Originally presented by Peter Stanley on Sunday, 28 July 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.
Download the talk - 10:29 min (2.5 Mb Mp3)
On the night of the 26-27 July 1942, the 2/28th Battalion lost 65 men dead and 490 captured, in an attack on a place called Ruin Ridge, in Egypt. That attack, the final in what is called the first battle of Alamein, gives us an opportunity to recall the Australian contribution to that battle.
Mid-1942 was about the lowest point for the Allies in the Second World War. In Asia Japan had conquered everything it sought to seize, though the first Allied counter-offensive, in the Solomons, was about to begin. In Russia German forces were advancing deep into the Soviet Union, though German tanks were approaching Stalingrad, where the war in the east would by winter turn around decisively. In the Atlantic U-boats were sinking more merchant ships than the Allies could replace. If the Allies were to lose the battle of the Atlantic they could well have lost the war, and in mid-1942 victory was by no means certain.
In the Mediterranean the war in North Africa swung to-and-fro like a pendulum. Early in 1942 British Commonwealth forces had advanced westwards from newly-liberated Tobruk deep into Libya. In January General Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika had counter-attacked and pushed General Claude Auchinleck's Eighth Army back towards Egypt. In May Rommel attacked again, driving the British Commonwealth army out of the Gazala line and back into Egypt, re-taking Tobruk in a day.
Australian forces had played a major part in the Mediterranean theatre in 1941. In 1942 most troops and ships had been recalled to the South-West Pacific. The remaining Australian forces in North Africa were airmen in Australian and British squadrons, a few warships, and the 9th Division, re-training in Syria after its ordeal during the siege of Tobruk. In camps in Syria the men of the 9th Division read and heard of these events with foreboding. Conscious of Japanese attacks against their homeland, they foresaw the prospect of being caught in a German conquest of the Middle East in a great pincer from Russia in the north and from Egypt in the south. As British Commonwealth fortunes in North Africa sank, Australian soldiers were re-called to the Eighth Army. Moving swiftly and in secret (a plan undone by their distinctive brown boots) they travelled in huge convoys south from Syria, through the Sinai desert, across the Suez canal and into the desert west of Alexandria.
By the end of June 1942 the Eighth Army faced a crisis. It was retreating into Egypt, there to stand on a defensive line established around a little railway station in the Western Desert called El Alamein. In the first week of July Rommel's advance was at last halted. British, South African, New Zealand and Indian divisions stopped the Axis army, itself exhausted by months of desert war at the height of the North African summer. By the end of the first week of July, when the Australians entered what would be known as the first battle of Alamein, the Eighth Army had halted Rommel at El Alamein.
For the rest of the month Auchinleck's army made a series of attacks on the German and Italian divisions facing it. At Trig 33, Ruweisat Ridge, Tel el Eisa and Makh Khad Ridge, the two sides attacked and counter-attacked. As the major fresh formation, the 9th Division took a major part in these operations. By the last week of July it had been committed to a series of attacks. While some had been successful (on 10 July the 26th Brigade had captured the best part of an Italian division), none had broken through the Axis line as Auchinleck intended.
The attack on Ruin Ridge was to be the final attempt to break through the Axis position at Alamein. Auchinleck's plan was nothing less ambitious than breaking through the Axis line using Australian infantry, British infantry, tanks and artillery, and South African engineers. On 25 July he issued a Special Order of the day to all ranks of the Eighth Army. "You have done well", he began, commending them for halting the retreat, and Rommel's army, at El Alamein and for having seized the initiative. "You have done much", he concluded, but continued, "but I ask you for more … If we can stick to it we will break him."
What turned out to be the final British Commonwealth attack in July was to be launched against Axis troops on Sanyet el Miteiriya – known as "Ruin Ridge" from the remains of a building on its crest – a low stony rise running roughly east – west. The Ruin Ridge attack was based on a complex plan involving a night attack through minefields. While an Australian battalion advanced southwards to occupy Ruin Ridge British battalions would be attacking at right angles. British tanks would then advance through minefields cleared by South African engineers. The aim was to breach a section of line held by Italian troops, the more brittle element in Rommel's army.
In the event, almost everything went wrong. The attack had to be delayed to ensure that the troops were ready, a change in plans sparked partly by an acrimonious difference of opinion between the Australian commander, Morshead, and his British superiors. The co-ordination of units of three forces operating at night and in different directions made errors likely. In the event German intelligence worked out that the attack would probably fall on Ruin Ridge and the Italians were strengthened by more determined and skilful German troops.
The Australian unit selected to make the main attack was Major Lew McCarter's 2/28th Battalion, a Western Australian unit which had not previously seen action at Alamein. On the evening of 26 July its men rose from the sandy trenches, formed into long, loose lines, and walked southwards in the crisp air of a moonlit desert night towards the Axis-held ridge ahead.
Within minutes men began to fall, but the 2/28th continued to advance. Behind the infantry came the vehicles, the anti-tank guns carried on the trucks of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, the 2/28th's Bren carriers and behind them the battalion's ammunition, wireless and stores lorries slowly grinding along in low gear. A Bren carrier was hit by an anti-tank shell, right on a gap in the minefield. In the flames of the burning carrier further shells hit other vehicles around the gap. Soon the flames from four, then eight and finally thirteen burning vehicles illuminated the scene.
Still, the 2/28th reached the objective and began to dig in. They were soon cut off from further aid by German troops filtering in behind them and, because the wireless truck lay burning at the gap, McCarter was unable to communicate with brigade headquarters. As they waited for the dawn they could hear the sounds of battle on their left, where the British 69th Brigade also advanced into a minefield.
McCarter and his men expected at dawn to see British tanks advancing toward them to secure their gains. As the desert lightened they saw tanks approaching. They were German. British tanks had been unable to move through the minefields, and the British attack on their eastern flank had been halted with heavy losses. The 2/28th Battalion was isolated within German lines, its positions systematically attacked by German infantry and tanks.
McCarter's signallers at last managed to get one of the wireless sets working and he was able to report the battalion's desperate situation. "We are in trouble. We need help - now", he signalled. "Are there any of our tanks helping us? There are tanks all round us. You had better hurry". A little after ten that morning McCarter sent a final despairing message: "We have got to give in". Standing up in a shallow weapon pit, he raised his arms in surrender.
The 2/28th's survivors were rounded up and marched to the Axis rear, passing through the fire of British artillery supporting the battle. They were taken to Benghazi, to Italy and on to Germany, where they were liberated in 1945. The night on Ruin Ridge had destroyed the 2/28th. The names of the 65 dead appear on battalion's panel on the Roll of Honour, along with the names of men who died at Tobruk, in New Guinea and in Borneo. The battalion was soon rebuilt. The 105 survivors, commanded by a lieutenant hastily promoted to captain, were soon joined by other Western Australians, volunteers from all over the 9th Division. They went on to take a part in the later, decisive battle of El Alamein which opened in October.
On the night of the 27th a five-man patrol moved out of the Australian front line and carefully headed towards the ridge. Shells and machine-gun bullets occasionally splashed about randomly. Seven hundred yards on they found the grave of a Western Australian. Half a kilometre on they felt the wire of a minefield, then a derelict tank. Turning to move parallel to the front line, they came upon another body; then another. They stumbled on shallow slits, probably ones dug by the 2/28th twenty-four hours before. More machine-gun bullets spattered about, and they turned north, heading home. Ruin Ridge was empty.
Measured against Auchinleck's aim – "to break through the enemy's positions and destroy him" – the operation was an unqualified failure. Though the various attacks made by the Australian and other British Commonwealth divisions had damaged Rommel's army none had broken through. The only consolation was that the month-long fighting around Alamein in July had weakened Rommel's army so much that it could not be replenished as quickly or as thoroughly as could the Eighth Army in preparation for the larger battle to come.
Ruin Ridge remains a poignant episode in the history of Australia's part in the North African campaign, the final disaster which Australian troops suffered in the Mediterranean before they joined the costly but victorious battle fought on the same battlefield three months later.
Lest we forget.