North Africa and Syria

North Africa and Syria book cover

This publication encourages students to become engaged with North Africa and Syria. It concentrates on Australia's involvement in these regions between 1940-1942 before Japan entered the war. This book is supplemented with teaching activities for students in the booklet, North Africa and Syria: Educational Activities.

ISBN: 978-1-877007-80-4
Series: Australians in World War II
Access a designed version to download or print

Chapter 1: North Africa and Syria 1940–1942

Map of the Mediterranean


At 5.30 am on 3 January 1941, the first major attack by an Australian division in World War II was launched at Bardia in Italian Libya. In three days of fighting, the 6th Australian Division defeated the Italian garrison, capturing four generals and 40,000 prisoners, including their weapons and equipment. News of the victory began streaming into the Australian press. On 8 January The Argus proudly announced 'A.I.F widely praised', reporting messages of support which directly linked the Bardia heroes with the heroes of World War I. Mr Vrisakis, the Greek consul-general in Australia, was reported as congratulating the A.I.F for their 'magnificent feat of arms' in Bardia, saying 'once more the sons of Australia have covered themselves with imperishable glory'. On 7 January The Canberra Times announced Bardia as a 'Bloodless Victory'. Bardia may well have been a victory, but it was not bloodless, as the killed in action notices which also began to appear in the papers testified. Private Harold Pagram's family published a simple tribute in the 20 January edition of The Argus: 'killed Bardia January 3 loved brother Albert and brother-in-law Mollie, loving uncle Bob and Albie.' The Pagram family would not have agreed it was a 'bloodless victory'.


Map of North Africa

Maps—North Africa

The origins of the war, and the inevitable grief which would follow, began on 3 September 1939, when Australia and New Zealand joined Britain and France in declaring war on Germany, which had invaded Poland on 1 September. On 15 September, the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced the formation of a special military force of one infantry division and auxiliary units, totalling 20,000 men for service at home or abroad. The Government was concerned about Japanese intentions, and also announced that the militia would be called up for home defence. The new division was named the 6th Division and the special military force was called the Second Australian Imperial Force (Second AIF). Major General Sir Thomas Blamey was chosen on 28 September to command the force. The 6th Division comprised three infantry brigades: the 16th, 17th and 18th, each of four battalions numbered 2/1st to 2/12th. The first contingent, consisting of the 16th Brigade, embarked for the Middle East on 9 January 1940, arriving at Ismailia in the Suez Canal on 12 February. The Australians disembarked and moved to a camp at Julis in southern Palestine for training. On 28 February, the Australian War Cabinet decided to form a new division and additional corps troops, and to adopt the smaller British establishment. Adopting the British establishment meant reducing the 6th Division from twelve to nine battalions, with the three surplus battalions forming the 19th Brigade. Sir Thomas Blamey was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the Australian Corps, Major General Iven Mackay command of the 6th Division, and Major General John Lavarack command of the 7th Division.

Chapter 2: Italy declares war

On 10 June 1940, six days after the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed and twelve days before France signed an armistice with Germany, Italy declared war on Britain. An Italian army of 250,000 now threatened Egypt, defended by only 30,000 troops of the Western Desert Force. The Royal Australian Navy was soon in action. On 19 July 1940, HMAS Sydney engaged the Italian cruisers Giovanni Della Ronde and Bartolomeo Colleoni off Cape Spada, Crete. Sydney's guns hit and damaged the Bartolomeo Colleoni, causing it to stop. It was then sunk by a torpedo from a British destroyer.

Thomas Fisher was aboard the Sydney during the action and recalls the excitement of returning after the engagement to see ‘the whole of the Mediterranean fleet and all the civilians had lined the harbour on the foreshore and all cheered us into harbour'.

Sydney also distinguished itself at the Strait of Otranto on 12 November 1940, when supporting the major blow against the main Italian Fleet base at Taranto, Italy. HMAS Hobart supported British Somaliland in August 1940 during the Italian invasion, conducting bombing attacks from its Walrus amphibian and manning a Hotchkiss gun with a volunteer RAN crew on the British defence line at Tug Argan Gap. In the attempt to establish Free French control of West Africa at Dakar on 25 September 1940, HMAS Australia was hit twice, causing some damage but no casualties. However, the ship's Walrus was shot down and its three-man crew—Lieutenant Commander Francis Fogarty and Petty Officer Colin Bunnett of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Flight Sergeant George Clarke of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)—were killed.

Italy took three months to organise forces before it invaded Egypt on 13 September 1940. The Italian forces advanced 100 kilometres along the Mediterranean coast to the port of Sidi Barrani, where they stopped; three months later they had made no further moves east. The British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, then moved the British 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions forward. On the night of 7–8 December, with 100 kilometres of open desert separating the main British and Italian forces, the British moved forward undetected. The following day Allied aircraft, including No. 3 Squadron RAAF, kept Italian aircraft away. During the night of 8–9 December, the Indian infantry and British armour moved into position. Their attack next morning was a great success—Sidi Barrani was recaptured, 35,000 Italian troops surrendered and the remainder fled Egypt.

Chapter 3: Bardia

Since October 1940, the 6th Division had been in the desert in reserve immediately west of the Delta. It was well prepared, although it had some equipment shortages. After Sidi Barrani the 4th Indian Division was to move to Abyssinia and be replaced by the 6th Division, now composed of the 16th, 17th and 19th Brigades. On 12 December, the 6th Division set off westward by rail and road and relieved the Indian troops south of Bardia a week later. Bardia, a harbour town about 25 kilometres west of the Egyptian frontier, was defended by a 30-kilometre arc of concrete underground bunkers behind an anti-tank ditch and barbed-wire barriers. This was supported by machine-gun posts and other obstacles, with the rear posts some 400 metres behind the main line. These positions could call on fire from more than one hundred artillery pieces. The Australians moved up to the Italian perimeter and patrols measured the anti-tank ditch, tested the wire and observed the Italian routine.

The plan of attack called for the 16th Brigade (2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions) to cross the anti-tank ditch, blow gaps in the wire and take the posts west of Bardia. They were followed at daylight by the 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions of the 17th Brigade, supported by British armour. The 2/6th Battalion of the 17th Brigade was to create a diversion at the southern end of the perimeter. The 19th Brigade (2/4th, 2/8th and 2/11th Battalions) was held in reserve. On 2 January 1941, HMAS Voyager was part of the naval bombardment of the northern defence area of Bardia.

On 3 January the assault began, with the Australians dressed in greatcoats and leather jackets to keep out the intense cold of the desert at early morning, and heavily laden with weapons, tools, ammunition and rations. The guns opened fire at 5.30 am and within thirty minutes the infantry had crossed the anti-tank ditch and had breached the wire obstacles. Bill Travers described the opening scene:

First one gun flashed and the shells screamed over us to land about half a mile in front. Then millions of shells screamed over us and the sky became red with flashes and streaks.1

Some Italian posts and bunkers fought with determination, while others offered little resistance. The 2/3rd Battalion withstood a counter-attack from Italian tanks. Captain David Green, commanding B Company, 2/7th Battalion, and his second in command, Lieutenant Charles Macfarlane, were watching some Italians with their hands raised emerge from a post when a lone Italian put a rifle to his shoulder and shot Green through the chest. The Italian then dropped his rifle, put up his hands and climbed out of the post, smiling broadly. An angry Australian threw him back into the post and emptied his Bren gun into him. At the same time others demanded of Macfarlane that they should be allowed to bayonet all the other prisoners, but Macfarlane, now the only officer in the company, forbade them to take revenge, and was obeyed. The Italians in Post 25, on the skyline 500 metres away, having witnessed this incident, sent out an English-speaking emissary and surrendered without firing another shot. In three hours of fighting, Macfarlane’s company had been reduced to sixty-five men, but had taken six posts and widened the breach in the Italian line by 2000 metres.

While the 16th Brigade consolidated their position for the night, the Italians were still holding out against the 17th Brigade. The forward companies of the 17th Brigade fought on during the night, and at dawn the brigade commander found that ‘the position, which at midnight appeared to be hopeless, was secure’. On 4 January the Italian position was effectively cut in two, with the 16th Brigade encircling Bardia. Fighting ceased the following day, with the 19th Brigade overcoming resistance south of Bardia and the 16th Brigade and British armour mopping up. Italian losses were 40,000 captured, hundreds of guns, and much equipment and stores, including 700 needed motor vehicles. The 6th Division suffered 130 killed or died of wounds, and 326 wounded.

Donald Pierce recalled that the logistics of managing so many prisoners was a challenge:

But you just imagine having thirty-six thousand blokes there and the rest of ‘em are all Aussie diggers. Now they’ve gotta be fed, they’ve gotta have sufficient covering that they’re not gonna freeze to death and they've gotta have latrines dug and fixed up for them. All these things, and there’s nobody else except the poor bloody infantry to do that.2

  • 1. Peter Rees, Desert Boys, p. 364
  • 2. Donald Pierce, Australians at war film archive

Chapter 4: Capture of Tobruk

Following the capture of Bardia, British armour moved more than 100 kilometres west to the next Italian defensive position—Tobruk, a small port with a pre-war population of about 4000. Tobruk had a safe and accessible harbour that could receive supplies shipped by sea from Egypt to ease supply problems. Australian infantry, on 7 January, deployed opposite part of the 50-kilometre Tobruk perimeter of 128 defensive posts protected by an anti-tank ditch and barbed wire. With a smaller garrison and a longer perimeter, the Australians hoped that their task at Tobruk would be easier than Bardia. Nightly patrols were sent out to explore the Italian positions, look for mines and booby traps, and gain familiarity with the ground.

The plan for Tobruk was similar to the attack on Bardia. The assault would commence at dawn on a small front to allow the infantry and armour to enter and fan out within the Italian perimeter. The attack was to be at the junction of two sectors, in an attempt to suggest that the attack was on a wider front than was the case. Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers attacked Tobruk in the two nights prior to the attack. On 21 January, the day of the assault, naval gunfire from five ships, including HMA Ships StuartVampire and Voyager, shelled targets within the Italian perimeter. Supported by a British artillery barrage, the 16th Brigade moved up to the 600 metre segment of the Italian line on the southern side between the roads leading to El Adem and Bardia. At 5.40 am, the 2/3rd Battalion, with the 2/1st Field Company, crossed the start line. The engineers and the infantry pioneers made lanes for vehicles to cross the anti tank ditch and pass through the wire. The barrage lifted at five past six and the 2/3rd Battalion captured the five adjacent enemy posts. The rest of the 6th Division and supporting units then fanned out into the enemy perimeter.

At about 10 am, Signalmen Kenneth Clift, Robert McKeague and William Bruce were to lay cable from the 2/3rd Battalion back to the 16th Brigade Headquarters. They moved towards the battalion but realized after three kilometres that they had gone too far forward. Shortly afterwards they saw an Italian battery, and Signalman Cliff, in charge of the line party, immediately decided to attack. They headed for the battery, firing with their only weapons—two pistols. When about 50 metres away, the battery commander ordered the guns to stop firing and held up a white flag. The line party disarmed the officers and men and marched them in the direction of a column of prisoners. The signalmen then found the 2/3rd Battalion and laid cable back to brigade headquarters.

As the Australians moved towards the airfield and the town beyond, fierce opposition was encountered from machine guns, artillery and tanks. In the afternoon, as the 2/8th Battalion approached Port Pilastrino, west of the airfield, a well organized Italian counter-attack of nine Italian M13 Medium tanks supported by several hundred infantry was encountered. In the face of heavy machine-gun fire, Private Oliver Neall ran 200 metres to retrieve, from a wounded soldier, a Boys Anti-Tank rifle which required great skill and strength to use. He opened fire on the tanks, accounting for three, which then caused the remaining tanks to withdraw. Meanwhile the 2/4th Battalion objective was the airfield and Fort Solara. On the airfield the Australians came under point blank fire from anti-aircraft guns, which were engaged by Australian and British artillery before an Australian platoon captured the guns. After a 20-minute break the Australians moved towards Fort Solara, where General Petassi Manella, the Tobruk garrison and 22nd Corps commander, was captured.

According to a report in the Townsville Bulletin one Australian airman, who had been taken prisoner by Italian forces eight days before the town fell, was particularly glad to see the Australian forces arrive. The report described his welcome to the conquering force:

Correspondents entering the flame-swept, dust-filled streets, saw him standing in a blue sweater and trousers at the head of hundreds of disarmed Italians. He called 'Come right in, pals. The town is yours'.3

By nightfall, the Italian artillery was almost silent, with most of the eastern half of the fortress in Australian hands. The next morning the commander of the Italian 61st Division advised that he wished to surrender. With the senior commanders captured and more than half the fortress in Australian hands the remaining Italian garrison did not offer further resistance, and from dawn onwards reports from all along the front were that the Italians were offering to surrender. About 25,000 Italians were captured at Tobruk, as well as several hundred pieces of artillery, twenty-three medium tanks and another 200 vehicles. Australian casualties were forty-nine killed in action or died of wounds and 306 wounded.

  • 1. Townsville Daily Bulletin, Monday 27 Jan, p. 5 on

Chapter 5: To Benghazi

On 22 January, while the 6th Division was mopping up at Tobruk, the British 7th Armoured Division moved 150 kilometres to the west towards Mechili, which was situated 60 kilometres south of the coastal town of Derna. Next day the Australians followed along the coast road, and soon after midday on 25 January the leading Australian battalion reached the outskirts of Derna and attempted to secure the airfield. The Australians were resisted by a strong Italian rearguard that continued to resist Australian probes and patrols on the following days. By 29 January, two Australian brigades were in position around Derna, but that night the Italians slipped away and the town was occupied the following morning.

The Australians were soon in pursuit, moving along the coastal road towards Benghazi. British armour moved inland to reach the coast at Beda Fomm and Sid Saleh to block the Italian retreat from Benghazi, situated 100 kilometres to the north, which was entered on 7 February. In two months from the attack at Sidi Barrani on 9 December 1940 until the capture of Benghazi on 7 February 1941, the British forces—amounting to one infantry division and one armoured division, and known in communiqués as the Army of the Nile—had advanced 800 kilometres, pushed Italy out of Cyrenaica, destroyed ten Italian divisions, and captured 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1300 artillery pieces.

Italy still controlled Tripolitania, the western half of Libya, but General Wavell, the British commander-in-chief, was ordered to aid Greece with as many troops as possible. He decided to send the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions, the New Zealand Division, a brigade of the British 2nd Armoured Division and the Polish infantry brigade to Greece. Two Indian divisions, one South African division and two small African divisions would carry on the campaign in Abyssinia. The 7th Armoured was refitting in Egypt and the remainder of the 2nd Armoured Division would garrison Cyrenaica. The 6th Division would be replaced in Cyrenaica by the Australian 9th Division, which the Australian War Cabinet had decided to form on 23 September 1940. In preparations for Greece the Australian divisions were reorganised, with some brigades switched between divisions and some battalions between brigades. The 9th Division would comprise the 20th, 24th and 26th Brigades.

The Italian Navy attempted to disrupt the movement of British troops from Egypt to Greece. In a major sea engagement off Cape Matapan in southern Greece on 28–29 March 1941, the British Mediterranean fleet, including the cruiser HMAS Perth and the destroyer HMAS Stuart, engaged a force led by the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto, which was heavily damaged and sank three heavy cruisers and two destroyers. Some 58,000 troops were transported to Greece without loss.

Chapter 6: The Benghazi Handicap

On 8 March, Major General Mackay, commanding the 6th Division, handed over command to Major General Leslie Morshead, commanding the 9th Division. Next day the 20th Brigade relieved the 17th Brigade in its position astride the main road between Marsa Brega and El Agheila. The Germans were building up their forces, and their patrols across the frontier heralded an offensive. The less mobile infantry was withdrawn to Benghazi and the British armour given command of the forward area. In the last week of March, despite his slender armoured forces, General Rommel, commander of the new German Afrika Korps, launched a counter-offensive against British forces in north Africa. At Marsa Brega on 31 March and Agedabia on 2 April, most of the 2nd Armoured Division’s tanks were destroyed and the route to Mechili was open to the German forces.

The Germans entered Benghazi on 4 April and the 9th Division was ordered to withdraw to the escarpment east of Benghazi. The last unit to move was the 2/13th Battalion, which held German tanks and lorried infantry until after dark at Er Regima pass before withdrawing to Barce. Elements of the 2/15th Battalion and 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment withdrew through Mechili and were surrounded. Before the forces surrendered, Private Rae Johnston, the No. 2 of a three-inch mortar team, carried the mortar base plate across 200 metres of desert, mainly devoid of cover, while subject to fire from German small arms and armoured fighting vehicles. He retraced his steps, still under fire, to obtain more ammunition, assisted in keeping the mortar in action and finally rendered the weapon useless before the Australians surrendered. From a POW camp, the commanding officer of the 2/15th Battalion tried to recommend Johnston for the Military Medal, and when that failed reinstated the recommendation after the war. It was further delayed due to some confusion and the Military Medal was finally gazetted in October 1950, the very last gallantry award to any British or Commonwealth service person for World War II.

Most of the 9th Division withdrew along the northern route through Derna towards Tobruk. On 6 April, in Cairo, the decision was made that Tobruk should be held even if isolated. At the same time Wavell decided that the Australian 7th Division, less the 18th Brigade which had already moved to Tobruk, would not move to Greece but to Mersa Matruh in Egypt. On 8 April, Laverack, the 7th Division commander, was appointed Commander in Chief, Cyrenaica Command, and arrived in Tobruk. Three brigades of the 9th Division, the 18th Brigade, the British 3rd Armoured Brigade and eight field artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery regiments manned Tobruk by 9 April. Of the twenty-seven infantry, artillery and armoured units in the fortress, fifteen were Australian, eleven were British and one was Indian. Seven of the thirteen infantry battalions manned the perimeter, with one company in reserve about 800 metres to the rear. An inner line, known as the Blue Line, was gradually dug and wired about three kilometres within the perimeter and was manned by one battalion of each forward brigade. One brigade, tanks, armoured cars and carriers were held further back in reserve. On 11 April, the Germans cut the roads leading east from Tobruk and the siege had begun.

Chapter 7: Siege of Tobruk

On 13 April, the Germans decided to attack the sector held by the 2/17th Battalion. At 11 pm about thirty infantrymen with two small field guns, a mortar and eight machine guns dug themselves in about 100 meters to the east of the post, nearest to where a gap in the anti-tank ditch was to be blown. The Germans brought their weapons to bear on the Australian post, which returned fire. The post commander, Lieutenant Frederick Mackell, then led Corporal Jack Edmondson and five other men into position to assault the enemy from the flank. Yelling and throwing grenades, the Australians charged the enemy, who turned their weapons on the party and opened fire. Edmondson was seriously wounded in the stomach by a burst from a machine gun that also hit him in the neck. Still he ran on under heavy fire and killed one enemy soldier with his bayonet. When Mackell had his bayonet in one of the enemy, who grasped him about the legs, and was then attacked from behind, Edmondson, in spite of his wounds, immediately responded to the call for help and killed both Germans, saving Mackell’s life. Edmondson died of his wounds the next day and was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first received by an Australian in World War II.

At 5.20 am on 14 April, armour of the German 5th Armoured Regiment entered the perimeter through the gap near Mackell’s post and proceeded to make a deep northerly penetration. The German 8th Machine Gun Battalion followed. The Australian infantry had been instructed to avoid attracting the attention of enemy armour, but to engage the following infantry when the tanks had passed. British artillery engaged the tanks and their accompanying infantry. The Australian infantry on the perimeter shot down the German infantry and gunners as they advanced to join the tanks, which by 7 am were being attacked on all sides by artillery and defending tanks. The Germans withdrew, leaving seventeen wrecked tanks, 150 dead and 250 prisoners within the perimeter. In the meantime, the Germans had continued their advance east and had taken Bardia and reached the Egyptian border. On 14 April, Cyrenaica Command ceased to exist and Lavarack returned to command the 7th Division. With Australians being the majority of the Tobruk garrison, Morshead became garrison commander.

Rommel put off making another attempt at breaking the Tobruk perimeters until he had built up his forces besieging Tobruk. German air attacks targeted Tobruk harbour and its defences, to hinder the garrison’s resupply coming in by sea, while Italian infantry was given the task of maintaining the pressure on the perimeter. The garrison responded by strengthening the perimeter and mounting aggressive patrols, which led to a spectacular success during the night of 16 April. Just before nightfall a 2/48th patrol discovered an Italian battalion approaching the Australian perimeter. British artillery scattered the attackers in disorder and then prevented them escaping by laying down a heavy curtain of fire behind them. In all 803 prisoners were captured. The entry in the section dealing with identification of enemy units in the divisional intelligence summary read ‘1 Bn 62 Regt—Trento Div—Completely captured’.

On the afternoon of 30 April, the posts at Hill 209 held by the 2/24th Battalion were shelled and bombed. German pioneers and machine gunners advanced at dusk, disarmed mines and blew gaps in the wire. Seven perimeter posts were captured during the night, and by next morning some eighty German tanks had penetrated the perimeter. Half the tanks advanced eastward and ran into a minefield, while the other half advanced south along the perimeter until stopped by artillery and tanks. Severe fighting continued in the afternoon and by dark the Germans held fifteen posts on a 5000-metre front. The 2/48th Battalion suffered heavy losses in a counter-attack that night, but forced the enemy on to the defensive. With more than half the tanks of the attacking German regiment knocked out, Rommel decided not to press the attack. However, the Germans and Italians had seized a large salient about 5 kilometres wide and 5 kilometres deep, at a cost of 950 men. The garrison suffered 800 casualties.

Maintaining supplies was a further challenge throughout the campaign. Water was extremely limited, with soldiers receiving only one water bottle per day for drinking and bathing. Owen Curtis recalled picking up Italian water bottles from the wounded to use what was left. Resupply was also problematic—Owen recalling that the trucks could only come in at night and invariably attracted enemy attention due to their rattling:

So the trucks would come whizzing down with this water and they’d have a forty-four gallon drum of salt water and a forty-four gallon drum of fresh water. One was for the cooking and eating and drinking, and one was for your washing. And they’d wheel these off and away they’d go without stopping because to save the Jerries dropping down their shells. And when you’ve rushed up and you’d think, ‘Oh, thank God for that’, and you’d open up and you’d find you had two salt water drums and so you couldn’t get any more until the next night till they came around.4

Both sides, particularly in the salient, now consolidated their positions. In mid May, Wavell ordered Operation Brevity, a limited offensive against weak enemy forces on the border between Egypt and Libya. The objective was to gain territory for the offensive planned in June, to relieve Tobruk and to reduce enemy forces on the frontier. The operation was launched on 15 May with three mixed infantry and armoured columns, with a troop of the Australian 12th Anti-Tank Battery attached to each column. The initial gains were mainly lost to enemy counter-attacks, and on 16 May British forces were withdrawn to the strategically important Halfaya Pass, the only success of the operation. However, eleven days later, Halfaya Pass was recaptured by the Germans.

Back in Australia women like Josephine Johnson, whose husband, John Johnson, was with the 2/23rd Battalion, waited with anxiety for news of their loved ones serving in the campaign. Not knowing the exact whereabouts of John, she scanned the news reports in search of clues as to his safety. In April, while John was serving in Tobruk, Josephine wrote to him:

Darling, I hope you were not among the mob who raided Bardia the other day. I have worried ever since as we were told sixty failed to return, but I suppose had you been among those I would have heard by this … every minute of every day and night you are in my mind. I dream every time I do go to sleep about you it is a very anxious time for all, the ones whose men have just sailed are worried, but not the same worry as to know that any minute one is likely to get a cable—well it is just plain hell.5

Within a month Josephine’s fears would become a reality; on 17 May 1941 John died as a result of wounds sustained in action. The cable Josephine feared arrived on 12 June, advising her husband had been ‘fatally wounded in the course of his duty’. Grief reverberated through the family. John’s son Len recalled after hearing the news ‘a strange and painful feeling of loss’ and an ‘unfamiliar emptiness’.6

John’s mother, Agnes, wrote a poem expressing the profound grief of losing her child in war:

Far away in a foreign land
Across the dark blue sea
Our Johnny sleeps with comrades brave
At a place they call Tobruk.7

While the Johnsons and so many other families struggled with their grief, the campaign moved on. Operation Battleaxe, the offensive to clear eastern Cyrenaica of German and Italian forces and lift the siege of Tobruk, was launched on 15 June. The British 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division assaulted strong German and Italian defensive positions. On the first day only one of three British thrusts was successful, for the loss of more than half of the British armoured tanks. The following day, German counter-attacks were successful on the western flank but repelled in the centre. The British on the third day, withdrawing just ahead of a German encircling movement, narrowly avoided disaster. The Tobruk garrison had resumed aggressive raiding and patrols in mid May and by early July from the enemy-held salient had been whittled down by nearly two kilometres in the west, reducing the depth of the bulge in the perimeter.

  • 1. Owen Curtis, Keith Murdoch Sound archive transcript, p. 17 8
  • 2. Len Johnson, Love Letters, p. 167
  • 3. Len Johnson, Love Letters, p. 243
  • 4. Len Johnson, Love Letters, p. 251

Chapter 8: Iraq

While the siege of Tobruk continued, Middle East command was engaged in a number of other campaigns. Some operations, such as Greece in April and Crete in May, had a significant Australian contribution and significant Australian casualties. In Greece and Crete, the 6th Division suffered 600 killed, 1000 wounded and more than 5000 captured, and would not fight again as a full division in the Middle East. Wavell had achieved success in Abyssinia in April, which enabled him to return the 4th Indian Division to Egypt, where it fought in Operation Battleaxe. However, on 3 April 1941 in Iraq, pro-German Rashid Ali, supported by four prominent army and air force leaders, deposed the pro-British regent and seized power. By treaty with Iraq, Britain controlled air force stations near Baghdad, protected by Kurdish troops under British officers; and Basra, which was reinforced by an Indian brigade group on 18 April.

On 2 May, Iraqi forces attacked the RAF base at Habbaniya, about 60 kilometres from Baghdad, and were defeated after four days of fighting by British and Kurdish troops supported by the RAF. A reinforcement brigade from Palestine reached Habbaniya on 18 May. The Vichy French allowed the Germans to ferry weapons and other war materiel to Iraq via Syrian airfields, which were attacked by the RAF from 14 May. The Vichy French also supplied war materiel to the Iraqis, until enterprising Frenchmen blew an important bridge that put an end to rail traffic between Syria and Iraq. The Germans lost nineteen aircraft in Iraq and the Italians three, before the remaining aircraft were withdrawn after Rashid Ali and his supporters fled to Iran and the regent was restored on 31 May.

The position on the Middle East at the start of June was that Iraqi revolt had ended, British and Commonwealth forces had been withdrawn from Crete, and preparations were underway for Operation Battleaxe in the middle of the month to relieve Tobruk. Both Malta and Tobruk were cut off and surrounded, and the Luftwaffe now had bases in Crete. The British were concerned that German aircraft at Damascus would be nearer to the Suez Canal than if they had been at Mersa Matruh. When the Germans saw the futility of trying to bolster Rashid Ali's revolt, they decided to withdraw from Syria in order to give the British no pretext for moving in. Unknown to the British, Syria was of minor importance to the Germans at this time, since they were just three weeks away from the start of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. However, the British Chiefs of Staff ordered Wavell to advance into Syria as soon as possible. Wavell ordered the 7th Division to move from Mersa Matruh to Palestine on 20 May and next day ordered the preparation of plans for the invasion of Syria.

Chapter 9: The Syrian campaign

The Vichy French not only fought well, but showed great bitterness at the use of their own countrymen against them. Their numbers, organisation, equipment, knowledge of the ground, superiority in armour and well prepared defences made them formidable opponents. The British force was a collection of units and formations, and not even the 7th Division was complete. It was handicapped by a shortage of tanks, signal equipment, transport, and anti-aircraft weapons. At the start of the campaign the RAF had just fifty first-line aircraft available, including those of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, then re-equipping with Tomahawks. The Vichy French air force started with 100 bombers and fighters, but were reinforced from French North Africa. They were also supported by German aircraft from the Dodecanese, which attacked British shipping.

In order to secure Beirut, the seat of government and the headquarters of the Vichy French forces commander General Henri Dentz, the British advance would be on three routes, engaging the enemy on a wide front. The attack on the right was through Deraa to Damascus; in the centre through Merdjayoun to Rayak; and by the coast road to Beirut. The central and coastal routes were allotted to the 7th Division, which had been reinforced with units of the 6th Division and the British 1st Cavalry Division. The advance on the right was to be led by the 5th Indian Brigade as far as Deraa, where the Free French Force would take over the advance.

The offensive opened on 8 June and after some initial success was held up on all three fronts. On the right, the Indians secured Deraa and advanced 25 kilometres; the Free French troops took up the pursuit and advanced to within 15 kilometres of Damascus before they were halted by the Vichy French defence. In the centre, the 25th Brigade captured Merdjayoun on the afternoon of 11 June, but the pursuit towards Rayak soon ran into stiff opposition, since the Vichy French had considerable strength in the area. With progress expected to be very slow, Lavarack, commanding the 7th Division, postponed the advance on Rayak and ordered most of the 25th Brigade to make a wide turning movement through Jezzine to support the 21st Brigade on the coast. A small garrison was left at Merdjayoun. On the coast, the 21st Brigade attacked north from Palestine along the coastal road. By nightfall on the first day the brigade was east of Tyre, overlooking the well defended Litani River. A British landing north of the river mouth, aimed at seizing the arched stone bridge before it could be demolished, miscarried and the bridge was blown up. Under fire from mortars and machine guns the Australians constructed a pontoon bridge to enable them to cross the Litani on 10 June. The advance continued, opposed by rearguards every few miles, but by the evening of 12 June the Australians had reached Sidon, where the Vichy French were holding a strong position.

The first phase ended with strong resistance on all three routes. The next phase coincided with the unsuccessful Operation Battleaxe to relieve Tobruk. After a halt of five days, a well organised attack by the Indian Brigade broke the deadlock in the Damascus sector on 15 June and repulsed the Vichy French counter-attacks. However, a Vichy French counter-attack further south captured Kuneitra the following day, which was then recaptured by British troops supported by a company of the Australian 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. In the central sector, the small force left at Merdjayoun adopted an active defence and attempted to outflank the Vichy French blocking the Rayak road. While the Australians were probing to the west, the Vichy French attacked Merdjayoun from the north and retook the town. Two rapidly organised Australians attacks failed to recapture Merdjayoun, but the Vichy French were checked from advancing any further. With the ending of Operation Battleaxe on 17 June, the RAF was able to allot more aircraft to the Syrian campaign. Among the reinforcements was the newly formed No. 450 (Hurricane) Squadron of the RAAF.

On 18 June, Lavarack took command of I Australian Corps and assumed control of all operations in western Syria. It was decided to concentrate the 7th Division, now commanded by Major General Arthur Allen, on the coastal route for the thrust to Beirut. The Indian brigade advanced to Mezze on the night of 18 June to cut the Damascus-­Beirut road. However, Vichy French tanks counter-attacked and surrounded the Indians, who held out until their food and ammunition were exhausted before surrendering on the morning of 20 June. The reverse meant that the newly arrived British 16th Brigade were ordered to take Damascus instead of, as originally intended, relieving the Australians before Merdjayoun so that they could reinforce the coastal drive. Supporting the British 16th Brigade in the advance to Damascus was the 2/3rd and 2/5th Battalions of the Australian 6th Division. On the afternoon of 20 June, in order to inspire the Free French to advance, a company of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, which were normally supporting troops, led a steady thrust towards Damascus. That evening the 2/3rd Battalion, newly arrived from Palestine, advanced against a group of forts on the hills overlooking Damascus from the south-west. The defenders of Damascus surrendered to the Free French and Australian column before midday on 21 June. Two weeks after the campaign commenced, the first of the objectives had been taken.

It was at Merdjayoun on 19 June that Captain Charles Clark, Lieutenant Roden Cutler and an artillery team of the 2/5th Field Regiment and the 2/25th Battalion were attacked by Vichy French tanks. Both Cutler and Lance Corporal Victor Pratt opened fire on the tracks of the tanks, forcing them to seek shelter. Cutler and Pratt exchanged their anti-tank rifles for a rifle and Bren gun, and fired on the following Vichy French infantry, who took cover behind a stone wall. The tanks advanced again and opened fire, killing Pratt, mortally wounding Clark and wounding an artilleryman. Cutler hit the tank tracks with an anti-tank rifle, forcing the Vichy French to withdraw. He then personally supervised the evacuation of the wounded members of his party. Undaunted, and with a small party of volunteers, he pressed on to establish an outpost from which he could register the only road by which the enemy transport could enter the town. He carried out this task, and engaged enemy posts until cut off and forced to go to ground until after dark, when he succeeded in making his way through the enemy lines. Four days later at Merdjayoun, and again on 6 July at Damour, Cutler distinguished himself. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only Australian artilleryman so honoured.

The 16th British Brigade, with the 2/3rd Battalion, advanced west towards Beirut. On 27 June Merdjayoun was recaptured, but fighting continued in the area. Two companies of the 2/14th Battalion suffered heavy losses attacking a strong Vichy French position north of Jezzine on 24 June, and it was decided to blast the Vichy French off the hill tops with artillery fire. Former Age journalist Oliver Dossetor lost his life in this action. He was hit in a barrage of bullets while moving up Hill 1284 with his platoon. One soldier who witnessed his death said Oliver’s last act was to take a drink of brandy from the hip flask he had been given as a farewell gift.9

On 26 June, Lavarack began to concentrate and bring up to strength the 7th Division, with the attachment of the 17th Brigade and transfer of six of the nine Australian infantry battalions westward to new sectors. On 28 June, eight Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, escorting a raiding force of Blenheims to Palmyra in central Syria, met a force of Vichy fighters and shot down several of their aircraft in full view of the 10th Indian Division that would capture the town on 3 July. On 28–29 June Australian patrols found the main Vichy French positions empty. Since mid June when the coastal sector had been ordered to halt, vigorous patrolling had been steadily gaining ground, so that by 30 June the whole of the ridge overlooking the Damour River was in Australian hands.

The Battle of Damour from 6 to 9 July was the decisive battle of the campaign, with five Vichy French battalions, well supported by artillery and other arms, firmly established on a formidable position behind the River Damour about 20 kilometres south of Beirut. The country to north and south of the River Damour consists of rocky spurs and deep valleys running generally east and west. The river was fordable, but its banks rose very steeply and in places were almost sheer. The 2/16th Battalion suffered sharp losses in a frontal attack on the left, but large-scale flanking movements by the 2/14th and 2/27th Battalions through the mountains to the east succeeded in spite of some strong counter-attacks. The road leading north from Damour was cut by the 17th Brigade; the British attacked towards Jebel Mazar; and the 25th Brigade pressed forward from Jezzine. After four hard days the Vichy French forces, now weary and depleted, were threatened from the south and east. The campaign was nearly over, but the central sector would see the last fierce fight on 10 July. That night Lieutenant Norman Stable’s company of the 2/31st Battalion, now reduced to sixty men, was ordered take the high ground north of Jezzine. Intense machine-gun fire from a fortified Vichy French position killed three and wounded two Australians, holding up the advance and making movement impossible. Private James Gordon, on his own initiative, crept forward over an area swept by machine-gun and grenade fire and succeeded in approaching close to the post, which he then charged from the front, killing the four machine-gunners with the bayonet. For his actions, which completely demoralised the enemy, allowing his company to advance and seize their objective, Gordon was awarded the Victoria Cross.

On the evening of 11 July, Dentz asked by radio that hostilities might end at midnight. Early on 12 July, a draft convention was agreed upon and initialled. After the terms had been submitted to the Vichy Government, the convention was signed at Acre on 14 July. Some British prisoners had been sent out of Syria and thirty senior officers, including Dentz, were detained as hostages and released when the British prisoners were returned. The total number of Allied casualties killed and wounded in Syria was 2400, including 1500 Australians. There were approximately 2300 Allied troops captured. The Royal Air Force (RAF) lost twenty-seven aircraft. The Vichy French losses are believed to have numbered more than 6000, of whom 1000 were killed.

Chapter 10: Australian relief at Tobruk

On 19 July 1941, with the Syrian campaign just ended and an expected lull in operations at Tobruk, Blamey advised the Australian Prime Minister that after four months of continuous operations the garrison should be relieved and that the three Australian divisions should be unified into an Australian Corps. The same day he also wrote to General Sir Claude Auckinleck, who had on 21 June replaced Wavell as Commander in Chief Middle East, recommending the relief of the Tobruk garrison. The next day, in a personal cablegram to Churchill, Menzies stated that the Australian Government regarded it as of first-class importance that Australian troops be aggregated into one force, and that the Tobruk garrison, which had been in continuous operations since March, should be relieved by fresh troops. Menzies on 7 August, having received no reply, sent a further cablegram to Churchill, requesting an early reply. Churchill was then absent from London, meeting President Roosevelt, but Auckinleck was in London and undertook to see to it on his return to the Middle East. Between 19 and 29 August, the 18th Brigade was withdrawn from Tobruk to rejoin the 7th Division, leaving the 9th Division in Tobruk.

Arthur Fadden became Prime Minister on 29 August and a week later received a telegram from Blamey asking the Australian Government to insist upon the withdrawal of the 9th Division from Tobruk. Blamey advised the government to take a firm stand, since relief of the garrison was strongly opposed in the Middle East. On 5 September Fadden cabled to London, reminding Churchill of Menzies’ request for the relief of troops at Tobruk. Blamey, on 9 and 10 September, advised the Australian Government of Auckinleck’s reasons against the relief. On 11 September, Churchill sent to Fadden the full text of the Auckinleck telegram to London on the issue of the relief, as well as a personal message pointing out the difficulties, adding: ‘If, however, you insist that Australian troops must be relieved, orders will be issued accordingly, irrespective of the cost entailed and the injury to future prospects’. Major-General Rowell, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, advised that as there was an Australian commander in the Middle East appointed by the Australian Government, the Government must be guided by the advice of their commander. Rowell supported Blamey’s recommendation for withdrawal on the grounds that the troops had been continually engaged in front-line operations since early April, in what were undoubtedly the worst climatic conditions experienced by any British troops over an extended period in the current war. On 14 September, Fadden maintained the request for the relief of the 9th Division and the concentration of the AIF, and Churchill arranged for orders for the relief to proceed.

The relief of the 24th Brigade was completed by 29 September. The next day Churchill, citing impending operations and the interests of Empire cooperation, asked Fadden to reconsider and leave the remaining two Australian brigades at Tobruk. Fadden received this message at the start of the Budget debate that led to the defeat of his government on 3 October. Fadden replied to Churchill on 4 October after discussing the reply with John Curtin, who would be sworn in as Prime Minister on 7 October. On 13 October, Churchill approached Curtin, asking him to reconsider the issue once again. The War Cabinet affirmed the decision of the Fadden Government that the 9th Division should be relieved. The publication of volume three of Churchill’s memoirs, The Second World War, made these discussions public in 1950. Churchill wrote that the Fadden government, under much pressure from the opposition, was concerned about the position of the Australian division at Tobruk. In fact, both the Fadden and Curtin governments supported and maintained the request originally made by the Menzies Government on the advice of Blamey, the Australian commander in the Middle East.

The two remaining brigades were to be relieved during the period 12 to 26 October. On the night of 25 October, the 2/13th Battalion, half the 2/15th Battalion, and rear parties of the divisional and brigade headquarters, arrived at the embarkation area. Soon after midnight, word was received that the convoy had turned back after being attacked by forty enemy aircraft, with a fast minelayer being sunk and a destroyer damaged. With the moon almost in its first quarter, the convoy had been seen, so the relief was put off until the night of 19–20 November. All remaining Australian troops were then evacuated, except the 2/13th Battalion, which remained until the end of the siege.

Chapter 11: The end of the siege

After the failure of Operation Battleaxe in mid June, there were difficulties in maintaining supplies of food and other essentials in Tobruk. To ease the supply problems, the size of the garrison was reduced to 22,000 men, including 1400 base troops. During the period of the siege twenty-six naval vessels were sunk, including HMAS Waterhen on 29 June and HMAS Parramatta on 27 November, and five merchant ships, four warships and four merchant ships were seriously damaged in operations connected with holding and defending Tobruk. Seven Australian destroyers made 139 runs in and out of Tobruk. Ships servicing Tobruk during the siege ‘transported 72 tanks, 92 guns and 34,000 tons of stores , replaced 32,667 men of the garrison by 34,113 fresh troops and withdrew 7516 wounded and 7097 prisoners of war’.

In the front line, men were adjusting to the constant threat of air raids. The official history suggested that after some time ‘familiarity caused air attack to lose some of its awe for the great majority’. This was further explained by an infantryman who suggested that after time men learned to assess the danger more astutely: … we used to run like hell for a hole as soon as we saw a plane but now we are used to them and stand and watch the devils dive bombing and machine gunning, if they don’t come too close alls well but when they head for us we break all records for a hole.10

On 2 August, in what effectively was the last major action involving Australians during the siege, another effort was made by the defenders to expel the Germans and straighten the line. It was a costly attack: two thirds of the attacking infantry became casualties, with twenty-nine killed and seventy-two wounded. The Geneva Convention was seldom dishonoured in the desert war, and next morning the vehicles of Sergeant Walter Tuit and stretcher bearers of the 2/43rd Battalion were allowed within 200 metres of the German positions. The Germans returned to the Australians four of the five wounded and fifteen of the twenty-eight dead who were recovered. The Australians continued active and aggressive patrolling as they prepared for relief. At midnight on 26–27 September, the forces in Egypt were renamed the Eighth Army. On 22 October, Morshead handed command of the Tobruk fortress to Major General Ronald Scobie, who commanded the British 70th Division. Scobie had been Director of Military Art at RMC Duntroon from 1932 to 1935. While the relief was proceeding, Morshead visited all the non-Australian commanders and units that served in the garrison during the siege. Barton Maughan, the Australian Official Historian, noted that several British war diaries recorded Morshead’s farewell visits with appreciation.

Operation Crusader was launched on 18 November, and continued for nearly three weeks before successfully relieving Tobruk and driving the Germans and Italians out of Cyrenaica. On the first day the British advance reached its objectives for the day. On 19 November, the British reached Sidi Rezegh, 15 kilometres south-east of Tobruk’s eastern perimeter. The next day British and German armour fought an indecisive action and on 21 November the 70th Division, including the 2/13th Battalion, broke out of Tobruk and reached halfway to El Duda and ten kilometres from Sidi Rezegh. The fighting between the Tobruk perimeter and around Sidi Rezegh continued for three days and was so intense that four British officers and men were awarded the Victoria Cross, three posthumously. From 24 to 26 November, Rommel dashed to the frontier as the New Zealand Division advanced towards Tobruk. Rommel withdrew his armour from the Egyptian frontier on 27–28 November and on 29 November attacked El Duda, making some gains. Throughout the afternoon British and Australian troops clung to the ground they still held, and at 1.30 am on 30 November two companies of the 2/13th Battalion, supported by eleven British tanks, made a night-time bayonet attack to recapture the lost ground. They took 167 prisoners for the cost of seven wounded, two mortally. Fighting continued for another week, but by 7 December the siege was lifted; Rommel had withdrawn from Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier, and soon pulled back his forces further to the west. On 16 December the 2/13th Battalion finally left Tobruk to rejoin the 9th Division in Palestine, where the division was being brought up to strength, re-equipped and trained. The eight-month siege cost Australia more than 3000 casualties, including more than 800 killed and more than 900 taken prisoner.

Les Watkins described the relief at finally leaving the harsh conditions of Tobruk:

At long last, after eight months in Tobruk, we were to leave. During this time we weren’t only plagued by the enemy, but also by flies, fleas and desert sores, dysentery and lack of water. But never, at any time, did we lose faith in ourselves or our mates.11

On 6 January 1942, following the entry of Japan into the war, the Australian Government approved the deployment of the 6th and 7th Divisions to the Netherlands East Indies, with the first troops leaving the Middle East in early February. The 9th Division was to stay in the Middle East, and moved to Syria in January 1942. The same month, Rommel again attacked and drove the British 8th Army to Gazala, just west of Tobruk. There was a lull in the desert war for four months until Rommel resumed the offensive. Tobruk fell on 21 June and the 8th Army withdrew to Mersa Matruh and then to the defensive positions at El Alamein, where the long retreat halted. On 25 June, the 9th Division received orders to move to Egypt.

  • 1. Mark Johnston, At the frontline: experiences of Australian soldiers in World War Two, p. 68
  • 2. Peter Rees, Desert Boys, p. 594

Chapter 12: El Alamein: July battles

The fighting before El Alamein between July and November 1942 formed the decisive battles of the North African campaign. El Alamein was located 100 kilometres west of the main Egyptian port of Alexandria and could not be outflanked because movement of vehicles was restricted to a 60-kilometre corridor between the sea and the impassable Qattara depression. The Australians joined the British XXX Corps at El Alamein on 4 July and mounted four attacks along the coast on 10, 17, 22 and 26–27 July.

On 22 July, at Tel El Eisa, Private Arthur Gurney’s company of the 2/48th Battalion was held up by intense machine-gun fire from posts less than 100 metres ahead, which inflicted heavy casualties, including all the officers being killed or wounded. Gurney, grasping the seriousness of the situation, charged the nearest enemy machine-gun post, bayoneted three men and silenced the post. He continued on to a second post, bayoneted two men and sent out a third as a prisoner. Gurney was then knocked to the ground by a grenade but rose, picked up his rifle and charged a third post with fixed bayonet. He then disappeared from view and his body was later found in an enemy post. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The July attacks failed to drive Rommel from Alamein, but effectively blocked his drive to the Nile. Rommel made his last attempt to break through to the Nile Delta on 30 August but was defeated by the strongly fortified Alam el Halfa position south of Ruweisat Ridge.

The attack at Ruin Ridge on the night of 26–27 July was particularly costly; more than sixty men were killed. Patrick Toovey, a member of the 2/28th Battalion, was one of 490 men captured during the battle. After reaching Ruin Ridge, his battalion was isolated, low on ammunition and supplies, and eventually surrounded by German tanks and forced to surrender. Patrick recalled his feeling once he realised he was now a prisoner:

You feel ashamed and you feel guilty and then you’re wondering what people will think of you back at home. You’re not trained to become a prisoner of war, that’s the very last thing so there’s all sorts of thoughts rush through your mind and of course it’s a very depressing miserable event in a person’s life, probably the worst experience.12

In August 1942, Winston Churchill made sweeping changes in the army high command to the Middle East. General Sir Harold Alexander became Commander in Chief and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery was given command of the 8th Army. On 19 August Alexander wrote to Montgomery with orders to prepare to attack the Axis forces with a view to destroying them at the earliest possible moment. The two armies were in close contact on a front of nearly forty miles (65 km) between the sea and the Qattara Depression, with both sides improving their positions and adding to the profusion of mines supporting their defences. The initiative moved from the Germans to the British, with Rommel having depleted forces with critical supply problems whereas the British were daily growing stronger on land and in the air. Moonlight was considered essential for the start of the attack, since it was only in moonlight that defended minefields could be tackled. Montgomery insisted that with reinforcements to absorb and train, new equipment to master and other preparations to be made, the September moon period would be too soon. He recommended 23 October for the attack, a date Alexander accepted.

Troops and armour, as well as ammunition and supplies, were moved into position in the period leading up to 23 October 1942. Careful planning, with much work done at night, using both concealment and deception, covered the intense preparations for the attack. The infantry completed their moves by the night of 22–23 October and at daylight all was ready. At 10 pm on 23 October, three simultaneous attacks were to be made, the main attack by XXX Corps and two diversionary attacks by XIII Corps. The task of XXX Corps was to secure a bridgehead beyond the enemy’s main defended zone before dawn on 24 October, and to help the two armoured divisions of X Corps pass through the defended zone. The task of the armour of X Corps was to follow XXX Corps and pass through its bridgehead, with the aim of bringing on an armoured battle where full use could be made of the superior weight of British armour and armament to destroy the enemy. Both XXX Corps and XIII Corps were then to proceed with the methodical destruction of the enemy’s static troops.

Four infantry divisions from XXX Corps—9th Australian, 51st Highland, 2nd New Zealand and 1st South African—were to launch the main attack. On the first night they planned to drive a corridor ten kilometres wide and six kilometres deep through the enemy defences. Once the assault divisions had cleared the minefields, the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions of X Armoured Corps would advance along two corridors to deal with the enemy armour. It was hoped the enemy guns would be reached the first night. The Australians, in addition to their frontal advance to the west, were to establish a firm front facing north in the heavily defended enemy area near the coast road.

  • 1. Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War, p. 15

Chapter 13: Battle of El Alamein: 23 October 1942

The Battle of El Alamein opened at 9.40 pm on 23 October 1942, when 900 British medium and field guns fired an intense 15-minute barrage against the enemy gun lines. Walter Wallace, who served in El Alamein with the 2/15th Batallion, recalled the scene:

… they had Bofors gun firing on our line of advance, tracers so that you could follow, they had those old white torches in beer cans facing back our way on stakes, green and red on either side to show you where the minefield had been cleared so you could walk up. And the artillery behind us, there was thirty miles of guns wheel to wheel and when they let go … the whole horizon was lit up … 13

The advance began at 10 pm with the artillery creeping forward ahead of the infantry, to assist them on to their objectives. Almost immediately, the Australians ran into machine-gun and mortar fire as they threaded their way through mines and booby traps. At the enemy wire the men were held up for a few minutes until the barrage lifted and moved on ahead of them through the enemy minefields. Engineers used Bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in the wire, and the infantry passed through and started to mop up the enemy posts methodically. The 9th Division's attack was made on a two-brigade front, with the 26th Brigade less the 2/23rd Battalion on the right, and with the 20th Brigade on the left. The 24th Brigade continued to hold the existing Australian front near the coast.

Three battalions were to capture the first objective, three kilometres from the start line, and while they consolidated their gains, two new battalions were to pass through the captured positions and move towards the final objective. The first objective of the right brigade, the 26th, was taken by the 2/24th Battalion, which had a front of 750 metres but also had an open flank to protect. The left brigade, the 20th, had a front of 2000 metres, and its first objective was taken by the 2/15th and 2/17th Battalions. The first objectives were taken without great opposition by midnight, but the second objectives, which included the main line of defence sited in considerable depth, proved to be more difficult. Wallace recalled that the confusion of battle made it difficult to ascertain if an objective had been reached:

But it’s just terrifically confused … a terrific mess of flashes and explosions and men walking, you see them silhouetted, you see silhouettes of men behind machine guns, it’s a really confused business.14

The Australian second objectives were allotted to the 2/48th Battalion, which passed through the 2/24th Battalion, and the 2/13th Battalion, which passed through the 2/15th and 2/17th Battalions. The 2/48th, operating on the narrower front, achieved its objective but tanks that were to support the 2/13th Battalion were delayed when the main enemy minefield proved to be 1500 metres deep instead of the expected 250 metres. The 2/13th, without support, attacked the enemy defences and suffered heavy casualties, but was unable to reach the final objective before dawn.

Casualties from the battle began filling the casualty clearing station from 9 am on 24 October. Royal Australian Army Nursing Service (RAANS) Sister Dulcie Thompson recalled the horrendous wounds suffered by casualties:

Oh, everything. Arms blown off, legs blown off, lots of shocking leg wounds … stomach wounds and head wounds, every kind of casualty that you can imagine, sometimes two or three on one person. I have a very vivid picture of one Greek officer who had neither face nor hands as far as I could see … but I didn’t take off the bandages … sitting up in bed being fed.15

The four XXX Corps infantry divisions had similar experiences. The first objectives were quickly taken, but the minefields proved to be much more extensive than expected, and the strongest resistance was encountered in the drive towards the second objective. The extensive minefields, despite valiant efforts of the engineers, prevented the British armour breaking through the bridgehead and into the enemy’s communications before dawn. The failure to penetrate the minefields lost an exceptional opportunity—dawn on 24 October saw the German forces without direction, as the barrage had dislocated their communications, and the German commander, General Stumme, was missing and later found to have died of a heart attack. Furthermore, the German armour was dispersed across the desert and the German command was unaware of the intended point of the breakout. The 8th Army attack continued on the night of 24–25 October, and the previous night’s final objectives were taken. However, a breakthrough was not achieved, with the armoured thrusts faltering as the Germans established a new front line. With the failure of the original plan, Montgomery began preparing a new strategy, and the main brunt of the battle, which increased in intensity daily to a climax on 1 November, fell on the 9th Division.

  • 1. Walter Wallace, in Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War: Stories from the Australians at War Film Archive Hodder, Sydney, 2006, p. 317
  • 2. Walter Wallace, in Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War: Stories from the Australians at War Film Archive Hodder, Sydney, 2006, p. 317–318
  • 3. an Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p. 132

Chapter 14: The Australians attack towards the sea

The new Australian task was to shift the focus of their attack from the west to the north and destroy the enemy between them and the sea. On the night of 25–26 October, the 9th Division made the first of three attacks that would create the conditions for victory at El Alamein. The attack opened at midnight with an artillery barrage. It was made by the 26th Brigade, with the 2/48th Battalion attacking towards Trig 29, a slightly raised feature on an otherwise flat plain, and the 2/24th attacking on the right. Advancing with the 2/48th was Private Percival Gratwick, who charged an enemy post with a rifle in one hand and a grenade in the other. He threw the grenade into an enemy post and then attacked the survivors with his rifle and bayonet, killing them all, including a complete mortar crew. He was then killed by machine-gun fire as he charged a second post, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The 2/24th captured its objective but, depleted by casualties, it was unable to hold an extended position and withdrew 1000 metres. The 2/48th captured Trig 29, an excellent observation post which was used in subsequent days to call in artillery to break up enemy counter-attacks.

On the night of 26–27 October, the 7th Motor Brigade attacked Kidney Ridge, which in fact was a depression, in front of the right flank of the 51st Highland Division, near its boundary with the 9th Division. It was here that the armoured breakout later took place, but throughout 27 October the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade repelled strong armoured assaults without field artillery support and showed that German armour could not throw back an infantry front pushed firmly forward and protected by anti-tank artillery. The Rifle Brigade’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Turner, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Neither the 8th Army nor the Afrika Korps continued the attack during the daylight hours on 28 October, but at 10 pm, the 9th Division’s 20th Brigade struck northwards towards the coast road. In heavy fighting, involving many casualties, the Australian line was pushed a little closer to the coast road. As a result of these operations, Rommel concentrated even more forces in the north, and in the following four days the Australian sector became the focal area of the battle. The 9th Division again attempted to cut the coast road on the night of 30–31 October. Under command of 26th Brigade, the 2/24th, 2/32nd and 2/48th Battalions and the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion attacked and, although not achieving all that was hoped for, inflicted substantial casualties and took more than 500 prisoners. Sergeant William Kibby of the 2/48th Battalion, who was killed attacking a machine-gun post, was awarded the Victoria Cross for heroic conduct that night and for his gallantry on two previous occasions—the opening night of the attack on 23–24 October and the attack on Trig 29 on 25–26 October. Kibby was the third member of the 2/48th Battalion awarded the Victoria Cross. In the July battles at El Alamein, Sergeant Thomas Derrick had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and twelve months later in New Guinea would become the fourth member of the 2/48th Battalion awarded the Victoria Cross. The 2/48th Battalion was the only British or Commonwealth battalion in the Second World War awarded four Victoria Crosses.

On the morning of 31 October, the Australian battalions were concentrated in the most fiercely contested area of the whole battlefield. During the early hours of 1 November, the 24th Brigade took over command of the forward units and the 2/28th and 2/43rd Battalions relieved the 2/24th and 2/48th battalions. At midday, a major enemy assault by tanks commenced, with aerial and artillery support, and continued throughout the afternoon and well into the night. It did not die down until 2.30 am on 2 November, which was ninety minutes after the long awaited breakout, Operation Supercharge, had opened with an intense artillery barrage.

From the night of 26 October 1942, when the Australians started their drive northwards and brought the whole weight of the Afrika Korps against them, Montgomery had been regrouping his forces to create a reserve for the breakout. On 2 November, with the Axis reserves concentrated against the 9th Division, Montgomery made his thrust through the bridgehead originally secured by the 9th Division on the opening night of the battle. The Germans did not break immediately, but the overwhelming British aerial and armoured strength ensured success. Rommel first gave the order to retreat on the evening of 2 November, cancelled the order when Hitler directly intervened, and finally resumed his withdrawal on the night of 3–4 November. On 5 November, the Australians found the enemy gone from its front. The 9th Division had fought the last Australian infantry battle in North Africa, and returned to Australia in early 1943. However, the victorious 8th Army was unable to seize the opportunity of cutting off and capturing a sizable proportion of Rommel’s force, and it was not until 13 May 1943 that North Africa was cleared of enemy forces.

The 8th Army casualties were 13,500 killed, wounded or missing. About 27,000 prisoners were taken, 450 tanks destroyed or abandoned and much equipment captured. The 9th Australian Division losses between 23 October and 4 November totalled 620 dead, 2000 wounded and 130 taken prisoner. Churchill in The Second World War said the magnificent drive towards the coast by the Australians, achieved by ceaseless bitter fighting, swung the whole battle in favour of the British. Montgomery’s chief of staff, Sir Francis de Guingand, said in Operation Victory of the Australian thrust towards the coast:

I think this area saw the most determined and savage fighting of the campaign. No quarter was given, and the Australians fought some of the finest German troops in well-prepared positions to a standstill, and by their action did a great deal to win the battle of El Alamein.


Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War: Stories from the Australians at War Film Archive, Hodder, Sydney, 2006

Winston S Churchill, The Second World War: Volume 3, The grand alliance, Cassell, London, 1950

Chris Coulthard-Clark, The encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001

Ken Clift, The saga of a Sig: the wartime memories of six years service in the second AIF, KCD Publications, Randwick, NSW, 1972

John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy, 1939–1943, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1962

G Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939–1942, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957

Sir Francis de Guingand, Operation Victory, Hodder and Stoughton, 1947

Len Johnson, Love Letters from a War, ABC Books, Sydney, 2003

Mark Johnston, At the frontline: experiences of Australian soldiers in World War Two, Cambridge University Press, 1996

Gavin Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, Collins, in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1986

Gavin Long, To Benghazi, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1952

Barton Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1966

Major General ISO Playfair, The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume 3 (September 1941 to September 1942), British fortunes reach their lowest, HMSO, 1960

Peter Rees, Desert Boys, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2012

Craig Stockings, Bardia: myth, reality and the heirs of Anzac, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009

Glenn Wahlert, The Western Desert campaign 1940–41, Army History Unit, Canberra, 2006

Photographs and artworks

8 Seamen in uniform stand on the deck of ship

A group portrait of eight chief petty officers on what is believed to be HMAS Sydney (II), c. 1940. HMAS Sydney served with distinction in the Mediterranean; between June 1940 and her return to Australia in January 1941, the ship was involved in a number of significant engagements, including the bombardment of Bardia. She was lost in action off the coast of Western Australia in November 1941 in battle with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, which was also sunk. None of Sydney's crew of 645 men survived. After decades of speculation on the final location of the two ships, they were found in March 2008, approximately 12 nautical miles apart, off the West Australian coast. (AWM P02422.001)

Aerial view looking directly at the ground of buildings and network of roads next to a port

Allied bombs fall amongst shipping anchored at Bardia's port during a raid in January 1941. (AWM 004869)


6 planes flying low over 2 cars on a beach area

No. 3 Squadron Gloster Gladiators return to their landing ground near Salum after a patrol over Bardia. The squadron began flying in support of the 6th Division at Bardia on 3 January 1941, having first experienced combat against Italian aircraft in November the previous year. (AWM SUK14908)

A row of tanks moving along a track

Light tanks and Bren Gun Carriers of the 6th Division Cavalry Regiment advance on Bardia in January 1941. This unit was the first of the 2nd AIF to go into action, when one of its squadrons encountered Italian forces at Garn el Grein and Fort Maddalina on 11 and 12 December 1940. On 3 January the Regiment's A Squadron supported the 6th Division’s assault on Bardia. (AWM 043121)


Armed soldiers running across a dirt area

Wearing greatcoats against the early morning cold, Australians advance on Bardia on 6 January 1941. The commander of the 2/2nd Battalion said there was a great tension among the troops of the 6th Division as they awaited their first battle. Almost every man was conscious that this was a test of their ability to live up to the reputation of the 1st AIF. (AWM 069221)

A painting depicting soldiers lying wounded or dead on the ground

The bloody aftermath of the fighting at Post 11, Bardia, between its Italian defenders and members of the 2/6th Battalion. This post was the last to fall during the battle, but the incident depicted in this painting occurred early in the fight. Henry 'Jo' Gullet, who was wounded during this action and on whose account this image was based, recalled: I came to the trench where Brian Latham and his section had died. Brian lay on his back, just as he does in Ivor Hele's picture … It was getting light now. The trench was a shambles in the full meaning of the word … I still have the impression of bright fresh blood all over the dead and wounded. Maloney was wounded in the face and limping but still firing from the parapet. (Bardia [action leading to the fall of Post 11], by Ivor Hele, 1967, oil on canvas, 153 x 275cm, AWM ART27576)

  • 1Peter Rees, Desert Boys, p. 364
  • 2Donald Pierce, Australians at war film archive
  • 3Townsville Daily Bulletin, Monday 27 Jan, p. 5 on
  • 4Owen Curtis, Keith Murdoch Sound archive transcript, p. 17
  • 5Len Johnson, Love Letters, p. 167
  • 6Len Johnson, Love Letters, p. 243
  • 7Len Johnson, Love Letters, p. 251
  • 8
  • 9Peter Rees, Desert Boys, p. 542
  • 10Mark Johnston, At the frontline: experiences of Australian soldiers in World War Two, p. 68
  • 11Peter Rees, Desert Boys, p. 594
  • 12Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War, p. 15
  • 13Walter Wallace, in Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War: Stories from the Australians at War Film Archive Hodder, Sydney, 2006, p. 317
  • 14Walter Wallace, in Michael Caulfield (ed), Voices of War: Stories from the Australians at War Film Archive Hodder, Sydney, 2006, p. 317–318
  • 15an Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p. 132


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