make a television film in 1983, The Scarlet and the Black, with Sir John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII, Christopher Plummer as an SS officer and Gregory Peck as an Irish priest who helped fugitives.

Wyatt’s war was not yet over: on getting in touch with his former commander, Harvey, he was given a job as Liaison Officer from September 1944 at the headquarters near Antwerp of Harvey’s new command, 29 Brigade. In 1945 Wyatt, promoted Captain, then joined the race across Germany, and finally laid down his arms at Lubeck on the Baltic coast.   

The following year he married Anne Stewart, known to friends and family as Sue, and they had a son and four daughters, one of whom became the actress, Tessa Wyatt. 

The son of an accountant, Wyatt was educated at Felsted School in Essex, then went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was a university hockey Blue, and in the 1930s played for England, becoming captain. He had begun a career in finance before the war, and afterwards resumed it, retiring in 1978. He lived to be 101.  

Charles Edward Neild “Bill” Wyatt, soldier: born Alexandria, Egypt 5 March 1913;  MC 1945; married 1946 Anne Alison (“Sue”) Stewart (died 2000; four daughters, one son); died East Sussex 21 August 2014.

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