Second Battle of El Alamein
Three major battles occurred around El Alamein between July and November 1942. Led by General Leslie Morshead, the Australian 9th Division played a significant role in two of these with the 2nd regarded as a turning point in the Second World War and famously declared by Winston Churchill “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
In January 1942, the struggle for North Africa had swung in favour of the Axis forces comprising German and Italian troops and led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, “The Desert Fox”. In August 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed General Bernard Montgomery to take command of the British Eighth Army and the Defence of El Alamein.
On 23 October 1942, Montgomery had the following pamphlet message distributed to all ranks of the Eighth Army:
“When I assumed command of the Eighth Army I said that the mandate was to destroy ROMMEL and his Army, and that it would be done as soon as we were ready.
We ARE ready NOW. The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of history. It will be the turning point of the war. The eyes of the whole world will be on us, watching anxiously which way the battle will swing. We can give them their answer at once: It will swing our way.”
The Second Battle of El Alamein began that night with a massive artillery barrage heralding the great Allied offensive and after a week of extremely fierce fighting, resulted in a resounding victory. Over 30,000 prisoners were taken and the Afrika Korps finally retreated. The 9th Australian Division took a leading role in the battle and the losses were heavy. The division’s casualties were about one-fifth of the total casualties of the Eighth Army with 620 dead, 1,944 wounded with another 130 taken prisoner. After their defeat at El Alamein the Germans and Italians were constantly on the retreat in North Africa until their eventual surrender in Tunisia.
It was during this battle that 39-year-old Bill Kibby, from Glenelg, South Australia, a sergeant in the 2/48th Battalion, 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. He was killed by machine-gun fire on the night of 30 October. The position Bill died to win was given up and the Germans buried him in a common grave. After retaking the ground his mates found the grave and reburied their comrades in line. ‘We couldn’t say much, but I guess we all know that if it hadn’t been for Bill Kibby we might have been lying there with them.’
After months of fighting, finally on 1 December 1943, the Australians began leaving El Alamein for Palestine. The 2/17th’s Arthur Bryant reflected on the significance …’so at long last we leave the Western Desert after many months of tough going. We leave the place with a much brighter outlook, but the El Alamein cemetery has many Aussie dead to show our part in the fight against the Hun.’
Between July and November, the Australian 9th Division suffered almost 6,000 casualties but had played a crucial role in ensuring an Allied victory in North Africa.
In 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, General Montgomery visited the El Alamein cemetery and acknowledged the important role of the Australians … ‘the more I think back, the more I realise that winning was only 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’.
Rees, Desert Boys, Sydney, NSW, Allen and Unwin, 2011