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The Battle of El Alamein.
23 October - 5 November, 1942

''Before Alemein we never had a victory. After Alemein we never had a defeat". Churchill

The Battle of El Alamein in late 1942 was the decisive battle of the North African campaign that lasted from 1940 until 1943. El Alamein was located 70 miles west of the main Egyptian port of Alexandria and could not be outflanked because movement of vehicles was restricted to a corridor of 40 miles between the sea and the impassable Quattara depression.

Although the 8th Army had overwhelming superiority in men, tanks, guns and aircraft and could not have lost the battle the prospect of a clear cut and decisive victory hung in the balance for eleven days.

The North African campaign opened at the end of 1940 when General Wavell launched a successful offensive against the Italians. The Germans responded three months later by introducing into the desert the Africa Corps led by General Erwin Rommel. However, the successful Australian defence of the besieged fortress of Tobruk thwarted the Germans who were eventually pushed out of Cyrenaica. In January 1942, 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 capitulated on 21 June and the 8th Army first fell back to Mersa Matruh and then to the defensive positions at El Alamein where the long retreat halted. Rommel, confident that he could smash his way through to Alexandria, attacked the El Alamein defences on 1 July but, in three days of fighting, the 8th Army held against the German and Italian thrusts.

The 9th Australian Division which, under the command of General Leslie Morshead, had formed the bulk of the Australian garrison at the siege of Tobruk in 1941 and was retained in the Middle East in 1942. The Australian Government sought its return to help fight the Japanese but before it returned home it was to play a notable part in the decisive battles for Egypt in the second half of 1942. After its withdrawal from Tobruk, the division moved to Palestine where it was brought up to strength, was re-equipped and where training recommenced. In January 1942 it moved to Syria where it was stationed on 25 June when orders were received that it should move to Egypt.

The Australians joined the British XXX Corps at El Alamein on 4 July and five days later attacked along the coast towards Tel El Eisa. The division mounted four attacks on 10, 17, 22 and 26/27 as part of XXX Corps operations. In the attack on 22 July, Private A S Gurney of the 2/48th Battalion won a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Allied offensives in late July by the New Zealanders against Ruweisat Ridge and by the Australians against Miteiriya Ridge failed to drive Rommel from Alamein but effectively blocked his drive to the Nile. On 30 August, Rommel made his last attempt to break through to the Nile Delta but was defeated by the strongly fortified Alam el Halfa position south of Ruweisat Ridge.

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. Alexander, on 19 August 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 between the sea and the Quattara 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, that 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, before dawn on 24 October, a bridgehead beyond the enemy's main defended zone and to help the two armoured divisions of X Corps to pass through the defended zone. The task 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 six miles wide and four miles 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.

The Battle of El Alamein opened at 9.40 pm on 23 October 1942 when 900 British medium and field guns fired an intense fifteen minute barrage against the enemy gun lines. 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 methodically mop up the enemy posts. The 9th Division's attack was made on a two brigade front with the 26th Brigade less 2/23rd Battalion on the right and the 20th Brigade on the left. The 24th Brigade continued to hold the existing Australian front near the coast. The Australian infantry battalions went into battle with strengths ranging from 30 officers and 621 other ranks to 36 officers and 740 other ranks; the war establishment was 36 officers and 812 other ranks.

The Australians attacked on a two brigade front with the object of penetrating four miles into the enemy lines. Three battalions were to capture the first objective which was two miles 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 800 yards but also had an open flank to protect. The left brigade, the 20th, had a front of 2400 yards 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.

The Australian's 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 it's objective but tanks that were to support the 2/13th Battalion were delayed when the main enemy minefield proved to be 1600 yards deep instead of the expected 250 yards. The 2/13th, without support, attacked the enemy defences and, suffering heavy casualties, was unable to reach the final objective before dawn.

The four XXX Corps infantry divisions had similar experiences. The first objectives were quickly taken but 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 divisions of X Armoured Corps from breaking through the bridgehead and into the enemy's communications before dawn. The failure to penetrate the minefields lost an exceptional opportunity because 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 was 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. The Australian's 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 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. The 2/24th captured its objective but depleted by casualties it was unable to hold an extended position and withdrew 1000 yards. 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. Advancing with the 2/48th was Private P E Gratwick who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation for his award said:

During the attack on Trig 29 at Miteiriya Ridge on the night of 25-26 October 1942 the Company to which Private Gratwick belonged, met with severe opposition from strong enemy positions which delayed capture of the Company's objective and caused a considerable number of casualties. Private Gratwick's Platoon was directed at these strong positions but its advance was stopped by intense enemy fire at short range. Withering fire of all kinds killed the platoon commander, the platoon sergeant and many other ranks and reduced the total strength of the Platoon to seven. Private Gratwick grasped the seriousness of the situation and acting on his own initiative, with utter disregard for his own safety at a time when the remainder of the Platoon were pinned down, charged the nearest post and completely destroyed the enemy with hand grenades, killing amongst others a complete mortar crew. As soon as this task was completed, and again under heavy machine-gun fire, he charged the second post with rifle and bayonet. It was from this post that the heaviest fire had been directed. He inflicted further casualties, and was within striking distance of his objective, when he was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire. By his brave and determined action, which completely unnerved the enemy, and by his successful reduction of the enemy's strength, Private Gratwick's Company was able to move forward and mop up its objective. Private Gratwick's unselfish courage, his gallant and determined efforts against the heaviest opposition, changed a doubtful situation into the successful capture of his Company's final objective. (London Gazette: 28 January 1943.)

On the night of 26/27 October, the 7th Motor Brigade attacked Kidney Ridge 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, Lt Colonel V B Turner, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Neither the 8th Army nor the Africa Corps 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 infantry battalions and the 2/3rd Pioneer battalion attacked and although not achieving all that was hoped for, inflicted substantial casualties and took over 500 prisoners. Sergeant W H Kibby, 2/48th Battalion, who was killed attacking a machine-gun post was awarded the Victoria Cross for heroic conduct that night and for two previous occasions beginning on 23 October The citation read:

During the initial attack at Miteiriya Ridge on 23 October 1942, the Commander of No. 17 Platoon, to which Sergeant Kibby belonged, was killed. No sooner had Sergeant Kibby assumed command than his platoon was ordered to attack strong enemy positions holding up the advance of his company. Sergeant Kibby immediately realised the necessity for quick decisive action, and without thought for his personal safety he dashed forward towards the enemy post firing his Tommy-gun. This rapid and courageous individual action resulted in the complete silencing of the enemy fire, by the killing of three of the enemy, and the capture of twelve others. With these posts silenced, his Company was then able to continue the advance.

After the capture of Trig 29 on 26 October, intense enemy artillery concentrations were directed on the battalion area which were invariably followed with counter-attacks by tanks and infantry. Throughout the attacks that culminated in the capture of Trig 29 and the re-organisation period which followed, Sergeant Kibby moved from section to section, personally directing their fire and cheering the men, despite the fact that the Platoon throughout was suffering heavy casualties. Several times, when under intense machine-gun fire, he went out and mended the platoon line communications, thus allowing mortar concentrations to be directed effectively against the attack on his Company's front. His whole demeanour during this difficult phase in the operations was an inspiration to his platoon.

On the night of 30-31 October, when the battalion attacked "ring contour" 25, behind the enemy lines, it was necessary for No. 17 Platoon to move through the most withering enemy machine-gun fire in order to reach its objective. These conditions did not deter Sergeant Kibby from pressing forward right to the objective, despite his platoon being mown down by machine-gun fire from point-blank range. One pocket of resistance still remained and Sergeant Kibby went forward alone, throwing grenades to destroy the enemy now only a few yards distant. lust as success appeared certain he was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire. Such outstanding courage, tenacity of purpose and devotion to duty was entirely responsible for the successful capture of the Company's objective. His work was an inspiration to all and he left behind him an example and memory of a soldier who fearlessly and unselfishly fought to the end to carry out his duty. (London Gazette: 28 January 1943)

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, 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 with aerial and artillery support commenced 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 break-out 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 Africa Corps against them, Montgomery had been regrouping his forces to create a reserve for the break-out. 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 restarted his withdrawal on the night of 3/4 November. On 5 November, the 9th Division found the enemy gone from its front and having fought the last Australian battle in North Africa returned home in early 1943. The victorious 8th Army was unable to seize the opportunity of cutting off and capturing a sizeable 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 2,694, including 620 dead, 1944 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.


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