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Thursday 2 November, 2017
When the 9th Australian Division paraded at Gaza Airport on 22nd December 1942, the Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in the Middle East, General Sir Harold Alexander, began his address with the following words:
Officers, Warrant Officers, Non-Commissioned officers and men of the Australian Imperial Force. These grave days we are living in are the time for deeds rather than words, but when great deeds have been done, then it does no harm to speak of them, and great deeds you have done.
The Battle of El Alamein will make history, and you are in the proud position of having done a major part in that great victory.
By the end of June 1942, the Panzerarmee Afrika, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, “The Desert Fox”, had forced the Allies back deep into Egypt, and the capture of Cairo and the Suez Canal seemed a very real possibility.
The Allies pinned all their hopes on their new defensive position near the tiny railway stop of El Alamein. Here, the battlefield narrowed between the coast and the impassable Qattara Depression. Rommel, wanting to maintain the pressure made a significant thrust on 1 July, hoping to dislodge the Eighth Army from the Alamein position and open the way to Cairo and Suez. The Allies however had regrouped sufficiently to repulse the attack and make some counterattacks of their own. In these first days of July, the fate of the whole campaign hung in the balance.
Before dawn on 10 July the Australian 9th Division launched an attack on the northern flank and succeeded in taking the important high ground around Tel el Eisa. This caught Rommel off guard as he had concentrated his forces for his own offensive in the south. The Australians spent the next few days fighting off heavy counterattacks as Rommel redirected much of his forces against them.
The 9th Division infantry owed much to Australian, British and South African artillery, as well as the Desert Air Force (DAF), in repelling these counterattacks. It is important to note that Australians were also present in the DAF, flying with Nos. 3 and 450 Squadrons, RAAF.
Fighting then spread to other parts of the front and continued for most of July. By the end of the month, both sides had fought each other to a standstill. On the 27th, one Australian Battalion, the 2/28th, was virtually wiped out when they were surrounded by German tanks and help failed to arrive in time.
The next few months were to be a time of build-up and preparation on both sides for the telling battle to come.
The second Battle of El Alamein is frequently described as a turning-point of World War II. It began on 23 October 1942 and lasted until 5 November. The three field artillery regiments of the 9th Division provided about 80 of the 880 guns that fired the extraordinary opening barrage at 9.40 p.m. on that first night, 23 October. Bill Corey recalls it as ‘the night of a thousand guns’ and the troops well remember the sound and light show the artillery provided.
Those guns were still firing when the final breakthrough was achieved on the night of the 2 November, and in between, they were often the crucial factor in halting enemy advances and making Commonwealth sorties possible.
In what Winston Churchill called ‘ceaseless bitter fighting’, it was the Australians on the northern coastal flank of the battle, who managed to draw the prime German armour and men to them, and this allowed the British tank strategy to make the inroads it did. Casualties were severe; the 8th Army suffered 13,560, the Axis forces, 90,000. The 9th Australian Division lost 620 men killed and another 1,944 were wounded.
In 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, General Montgomery visited the Australian graves at the El Alamein cemetery. The following evening he told a friend: “The more I think back, the more I realise that winning was only made possible by the bravery of the 9th Australian Division in holding the road against counter-attacks and slowly pushing forward despite increasing casualties. I do not know of any [other] Allied Division who could have done it. “
This year we remember and honouring those who served at El Alamein seventy-five years ago and who delivered an ominous defeat to German land forces.
Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in the Middle East, General Sir Harold Alexander concluded his address to the Australian troops paraded before him at Gaza Airport in December 1942 with these words:
I will follow you with interest and watch your successes with admiration. But there is one thought which I will cherish above all others – under my command fought the 9th Australian Division.