- 75th Anniversary of The Battle of El Alamein
75th Anniversary of The Battle of El Alamein
Friday 13 October, 2017
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the Battles of El Alamein. Although lesser known than the siege of Tobruk, it was here where Australian forces proved their mettle in the desert of Egypt. Australians played a significant role in these battles, regarded as a turning point in the Second World War. Winston Churchill wrote in The Hinge of Fate his famous verdict: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
Led by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, the Australian 9th Division played a key role in two of these battles, further enhancing the reputation of the Australians that was earned defending Tobruk during 1941. Australians were also present in the Desert Air Force, flying with Nos. 3 and 450 Squadrons, RAAF.
The First Battle of El Alamein was fought from 1-27 July 1942 between the Axis forces of Germany and Italy, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and the Allied forces of Britain, Australia, British India, South Africa and New Zealand. When Tobruk fell, Rommel’s plan was to attack El Alamein to the east and then go on to take Cairo, taking control of the north of Africa, including the strategically important Suez Canal. El Alamein is just 106 kilometres from Alexandria. The situation for the Allies could not have been more desperate.
The Allied forces managed to withstand the Axis forces’ assault. In August 1942 Prime Minister Churchill appointed General Bernard Montgomery to take command of the British Eighth Army and the Defence of El Alamein. Known universally as ‘Monty’ and widely respected, he soon set about preparations for the looming showdown with Rommel. Montgomery, determined that the Army, Navy and Air Forces should fight their battles in a unified, focused manner according to a detailed plan, made a great effort to appear before troops as often as possible. He frequently visited various units and made himself known to the men. Fully aware of the consequences of defeat for the Allied War effort, Montgomery stated: “I have cancelled the plan for withdrawal. If we are attacked, then there will be no retreat. If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead.”
The world watched anxiously as the Desert Fox and Monty squared off in what would be a decisive battle of the war.
The Second Battle of El Alamein was fought from 23 October – 11 November, 1942. It was a resounding victory for the Allies. Over 30,000 prisoners were taken and the Afrika Korps retreated and was subsequently chased out of Africa.
Between July and November 1942, the Australian 9th Division suffered almost 6,000 casualties. Although the price was high, the Division played a crucial role in ensuring an Allied victory in North Africa. More than 1200 Australians were killed at El Alamein. Australians made up approximately 10% of the 8th Army’s strength, however they suffered approximately 22% of its casualties in the battle.
In 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, General Montgomery visited the El Alamein Cemetery and made the following statement: “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.”
It was during this battle that 2nd/48th Sergeant William “Bill” Henry Kibby from South Australia performed actions that saw him posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross. Taking over after his platoon commander was killed, Kibby was ordered to attack strong enemy positions. He personally assaulted an enemy post, firing his Thompson sub-machine gun, killing three of the enemy and capturing 12 others. On other occasions he showed great leadership, directing fire and encouraging his men. He was killed by machine-gun fire on the night of 30 October; his work was said to have been “an inspiration to all”. A quiet and sincere man, Kibby often told friends that all he wanted was to return to his wife and two daughters and his garden in Glenelg, Adelaide.
To this day, the Battle of El Alamein remains an outstanding example of Australian resilience and tenacity in a theatre of war, with a significant contribution made by South Australians.