El Alamein October-November 1942
I want to congratulate you on the magnificent work your Division has done on the right part of the line. Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played is beyond all praise.
[General Montgomery sent this message to General Morshead, quoted in John Glenn, Tobruk to Tarakan, p.14]
Between 1940 and late 1942 the British Empire and Dominion forces struggled against the German and Italian 'Axis' forces in North Africa as the Axis forces tried to capture the Suez Canal and take control of the Middle East oilfields.
On 1 September 1942, Australians from the 2/15th Battalion crossed a minefield and seized an enemy post about 3 kilometres from Tel el Eisa, near El Alamein. They were forced to withdraw, their brief raid costing 39 Australian lives, 100 wounded and 25 missing.
Seven weeks later, on 23 October 1942, El Alamein in the western desert of Egypt became the scene of one of the major battles of World War II. The British Eighth Army, which included the 9th Australian Division under Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, was pitted against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with four German and eight Italian divisions.
During the next 10 days, aircrews of the Royal Air Force's Desert Air Force, which included men from the Royal Australian Air Force, flew many sorties in support of the ferocious ground battles. Rommel began to withdraw his troops to the Libyan border at dawn on 4 November, ending the Battle of El Alamein, but the Allies pursued their defeated enemies until May 1943 when the Axis forces in North Africa finally surrendered.
The Battle of El Alamein was the last great imperial battle. More than 13,500 men in the Eighth Army were killed, wounded or missing including 2,694 Australians from the 9th Division, approximately one-fifth of the Eighth Army's total casualties.
The struggle at the 'saucer'
Field Marshall Montgomery, Commander of the British Eighth Army, originally planned his break out operation, 'Super-charge', for the night of 31 October-1 November 1942. However, to ensure that it was adequately planned and prepared, the attack was postponed until the night of 1-2 November. During this planning stage it was vital that the pressure remained on the enemy and the 9th Australian Division launched an ambitious attack with two brigades on the night of 31 October-1 November. The 2/32nd Battalion's role was to capture the enemy's position at the main road at Barrel Hill. Forming defensive flanks to the north, northwest and west, they would form a screen for the 2/48th and the 2/24th Battalions to advance. In the last stage of the attack, the 2/32nd would provide the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion with anti-tank gun and machine-gun support.
On the night of 30 October 1942, the 2/32nd Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Balfe assembled for its attack due to begin at 10 pm. A German sniper shot at two of the battalion's officers who were reconnoitering before the attack, killing one of the officers. Casualties increased during their advance on the railway line. Despite their increasing casualties, the Australians captured the vital bridgehead known as the 'saucer', the 1 kilometre area which included the German medical post, the Blockhouse, Barrel Hill and a crossing in the railway embankment. During the next day the Australians struggled to hold the area as together with British troops they fought a furious battle against the counter-attack by German tanks. By the evening of 1 November the exhausted and depleted Australian units were still holding their positions at the 'saucer'.
The Eighth Army launched 'Operation Supercharge' at 1.05 am on 2 November.