Commemorative address for 75th anniversary of El Alamein

Monday, 23 October 2017

Commemorative Address
The Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO
National Arboretum, Canberra

 

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

We will sing it shortly. We sing it often. We hear it sung often, the first line of our National Anthem.

But less often do we pause to reflect on what it means.

We are young. And we are free.

And we are free in no small way for the events that bring us here today.

Events recognised at the time as a turning point in the conflict consuming the globe - the Second Battle of El Alamein.

The Second World War was no mere extension of the First. This was not about emerging Australian identity and Australia’s place in the world.

Our nation’s vital interests were at stake.

If 1788 is the most important year in this nation’s history, the next most important year was 1942.

After the fall of ‘Fortress Singapore’ in February, bombs fell on Darwin heralding 68 attacks on the Australian mainland; Coral Sea, Midway, Kokoda, Isuarva, Milne Bay and Guadecanal are now among the names so critical to our nation’s security.

To them of course is added – El Alamein, a turning point in the Second World War.

As Winston Churchill of yours and the Allied achievement:

"Now this is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

But in mid-1942 the ‘end of the beginning’ remained an unseen horizon.

By July 1942 the 9th Division, the only Australian force in the Western Desert since the return of its sister divisions to defend Australia, had already seen hard service in the gripping battles in North Africa.

The 9th, with the support of the ships of the Royal Australian Navy’s ‘Scrap Iron Flotilla, had earned admiration for bravery as the legendary ‘Rats of Tobruk’ and for tactical skill in the bitter campaign against the Vichy-French in the sands of Syria and Lebanon.

Now in July 1942 they faced the German Panzerarmee Afrika in the First Battle of El Alamein. They would fight shoulder to shoulder one final time, with what the official historian Barton Maughan, himself a desert war veteran, called:

“...that grand but old-fashioned ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’, fighting its last righteous war before it was to dissolve in shadowy illusion.”

The importance of this strip of barren desert, the main feature of which was a nondescript railway siding, can be difficult to comprehend.

Just 60 kilometres wide, between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the impassable Qattara Depression to the south and barely 100 kilometres from Alexandria.

Forces there were all that stood between the Germans and the ports and cities of Egypt, the base facilities of the Commonwealth forces, the Suez Canal, and routes to the vital Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields.

The month long First Battle of El Alamein was characterised by fierce fighting.

But by the end of July the Australians and their Commonwealth comrades from Britain, India, New Zealand and South Africa, with support from the Desert Air Force including RAAF 3 and 450 Squadrons had stopped the Germans in their tracks.

But it came at a heavy cost.

Lance Corporal Alfred ‘Rowdy’ Lear of the 2/48th Battalion was a Rat of Tobruk. This champion horse breaker, husband and father was killed in a night-time counter-attack at Tel el Eisa, known as the ‘Hill of Jesus’.

He was 32 years old.

On the anniversary of his death his family posted an in-memoriam notice in the Broken Hill paper,

“In loving memory of our darling daddy, Lance-Corporal Alfred Frederick (Rowdy) Lear…At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we remember him.”

We too remember Rowdy Lear. We always will.

On 10 July this year, the 75th anniversary of his death, Rowdy’s story was told at the Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony.

He was among the first of more than 6,000 Australians who would be killed, wounded or captured over the next five months.

Many more would suffer from desert sores, dysentery, pyrexia and other debilitating conditions brought on by sand, heat and poor rations.

The British forces, now led by General Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery, turned their attention to training, preparing and planning for their own attack at El Alamein.

The 9th Australian Division’s commander was the great General Leslie Morshead.

From the conference at which Monty announced his battle plan, Morshead wrote:

“It will be a decisive battle, a hard and bloody battle and there must be only one result. Success will mean the end of the war in North Africa . . .”

Morshead’s men had been assigned a key role in the coming battle. They would spearhead the assault on the right flank in the first ‘break-in’ phase of the battle.

On the eve of the battle, Captain Bill Cobb of the 2/15th Battalion, moved among his troops. Recipient of two Military Crosses for bravery, Cobb is described in our Official Histories as ‘audacious’. He encouraged the men with words and a nip of Scotch in the cold night air.

Before making the rounds of his company he told a fellow officer the items he wanted sent home in the event of his death.

Another officer, Captain R.G. Sanderson of the 2/13th, also visited his men before the battle. He told one of his NCOs, ‘Cobber’ Craig:

“…we have a grand lot of boys here; I wonder just how many of these faces we will see this time tomorrow.”

Under the most intense British artillery barrage since 1918, the Australians launched their attack.

Cobb’s eerie premonition proved true.

When he fell in the first advance, it was reported that many men in his company cried. Sanderson too was killed when he left a trench to accept the surrender of some Germans.

Despite the high cost, the 9th Division captured its initial objectives. But minefields and German anti-tank guns prevented the supporting British tanks from achieving the planned breakthrough.

The battle quickly turned into one of attrition.

The subsequent days of fighting would hold more than an echo of the brutal, slogging fighting of the Western Front in the First World War.

Under the cover of rolling artillery barrages Australian infantry repeatedly launched themselves against German fortifications.

Despite the bravery of their crews, the tanks assigned to support the infantry were of little use.

Australians repeatedly displayed reckless courage and cool bravery in the face of withering fire.

Percy Gratwick and Bill Kibby were awarded the Victoria Cross.

Each had single-handedly eliminated German machine gun posts in a manner reminiscent of the Western Front.

Names like Trig 29, the Blockhouse, the Saucer and Thompson’s Post took on an aura akin to Polygon Wood or Bullecourt a generation earlier. Australian sacrifice here was as dense as anywhere else in that terrible year of 1942.

Of Trig 29, where Gratwick earned his VC, an Australian signaller wrote,

"Trig 29. The worst spot I have been anywhere in this war."

He listed 11 close mates killed on or near it in the same diary entry.

The 9th Division’s continued assault threatened to break the enemy line and forced Rommel to commit his best units to face them.

Elite German panzer troops were rushed north, weakening Rommel’s southern flank, allowing the British to break through and finally throw the Germans back in disarray.

But Australia paid a high price.

Although less than ten percent of the Allied force, Australians accounted for more than twenty two percent of casualties.

Tonight at the Australian War Memorial we will pause to remember just one of them - Richard Alexander Matheson.

Matheson was serving with the 2/3rd Pioneers on 31st October 1942 when his unit was surrounded.

Suffering heavy casualties, the Germans demanded they surrender.

The besieged pioneers’ responded with Aussie defiance:

“If you want us, come and get us!”

And come for them the Germans did.

Fighting raged on through the blistering heat of the day until, just as German panzers appeared to finish off the Australians, British tanks arrived.

The pioneers hugged the ground as a tank battle exploded around them. When the enemy were finally driven off, the Australians held the ground, but among the dead was Richard Matheson.

Like ‘Rowdy’ Lear on the anniversary of his death, Matheson’s family posted an in memoriam notice in the Wagga Daily Advertiser,

In loving memory of our dear brother and our Uncle Dick …

We think of you in silence,

And love to speak your name;

In life we loved you dearly,

In death we do the same.

 

In just 12 days of battle, almost 3,000 men had been killed, wounded or were missing

In those days of grinding, brutal warfare the 9th Division earned its nickname of honour – the Magnificent Ninth.

In 1967 on the 25th anniversary of the battle, General Montgomery paid special tribute to the fallen of the Ninth Division when he visited their graves in El Alamein cemetery.

He later 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.”

While the Second Battle of El Alamein was as a turning point for the Allies, a long war lay ahead to defeat Nazism and Fascism in Europe.

The men of the ‘Magnificent Ninth’ turned to the war against the Japanese in the Pacific in direct defence of their own country.

There are a small number of veterans here today, men who may have known Rowdy Lear, Richard Matheson or perhaps Captains Sanderson and Cobb.

To young Australians, these men before us - like you, were once young. They gave their youth and for many whom they remember as if yesterday – their lives.

Today, and for the rest of your lives, when you sing our National Anthem, think of them and what was given for us and our freedoms.

They are the best generation this country has ever produced.

They were born in the aftermath of the First World War.

They grew up through the Great Depression.

They came to their teenage years under the shadows of the war that was coming.

They mobilised to defend our freedoms and vital interests.

They then set about the economic and social reconstruction of our country, Australia, and gave us the prosperity that too often we have taken for granted.

They placed principle above position and values ahead of value.

Their responsibilities to one another and our nation and its future transcended and defined their rights.

So always remember them.

We will always remember them.

…for we are young and we are free.

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