'It was just one continual roar, like a big clap of thunder'

30 November 2017 by Claire Hunter

Derek Green

Derek Green: "You think of all those who didn’t come back, and about what a lot of big effort that it was.”

Ninety-five-year-old Derek Green knows all too well the damage war can do. Serving with the 2/3rd Field Ambulance at the battle of El Alamein, he worked side-by-side with the doctors, keeping a record of injuries and diagnoses as they tried to save the wounded.

“I remember one army captain,” Green said. “A tank corp captain came in with both his ankles, his legs, both, just hanging by a strip of skin, and I’ll never forget that. It was terrible, but there were shrapnel wounds and things, and my job was to record it for later on.

“I’d be with the doctor and he’d say it was a gunshot wound to the left leg, or something, or whatever, and I’d get his army number and his name and number and unit and make a recording of it, and that was all sent back to headquarters.”

Green was one of 23 veterans who travelled to the Australian War Memorial to take part in commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein.

Named after a small railway stop in Egypt’s Western Desert, the battle of El Alamein was a turning point in the war in North Africa. Fighting began in the area in July 1942 when the British Eighth Army, which included the Australian 9th Division, managed to halt the advance Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. On the night of 23 October 1942, a massive artillery barrage heralded the beginning of the main Allied offensive.

“Oh yes, I’ll never forget the start [of the battle], the roar of the 25 pounders, it was just one continual roar, like a big clap of thunder and it was just – I don’t know how many shells they must have used – but, no, I’ll never forget that,” Green said.

“We were not that far, the infantry would be … there, and we would be just behind them, and our stretcher bearers would go out and bring the injured back. Our doctors would just give them morphine if they were in trouble and then do what they could for them and transfer them back to the MDS, the main dressing station.”

Green worked to keep track of casualties to ensure that the wounded soldiers, sailors, and airmen received the best care possible, despite the chaos of battle.

“We had what we called an advance dressing station,” Green said. “There were about 15 of us in the group – two doctors, stretcher bearers, etc. – and we were just behind the front line. We were there for about three months before the big bang. And just before the big bang, we were relieved by another group and we came back to what we called the main dressing station.

“At first there was not a great deal [of wounded]. The first three months, there were just odd ones, because there were only skirmishes, not a big battle going on. It was just holding the line, but there were some bad ones. For the first three months it was mainly shells, and you’d hear the shells going off, but all the skirmishes were a bit further up.”

Green heard the progress of the advances during the battle of El Alamein from senior officers and patients at the dressing station. The Allied infantry successfully captured most of their objectives, but the tanks were unable to follow through. With the Axis forces holding their lines, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery ordered the Australians of the 9th Division to switch their attack northward. A week of fierce fighting followed, with the Australians grinding their way over well-defended enemy positions, weakening German lines and preventing Rommel’s army from taking control of Egypt and the Suez Canal.

“It was a very important battle because the whole Middle East depended on it,” Green said.

“I had my 20th birthday at Alamein. It was very quiet. There were no celebrations, but it’s funny, I always remember my birthdays from the age of 19. I had my 19th on the Queen Elizabeth going over to the Middle East, my 20th at Alamein, and my 21st at Lei. I will always remember those three birthdays.”

Green was born in Henley-on-Thames in England in 1922 and immigrated to Australia in 1939 with his family.

“I came out from England when I was 16,” Green said. “There was nothing doing in England at that time. I did have a couple of jobs there, but I was biking about 20 miles a day for a small amount of money –a very small amount, 10 shillings I think it was – and I was only 14 or 15 then … They were advertising for people to come to Australia or Canada and I put in for that and that’s how it came about.”

Green was working in Queensland when the war broke out. “I was working on a sheep station at the time,” he said. “I’d have been about 18 then, and I thought, [it was my] duty, and also, I suppose, being young, it was exciting. I joined the ADF first because I was too young for the AIF.”

Green enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in July 1941.

“I got my parents’ consent and joined the AIF,” he said. “I was very lucky. Before pre-embarkation, I was listed on the Malayan draft, and when I came back from pre-embarkation leave, I had been transferred to the Middle East, so I was very lucky in that respect.”

Green joined the 2/3rd Field Ambulance and left for the Middle East in August 1941. After El Alamein, Green and the 2/3rd Field Ambulance returned to Australia to conduct jungle warfare training in the Atherton tablelands in far North Queensland before being sent to New Guinea. It was a difficult and confronting time.

“I found it came back to me more or less later on,” Green said. “I had no trouble when I was in the Middle East, it was when we went to New Guinea that I started to find the trauma [affected me], I suppose. I was a very sick man at that time, but anyway, we’ve come good.”

When Green was discharged in late 1944 he found it difficult to return to normal life.

“Just after the war I tried for two jobs, but I only lasted one or two days at them,” he said. “I had a real good job offered to me in statistics, but I couldn’t do it. I finished up taking a wool classing course … and that’s what I finished up as – a wool classer.”

Now living at Hervey Bay, Green said it meant a lot to him to be able to travel to Canberra for the commemorations.

“It’s terrific really,” he said. “I made a lot of good friends … You think of all those who didn’t come back, and about what a lot of big effort that it was.”