The Australian Story
While both within Australia and among the Allied Forces of the First World War the Australian “diggers” won total recognition for their courage and endurance at Gallipoli and other battle scenarios, the contribution of the Australian 9th Division at El Alamein has remained, for the most part, unrecognised, both at home and abroad. A cursory survey of works published since 1984 on the Desert War, or El Alemain in particular, reveals at least fourteen works of which only Barton Maughan’s Tobruk and El Alamein—Australia in the War of 1939-1945, first published in 1987, focuses on the Australian role in the field. It is significant of the part that the Australian 9th Division played in the desert war against Rommel that on D Day 1944 Major-General Francis de Guingaund, Chief of Staff of Field Marshal Montgomery's Land-force Headquarters, was to observe that he wished they had the 9th Australian Division with them as the Allies launched their offensive across the channel on Normandy. As the authors point out ”Sadly, although many Australians today know of Tobruk and Kokoda, Alamein is still known only as the name of a Melbourne suburban railway line or a fountain in King’s Cross” [p. 2]. Even Rommel was to refer to the combatants holding out on Trig 29 against his 15th Panzer Division as offering “desperate'British resistance'” when in fact it was the courageous men of the Australian 9th Division who were defending Trig 29 with “sixty-two men killed, wounded or missing” [p. 187-188]. Rommel’s comment emphasises a common misconception which has permeated the history of El Alamein, namely that it was the British Army which was deployed in the battle when, as the authors observe, it was in fact a Commonwealth army made up of British, Australian, Indian, South African and New Zealand combatants each formed into their own national divisions. Indeed, one of Johnston and Stanley’s objectives in Alamein: The Australian Story is to rectify those misconceptions which have arisen around the El Alemain campaign as well as to write the Australian contribution to it back into the master narrative of Second World War military history and the Australian collective memory.
The authors commence the story of El Alamein early in 1942 when the 9th Division, the only Australian troops left in the Middle East, were based in Syria to re-equip having withdrawn from Tobruk. Their sojourn away from the battlefield was soon broken when General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, having taken command of the Eighth Army operations, sent the Australians to the front at El Alamein, which was to become the scenario of one of the most decisive campaigns in the Second World War. In a letter home, written on the evening of the 23rd of October, Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, General Officer Commanding the 9th Australian Division was to write "that in exactly two hours time by far the greatest battle ever fought in the Middle East will begin” and that it would “have a very material influence on the war” [p. 159]. Morshead was of course right. The battle for El Alamein which raged from July 1942 through to November turned the tide in favour of the allies in the war in the Middle East. Morshead, who had received custody of the AIF in the Middle East from General Sir Thomas Blamey, had a very clear idea, like his predecessor, of being in charge of a "national" fighting force and his attitude (together with Blamey’s) epitomises the kind of tension between the British and the Australian Command. Auchinleck had several confrontations with both men. Auchinleck had been “deeply hurt” and disconcerted by Blamey “a subordinate insisting on independent recourse to his government” at Tobruk [p. 13]. Later in July 1942, prior to the attack on Ruin Ridge, Morshead was to express his concern about “a complex plan involving troops of two corps and three divisions of as many nationalities” [p. 98]. Auchinleck was called in only to find Morshead insisting on “the security of a national force with which he had been entrusted” [p. 99]. As Johnston and Stanley remark “Although conducted with a superficial courtesy, the incident marks one of the points of fracture between Britain and Australia in wartime, exposing a gulf of misunderstanding between the two” [p. 99]. Echoes of the same kind of tensions that reverberate through the history of Gallipoli and British Australian military relations in the First World War thus underlie the narrative of Alamein: The Australian Story and will resurface again during the Vietnam War when relations between Australian and American Commanders became quite tense and fractious.
Johnston and Stanley use all sources available to them, war records, battalion diaries, personal diaries, memoirs, interviews with the ever dwindling number of survivors and of course official histories of El Alamein. Out of this material they weave a compelling historical narrative which moves across the sweeping canvas of the campaign revealing the heroism, horror, and devastation of the engagements, together with moments of elation, despair and humour. Although jointly written, the narrative is absolutely seamless, moving in a rhythm which follows the ebb and flow of the various battles as they unfold until final victory in November 1942. Although the authors state that their intention is not to write a history exclusively from below by including “the decisions of Australian commanders” [p. 3], the voices that dominate the narrative are those of the soldiers and NCOs who contributed so outstandingly to making victory over the Axis possible. However, as Paul Collier has pointed out “The authors refuse to romanticise the desert war but, by giving so striking an account of its reality, they do greater justice to the men who fought in it.”
Nor can one accuse the authors of partiality in their portrayal of the 9th Division, their allies or the Axis combatants. They are quick to right misconceptions embedded in the extant master narrative such as Morshead’s report on the “Pioneers drive to the sea” [p. 222] on the night of the 30th October in which “He admitted that the battalions withdrew but said this was because of the heavy casualties they took on the second objective. This report was false. Neither battalion had captured its second objective“ [p. 225]. In their analysis of Morshead’s report the authors conclude that his “false report masked the fact that his orders for the 2/24th and 2/48th batallions’ attacks had asked too much, and had resulted in failure and the decimation of his best units.” This even-handedness of analysis is a distinctive hallmark of Johnston and Stanley’s analysis of the El Alemain campaign. Significantly the authors deconstruct the received perception that El Alemain was a series of individual battles that culminated in the taking of El Alemain itself. It was certainly, as they reveal quite clearly, a single campaign fought over some four months thus undercutting the notion that the October offensive was very much Montgomery’s show.
Johnston and Stanley revisit the El Alamein battlefields and the various cemeteries which are almost the only visible remains of the huge battle that took place there from July to November 1942 [p. 272]. They conclude their magnificent retelling of the campaign with the words “The Alamein battlefield of 1942 no longer exists, but for a few more years the experience of Alamein will live on in the memories of several thousand old men. Then it will be gone from consciousness, except for what we can learn from the records and memories they have left us” [p. 272]. Thanks to the work of these two historians the story of the Australian contribution to El Alemein will remain as testimony to all those who fought there for both historians and general public alike.