Remembering 1942: The Battle of El Alamein Dr Mark Johnston

Originally presented by Dr Mark Johnston on Wednesday, 23 October 2002 in the Courtyard Gallery at the Memorial.

Dr Mark Johnston is Head of History at Scotch College, Melbourne. An authority on the Australian army in the Second World War, he has previously published At the Front Line, Fighting the Enemy and That Magnificent 9th. With Dr Peter Stanley, the Memorial's Principal Historian, he has co-written Alamein: the Australian Story , which was launched at the Memorial on 23 October 2002, the 60th anniversary of the opening of the battle.

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I'm Mark Johnston, and it's my privilege and pleasure to speak to you about the battle of El Alamein, which began 60 years ago today.

El Alamein was one of the great battles of the Second World War, and is frequently described as a turning-point of that conflict. Australians fought in the battle, and I'm going to concentrate on them, and in particular on the ones who were killed in the epic struggle that began on 23 October 1942 and lasted until 5 November. They were all members of the 9th Australian Division, which took a leading role in the battle. Its three field artillery regiments provided about 80 of the 880 guns that fired the extraordinary opening barrage at 9.40 p.m. on that first night, 23 October. They were still firing when the final breakthrough was achieved on the night of the 2 November, and in between they were often the crucial factor halting enemy advances and making Commonwealth ones possible.

The battle was a slogging match, for it soon became apparent that the original plan of the overall British commander, General Montgomery, to achieve a quick breakthrough with tanks, was impossible. The main theme of this slogging match or 'dogfight', became the necessity of drawing the best Axis formations, the German units, to a part of the battlefield where they could be pinned down and worn down. That would allow a breakthrough by the British tanks in an area that was denuded of these fine troops. In what Winston Churchill called "ceaseless bitter fighting", it was the Australians on the northern, coastal, flank of the battle, who managed to achieve this magnetic pull on the German armour and men. Churchill, General Montgomery and other British commanders acknowledged the crucial value of the Australian contribution at the time.

The names on the wall here represent the cost that Australia paid for this battle to be a turning point. Australians constituted about 10% of the 8th Army's strength, but they suffered about 22% of its casualties in the battle. More than 1200 Australians were killed at Alamein, either in this famous October battle, or in the important but more obscure fighting that occurred there between July and September 1942. They represent a great cross-section of the men in the ranks of the Second AIF. I'll take a few examples from the October battle who illustrate that point, and who show something of the division's achievement.

I'd like to mention first the poignant story of Captain R.G. Sanderson, who surely epitomises the best traditions of leadership in the AIF. One of his NCOs, Cobber Craig, wrote that in Sanderson's company of the 2/13th Bn, "we all loved him, and followed him with every confidence."

The night before the great battle, Sanderson visited all his men, and then shed a few tears. He told Craig: "we have a grand lot of boys here, I wonder just how many of these faces we will see this time to-morrow." Sanderson was killed on 24 October when he left a trench to accept the surrender of some Germans.

Another adored Captain, Bill Cobb of the 2/15th Battalion, died early in the battle. At Tobruk, a year earlier, he had won the Military Cross and then won a second one in the disastrous Bulimba operation of September 1942. No wonder the official history calls him "audacious". There's a record of him, too, encouraging his men, with a nip of Scotch, the night before the October push. That night he told a fellow officer the items he wanted sent home: for Cobb had a premonition that he would die, and when it eventuated during the first advance, men in his company cried.

Later in the battle, Cobb's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Keith Magno, was killed. In September he had left the 2/17th Battalion to take over the 2/15th. His battalion was forming up for an attack on 28 October when they came under fierce shelling. An officer from the 2/17th invited Magno to take shelter with him, but Magno insisted on staying with his men. The advance began, but soon news came back that Magno had been severely wounded. His carrier driver went forward and found that Magno had lost an arm and received severe head and stomach wounds. He was conscious, calm and still concerned about his men. He died of his wounds two days later.

Most of the Australians who died at Alamein, were of course not captains or lieutenant-colonels, but men in the lower ranks. Men like Private E.W. Moore, a stretcher-bearer with the 2/48th Battalion. On 25 October, Moore rushed forward to rescue a wounded NCO. He had nothing other than a Red Cross flag to protect him from fierce enemy fire, during one of the many Axis counterattacks that occurred on almost every day of the battle. Moore was killed. Another man who lost his life in a desperate attempt to save another that day was Major S.L. Seymour, of 2/8th Field Ambulance. Shellfire killed him as he pushed a wounded man to safety in a slight depression in the sand.

That night there came a turning point in this turning-point battle. The Australians captured a key feature, called Trig 29, which gave panoramic views of the battlefield for kilometres around. During its capture by the 2/48th Battalion, one company was pinned down. A 40 year-old Private, Percy Gratwick, resolved this situation single-handedly by jumping up and charging the enemy positions. He was killed, but not before destroying two enemy posts, and thus enabling the advance to continue. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously, as were two other Australians at Alamein: Bill Kibby, and in July, Stan Gurney.

In subsequent days, Rommel launched no fewer than 25 counterattacks against Trig 29, but it was held, first by the 2/48th and then the 2/17th Battalion. Losses on both sides were severe. An Australian signaller wrote on 28 October: "Trig 29. The worst spot I have been anywhere in this war." He listed 11 close comrades killed on or near it.

One casualty there was Sergeant Ted Rand, who was badly wounded by a mortar blast. As stretcher-bearers with a white flag carried him out, Rand waved to a comrade, but the rear bearer shook his head in a gesture which foretold that the Tobruk veteran would not survive.

While the Division's desperate defence of Trig 29 continued, many of its men continued to attack. On the night of 28/29 October the 2/23rd Battalion struck north towards the railway. Many of them were riding British tanks, which mines and anti-tank guns soon brought to grief. The Australian battalion suffered the best part of 200 casualties that night. Two of them were Sergeant Max Froud and Lieutenant John Barnard, DCM. Froud had been badly wounded in Tobruk, but had refused to return to Australia when classified B Class. He had returned to the unit just days before the attack. That night when Barnard was mortally wounded by machine-gun fire, Froud rushed to his aid, but was shot through the heart.

A northwards assault on the night of 30/31 October brought the Australians beyond the railway, across the road and near to the coast. A large part of the German army was effectively cut off. Rommel was determined both to re-establish contact with them and to crush the Australians who were in his way in the area that became known as the Saucer. On 31 October and 1 November he launched the most determined attacks ever faced by the 9th Division. With the aid of field and anti-tank artillery, as well as the Desert Air Force, the Australians just held on. Again the cost was high.

The 2/3rd Pioneers were fighting their first battle, near the coast. Corporal C.A. Cameron directed his section's defence, even as blood poured down his face and neck from two serious wounds. A machine-gun burst eventually killed him and most of his section.

The last stage of the Saucer's defence was conducted by the 24th Brigade. 19-yr old Corporal Leslie West had just moved into position on the night of 31 October when he wrote: "We are all in a tiny area and it's a shame what Jerry will do in the daylight." West was killed the next day. More than 500 members of his brigade became casualties between 30 October and 2 November. One of them was its brigadier. With victory in sight, Brigadier Arthur Godfrey was holding a conference when a shell scored a direct hit on the dugout, mortally wounding him and killing three other officers. The 2/3rd Field Ambulance War Diary expressed common feelings when it said on Godfrey's death "we lose an esteemed friend."

Most Australians who fought at Alamein would have lost at least one esteemed friend. I have mentioned only a tiny, but representative proportion of the 620 who died in the October battle. General Montgomery visited their graves when he went to the El Alamein cemetery in 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, and this visit made a deep impression on him. The following evening he told a friend: "The more I think back, the more I realise that winning was only made possible by the bravery of the 9th Australian Division in holding the road against counter-attacks and slowly pushing forward despite increasing casualties. I do not know of any [other] Allied Division who could have done it. I must go to Australia and gather the 9th Division together so I can thank them properly." He never made that trip, for his doctors advised that he could not face the huge reception he would be given by the Australian soldiers.

The commander of the 8th army never forgot his Australian troops and their contribution to one of history's great turning points. Here too, at the Roll of Honour of the nation's memorial, we remember them.