Swifter than Eagles: a photographic documentation of Lt. Col. Sprot’s wartime journeys

Richard Bates

The Curious Travellers project relies on donations of images from members of the public who have travelled to interesting places, and immortalised them in their photographs. In mid-May Dr Richard Bates visited Lt. Col. Sprot, retired commander of the Royal Scots Greys, to look through his photographic record acquired both during and after WWII in campaigns throughout N. Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe. The Royal Scots Greys was one of the oldest cavalry regiments of the British Army until they merged with the 3rd Carabiniers in 1971.

Fig 1: Lt. Col. Sprot on campaign and today.

During WWII, they were first sent to the Middle East, which is where our story begins. In 1939, Adian Sprot enlisted and after the usual training period joined the regiment on the long boat journey round the Cape of Good Hope to arrive in Palestine in time to take part in the transition from horse to mechanised vehicles. As one of the few who could drive, his initial duties included the instruction on the new wheeled vehicles. The introduction of Grant and Stuart tanks followed rapidly in 1941. Fighting the German Panzer divisions along the North African coast from the second Battle of El Alamein to the subsequent chase of Rommel east to Syria took Lt. Con. Sprot through locations and sites that are the current focus of the Curious Travellers project.

Fig 2: One of Lt. Col. Sprot’s images of the ruins at Palmyra

Following the North Africa campaign, the regiment was refitted with Sherman tanks in time to participate in the Salerno landings (Operation Avalanche) and to advance on Naples. Their stay in Italy was short-lived, however, as the call came to return to Britain in preparation for D-Day. As part of the second wave on 7th June, the first three tanks of the regiment landed on Juno Beach. By September, they were part of Operation Market-Garden with fighting around Eindhoven that continued in the Low Countries through the winter. Their final big push came with a dash to the north, arriving in Wismar on the Baltic coast on May 1st just hours before meeting up with the Red Army. The regiment remained in Germany post war but returned to the Middle East during the Aden Emergency in 1962.

Lt. Col. Sprot had retired by this point but with a keen interest in history he continued his travels through many of the countries in which he had previously campaigned. Today, he lives quietly in the Scottish Borders and at 98 years old still has not only a keen interest but a very clear memory for events that are now over 50 years in the past. His best memories are centred on the sights such as the countryside of Palestine in early spring bloom, the monuments to cultures now long gone and the places with links to Biblical history. His less pleasant memories include having to “make-do” with Canadian Club rather than a good Scottish Malt – “not that we were going to turn our nose up at anything!”

Fig 3: One of Lt. Col. Sprot’s images of the West Bank

Lt. Con. Sprot’s photographic collection taken whilst on campaign and immediately following his retirement include pictures of Palymera and Cyrene. The Curious Travellers project is making rapid progress on the digital 3D reconstruction of these monuments and the photographs provided by Lt. Con. Sprot will add vital detail to them. The response to the Curious Travellers project has been tremendous with the number of images received in the thousands. However, to fill gaps in the models and get a more complete picture of the monuments, still more are needed. An interesting aspect that has surfaced from the project so far is a validation that we are largely people of similar habits. From the photos gathered, it is clear that most people take pictures from the same places pointing cameras at the same scenes. Rarely do we look around the corner or take a picture from the other side – perhaps this work will encourage us to do so and find out more about the places we visit.

Fig 4: One of Lt. Col. Sprot’s images of Cyrene.

Finally, you can find out more about the project at Curious Travellers: http://www.visualisingheritage.org/CT.php.

To learn more about the life of Lt. Con. Sprot from his memoir of the war, read Swifter than Eagles: War Memoirs of a Young Officer 1939-1945, Pentland Press, Durham, 1998.