Wartime Issue 13
Loyalty and Courage at Bardia
Sixty years ago Australians of the Second AIF fought their first major battle of the Second World War in North Africa.
I said to the corporals, "Righto! Scotty, Brian, John," and off we went. Up to now it had been dark and cold, and down in our wadi we had felt sheltered and somehow protected. But as we moved into the exposed ground our artillery commenced firing. The Italians replied and almost at once the air was filled with the crash and scream of shells. The dark was broken by the flash of explosions, while the sky above us was criss-crossed with phosphorescent tracks of the tracer.
H.B. Gullett, Not as a duty only
So begins Henry "Jo" Gullett's account of his part in the attack by the 2/6th Battalion's D Company on Post 11, the strongest of the front-line posts surrounding the Italian fortress at Bardia, Libya.
The Italians had dug in at Bardia after being pushed out of Egypt. The 10th Italian Army had advanced into Egypt in September 1940 with 250,000 men in an attempt to sieze the Suez Canal. Indian and other
Commonwealth troops had stopped the Italian advance and forced the Italians back across the Libyan border. Six battalions of the 16th and 17th Australian Brigades, supported by artillery and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, were tasked to attack Bardia. After several months of rigorous training in Palestine and Egypt, the Australians moved to Egypt's Western Desert in December. For the Australian troops, this would be their first major action of the Second World War.
The collection of the Australian War Memorial pays particular attention to this battle. Official war artist Ivor Hele completed a number of contemporary drawings of Australian troops during the battle and photographer Damien Parer accompanied the troops into action - at times filming from in front of the advancing troops. In 1966, the Memorial commissioned Hele to commemorate the battle. Hele's riveting Bardia (action leading to the fall of Post 11) shows the survivors of 17 Platoon, 2/6th Battalion in the aftermath of intense fighting. Post 11 was the last garrison to fall in the battle that lasted 3-5 January 1941.
Gullett's account of the battle in Not as a duty only has become a classic of Australian war literature and the passage of time has neither
dulled his description's vividness nor the courage and pathos depicted in Hele's painting. Gullett wrote that the men advanced into battle determined to live up to the reputation of the diggers of their fathers' generation. Sixty years on it is worth remembering their courage.
The Italian defensive positions
On the morning of 28 December, the 2/6th Battalion positioned itself on the left flank of the Italian defence line that ringed the harbour and garrison town. The Italian fortifications were extensive, making penetration of the posts extremely difficult. The defensive line - an arc almost 30 kilometres in length - comprised an elaborate system of anti-tank ditches and rows of barbed wire. Concrete entrances and passageways led to a network of underground shelters, bunkers and strong points. These points were well-armed with 47 mm guns and machine-guns, which were fired from concrete-sided pits connected by trenches with a deep underground shelter occupying most of the area of each post.
Dry watercourses - called "wadis" - were used to the Italians' advantage. Varying in size from small creek beds to near gorges, they offered protection from enemy observation and approach. The longest, Wadi Muatered, ran across the Australian front. The foremost Italian defences were based on its inside bank. Gullett recounted,
Post 11 was particularly strong because it was sited at a point where the wadi made a wide inward curve, providing the defenders with a semicircular field of fire as they faced outwards towards us.
A battalion in the attack
Due to Gullett's recollections and the battalion history written by David Hay and published by the Memorial in 1984, the most detailed accounts of the battle come from the 2/6th Battalion and generally concentrate on the fierce fighting for the heavily-fortified Post 11. In the days preceding the attack, the Australians made numerous night patrols. The bitter cold required the Australian troops to don greatcoats, balaclavas and leather jerkins. Patrolling continued until 2 January when Colonel Godfrey, commander of the 2/6th Battalion, received orders to capture enemy positions on Wadi Muatered from Post 3 to Post 11.
The attack commenced the next day at 6.30 am after two brief artillery concentrations on Posts 7 to 13. Post 11 became the objective of D Company with the support of machine-gunners of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
In the first day of the attack, 17 Australians were killed and 32 wounded. D Company bore the brunt of the fighting. Early in the attack, heavy firing from a machine-gun post pinned down members of 16 Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant John Bowen. Gullett's 17 Platoon came to their aid, attacking the machine-gun position. However, Gullett was hit in his right shoulder and two of his men were killed. Combined with earlier losses the company had suffered, 17 Platoon could not press the attack.
The dramatic events that followed form the subject of Hele's painting. Gullett, who had been wounded several times, regained consciousness in a trench. He found himself surrounded by a mass of bodies - dead friends and enemies together.
I came to in that trench where Brian Latham and his section had died. Brian lay on his back, just as he does in Ivor Hele's picture in the War Memorial. It was getting light now. The trench was a shambles in the full meaning of the word. I did not feel myself, but I was able to notice things and I still have the impression of the bright fresh blood all over the dead and the wounded. Maloney was wounded in the face and limping but still firing from the parapet. Presently Bernie Damm clambered down carrying his brother Claude on his back.
Gullett, supported by Private Harold Brockley, is the painting's central figure. Privates Bernie and Claude Damm can be seen behind them. This depiction provides a vivid testimonial of the intensive fighting and heavy losses experienced by both sides. While withdrawing from the trench under fire, both Gullett and Claude Damm were hit again, killing Damm. By the time the remaining party returned to the Wadi Muatered, Major John Rowan's C Company arrived to relieve D Company. Combined with an assault by the 2/11th Battalion and ending with the charge of the Bren Gun Carrier Platoon, Post 11 surrendered at midday on 5 January.
The anniversary of the Battle of Bardia is a timely reminder of the beginning of five years of battle for Australian soldiers. Bardia was the largest single operation in which the 2/6th Battalion took part during the war, with 22 killed in action and 51 wounded. The 6th Division lost a total of 130 soldiers. In the rout that followed the battle, no figures were recorded of the Italian casualties.
The Battle of Bardia is remembered significantly for the loyalty of Australian soldiers to their friends, unit, country and Britain. Gullett regarded this quality as an extension of the spirit which their fathers, as members of the First AIF, engendered:
It did not strike us as extraordinary or unfair that our generation should be called upon to fight. As volunteers we were there of our own free choice anyhow. Neither did we believe in our hearts that our country was threatened and that we were fighting for Australia's existence. Even when the Japanese came in we did not think that. But we knew England's position was very serious and that we should help her as our fathers had done. It was the order of things.
Julie Padanyi-Ryan has a Masters degree in Fine Arts and will receive her doctorate in cultural heritage studies from Curtin University in February 2001. She is currently an Interpreter in the Public Events department of the Australian War Memorial.