Remember El Alamein

Simply 75 years ago, Australians dressed in steel helmets and khaki shorts, and often not much else, sat in weapon pits in the Egyptian sun about 120 kilometres west connected with Alexandria. They were preparing for what history would call cost-free battle of Al Alamein, the great offensive planned by just Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. In the summer heat of July 1942, his predecessor, Archibald Wavell, had held the German–Italian drive towards Egypt, a battle in which the 9th Australian Division had played a notable part. Now, immediately after gathering more troops, tanks and guns, Montgomery was initially ready to launch his Eighth Army against General Erwin Rommel’s Panzer Armée Afrika, a commander and a compel admired and respected even by their adversaries.

If it succeeded, Montgomery’s assault might reverse the fortunes of Linked armies in North Africa and the Mediterranean. So far, just after victories early in 1941 against the Italians in Eritrea and in Libya, when tens of thousands of demoralised Italians had been snagged, no British general had been able to gain a important success in the theatre. In 1941, Greece and Crete had been lost. In north Africa, Tobruk had been put, but in tank battles in Libya Rommel had has confirmed his skill. A British Commonwealth advance to Gazala had ended in disaster and the loss of Tobruk had pushed Axis forces to within striking distance of Alexandria. Merged morale had plummeted and the troops were convinced them to could not beat Rommel. But after a three-week fight at a line between the railway halt of El Alamein and then the lip of the impassable Qattara Depression, the Eighth Internet marketer had held. Now, under yet another commander, it met the task of once again taking on Rommel’s Panzer Armée.

Australians at home knew about this epic desert war, a matchup so different to the war that was occupying headlines and also newsreels. But for the past 10 months, since the Japanese experienced entered the world war so spectacularly by attacking Pearl Harbor and the European colonies in Asia, the war regarding they called the Far East had dominated Australia’s attention. A large Australian division, the 8th, had been swept into captivity by the Japanese victories in Malaya, Singapore and the hawaiian islands to Australia’s north. Winston Churchill had sent two of Australia’s three divisions back from the Middle East, receding with Prime Minister John Curtin over where they should be deployed. Australia’s north had been bombed and Japanese submarines had penetrated Sydney Harbour. While the 9th Division challenged Rommel’s panzers at Tel el Eisa in Come july 1st, Australian Militia had been driven back over the Owen Stanleys towards Port Moresby. While Montgomery gathered strength along with planned his great counter-stroke, Australian troops had used the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail and begun the very painful advance northwards. The war against Japan captured Australia’s attention, and (judging by the number of books published since) that preoccupation has never wavered.

But late in November 1942, men of the 9th Division, the only remaining Aussie troops in the Mediterranean theatre, prepared for their next evaluation. After a colossal bombardment, Montgomery’s infantry—Australian, Scottish, New Zealand, Indian and British—crossed the start-line on the evening with 23 October. The Australians’ task was to ‘pin’ the very German defenders of the vital coastal sector while the infantry further south opened up a route for British armour to break through the belts of mines protecting the Axis line. The battle was a vicious 12-day fight during which (measured by their disproportionate casualties, including 500 dead) Australians played a vital part. By early November, Rommel’s troops at last began a retreat westwards that ended 6 months later with the capitulation of Axis forces in The african continent. As Rommel ordered the withdrawal, Australian troops went into the Papuan village that would give its name to the Kokoda campaign, which in retrospect became the focus of Australia’s understanding of World War II.

The victory at El Alamein represented perhaps the British Commonwealth’s finest moment. Some sort of army of divisions from Britain and all major dominions (except Canada) had defeated an Axis army on the field. Admittedly, Montgomery had enjoyed a substantial material superiority to Rommel, but the victory was sufficient. Montgomery had won the first of the great Allied victories, one justifying Churchill’s later pronouncement (rightly qualified with ‘it might more or less be said’) that before Alamein the Allies got never had a victory and after it had never possessed a defeat.

For the men of the 9th Division, Alamein was their last experience of war against the Germans in addition to Italians. They were sent home, in response to urgent appeals right from Douglas MacArthur and John Curtin. From early 1943, the only Australians to prosecute the war in Western world were airmen of the RAAF and sailors of the PLAYED, now all but forgotten. The jungle war against Japan came to dominate Australia’s memory of World War II.