Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 37

Mark Johnston & Peter Stanley, Alamein: the Australian story, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2002, xii + 314 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliography, index, hard cover, rrp A$55.

Reviewed by: PAUL COLLIER, freelance historian

With the growth of public broadcasting television and popular history, with its fixation for anything associated with Hitler or the Second World War, it has become commonplace to denote any major battle as a decisive, or turning point of the War. The battle of El Alamein, however, truly deserves such a soubriquet for at this obscure Egyptian railway halt between July and November 1942 the Eighth Army stopped and then reversed the relentless advance of the German army.

Early in 1942 the 9th Australian Division was stationed in Syria, resting and training after its withdrawal from Tobruk. They were by then the only Australian troops remaining in the Middle East, the 6th and 7th Divisions having already departed on their return to Australia. Amidst the flight following the battle of Gazala, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, assumed operational command of Eighth Army and at the end of June he threw the Australians into the breach at the El Alamein line.

When Lieutenant-General Montgomery took command of Eighth Army in August he pulled together the motley assembly of Empire formations, which had all been badly blunted, and during the following two months sharpened them into a coherent fighting force, with 9th Australian Division as the diamond tip to the cutting edge of his Army. On the night of 23 October Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, General Officer Commanding, 9th Australian Division, wrote to his wife "that in exactly two hours by far the greatest battle ever fought in the Middle East will be launched." During the following twelve days, Morshead's soldiers engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war and played a key role in helping to defeat the Axis powers - an achievement that has remained largely unrecognised in Australia. The desire to redress this glaring omission, and thereby extend and enrich the understanding of Australia's contribution to the victory, forms the core theme of Alamein: the Australian story.

Johnston and Stanley, two of Australia's finest military historians, assert that their book "is about the experience of Australian soldiers in the battles of El Alamein in 1942 and about their contribution to victory" and in this they have succeeded superbly. At its heart Alamein is the story of the Australian infantry soldiers who fought in the scorched wilderness, with little interest in the personalities of senior commanders. The authors refuse to romanticise the desert war but, by giving so striking an account of its reality, they do greater justice to the men who fought in it.

The book is a collaborative effort, a notoriously difficult exercise, but the authors have woven their separately written chapters together seamlessly. Alamein is an excellent read; unfailingly well written with great verve and style, always interesting and with a narrative that races along at a tremendous pace.

The initial section of the book gives a concise but excellent summary of the first two years of the campaign, and sets the context to the Alamein battles. The authors do particularly well when describing the strategic situation, evoking the uncertainties of the time and the very real fear of encirclement through the Caucasus that the British felt in the dark months of mid-1942, but which today seem totally unrealistic. The detailed, battalion by battalion scrutiny of 'Nine Div' is also very useful, and will be particularly helpful to readers not familiar with the military history of this period. What appears immediately apparent, however, is the first pillar of strength that underpins Alamein - it's honesty.

The authors make plain that this is "not a parochially Australian study" and they keep true to their word. It is refreshing, for instance, to see Australian authors deprecate the oft-repeated Australian myth that Churchill only allowed Australian troops to return to their homeland after intense pressure from the Australian government. Similarly, they refute the notion that it was the Australians who stopped Rommel's advance. The Eighth Army was disorganised and dispirited but New Zealand, South African, Indian, French and British troops in turn all played their part alongside the Australians. Unlike other wars or armies, the British Army in North Africa was not purely British, although it has long been commonplace to refer to it as such, and nor was it was even a coalition. It was an Imperial or Commonwealth Army with British higher commanders, and as such it was bedevilled with "special problems" such as mixed forces, mixed races, mixed religions and mixed nationalities - each with their own demands, methods of operating and command strictures, and in the case of the Australian and New Zealand forces, a separate recourse of authority to their own government.

Tensions and mistrust naturally developed but the book maintains an even hand, balancing, for example, the anxieties between infantry and armour, and Australian and British commanders. Throughout, the differences are recognised as a consequence of a lack of training, a lack of familiarity with the strengths and roles of comrades-in-arms in a combined arms battle, and a failure by all to fully appreciate the wider responsibilities.

This is not to say that the book doesn't shy from its Antipodean sympathies; the authors, for instance, appear rather indignant over Monty's decision to abandon a slouch hat in favour of a black beret, though somewhat gleeful that it now makes a central display item at the Australian War Memorial. But, by placing the Australians fairly and squarely in the context of the whole Army the book emphasises that all nationalities were fighting equally on the same side and despite their differences the efforts and sacrifices of the Australians were part of a much greater achievement.

The bulk of Alamein is devoted to narrating the story of the Australian battalions in the tumultuous battles in July and October 1942. Rather than rely on official sources the authors have also made extensive use of letters, diaries and interviews with former soldiers, and through judicious quotations have allowed the soldiers to tell their story in their own words. Therein lies the main strength of the book - its authenticity.

The most vivid passages chronicle the actions of the fighting men, the sappers, anti-tank gunners, machine-gunners and infantry, in vicious close action combat as they progressively "crumbled" Rommel's defences. The action and atmosphere are vividly described from the soldiers' point of view, following the unsullied theme of the Official history to show "the greatness of the Australian soldier [in] their trials, their triumphs, their disasters. Their comradeship, transcending wars engendered hates."

The atmosphere of the soldiers' slit trenches and doovers is strikingly recreated in all its gruesome detail. The flies, sand and heat, clouds of smoke and burning cordite, and the stench of death from burnt and bloated bodies that remained on the battlefield for weeks evoke vivid scenes. The descriptions of the horrible deaths and horrific injuries that men suffered are exceptionally moving.

The book is written with unmistakable passion and pride, and recounts countless acts of individual bravery and heroism, but it gains credence by avoiding the easy temptation to revert to the stereotypical description of Australian soldiers as "supermen". Ill-discipline is shown as a problem, and not all soldiers had the stamina for battle. The intensity of artillery shelling during El Alamein was likened to that of the First World War by those who had witnessed both and many men suffered "anxiety state" or shell shock, a subject itself deserving further study. One can but have some sympathy for soldiers who suffered to such a degree that they deliberately surrendered or refused to take up their posts and were court martialed.

Only one passage of the book jars. Casualties are an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of war. Comparing death rates by nation, however, as if in some sort of competition, with the inference that nations with a lower "score" were somehow less committed to the fighting adds little to the achievements of the Australians and would be better avoided.

The book is the latest addition to the excellent Australian Army History series, and maintains the high quality of editing and production. The text is supplemented by 29 excellent maps and 3-dimensional images, essential aids too often overlooked, which ably support the occasionally complex tactical movements. The publisher's claim, however, that "the authors are among the first Australians to consult German and hitherto secret British records, especially Ultra signals" is a little mendacious.

Other battles have become part of Australia's national identity, but for many Australians El Alamein remains unknown. In part, this is because throughout 1942 Australians at home were largely focused on the growing threat to the north, following the fall of Singapore and the bombing raids on northern Australia. By October the Japanese invasion of New Guinea and the imminent invasion of Australia's shores prevented Australians from appreciating the implications of El Alamein and the nature of Australia's role in the critical battle. Similarly, the 60th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein was overshadowed by the tragic events in Bali, and the commemoration passed relatively unnoticed.

Montgomery described the Australian's contribution as "beyond all praise", while General Alexander told the Australians that they had "added fresh lustre to your already illustrious name." It is an ignominy that the sacrifice and the magnitude of achievement of the "plain common" soldiers of Nine Div have remained unrecognised for so long in Australia. Alamein: the Australian story is a grand testament to their accomplishment and, by appealing to soldiers, scholars and general readers alike, it will encourage further study and a greater understanding of Australia's role in this great battle.