El Alamein

Australia's pivotal role in the CHURCHILL's 'end of the beginning' remains underrated at home

El Alamein became the most important battle in which Australians participated during the war. This was for two reasons: the battle was a transformative event that changed world history, and the role played by the 9th Division was crucial to the British victory, a point made by British commanders at the time. When the battle ended, Montgomery went immediately to the Australian lines to thank the commander of the 9th Division, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead.

The conundrum, however, is that El Alamein has become the forgotten battle in Australian memory. It has a contradictory identity: it is the most important battle we fought in that war, yet is the least remembered.

Aussies at El Alamein.jpg

The turning point of WW2

ARRIVING back in the African desert at dusk on October 25, 1942, an anxious German commander, Erwin Rommel, gave orders to break the British Eighth Army's new offensive in the north - directly attacking the 9th Australian Division.

The Battle of El Alamein, launched two days earlier by Britain's General Bernard Montgomery in an exposed and featureless desert near the Mediterranean Sea, was to that point the most important British offensive of World War II. On Montgomery's initiative would depend Winston Churchill's entire Mediterranean strategy and his conviction that the Middle East must be secured before any campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi control.

When Rommel returned from Germany, where he had gone to recover from illness and confer with Adolf Hitler, the battle had reached a crisis point. He now sent a rallying message to the Axis forces invoking his mystique as the Desert Fox, saying: "I have once more taken over the command of the army."

It was the fourth year of the war. Churchill was struggling, still searching for a significant land victory to break Hitler's momentum. In political and military terms, he knew Montgomery's offensive would become the turning point of the war.

The story of El Alamein is about how Australia played a critical role on the global stage. Britain's mood at the time was captured in the war diary of Churchill's chief of the general staff, General Alan Brooke, who wrote on the eve of battle: "There are great possibilities and great dangers! It may be the turning point of the war."

The global struggle, in fact, was transformed in late 1942 at two points - when in early November Montgomery broke Rommel's army, and when German general Friedrich Paulus failed to take Stalingrad, surrendering his army to the Russians in January 1943.

Paulus went into captivity rather than commit suicide, as Hitler expected - but suicide was the ultimate price Hitler would extract from Rommel in 1944.

Morshead and his division had become illustrious before El Alamein for their role in 1941 in holding Tobruk during a long siege, a symbol of Allied willpower when that willpower was manifestly weak.

The most convincing testimony about El Alamein on which the reputation of the 9th Division endures came from the British commanders on the spot.

General Oliver Leese, who commanded 30 Corps in the battle (including the 9th Division), wrote to Morshead on November 6, 1942, asking him to explain to his men their "immense part" in the victory. Referring to the final Eighth Army breakthrough, Leese told Morshead that "if the Germans could have broken your division, the whole gun support of the attack would have been disorganised and its success vitally prejudiced". Writing within hours of the victory, Leese said: "I am quite certain that this break-out was only made possible by the homeric fighting over your divisional sector."

British historian Niall Barr, in his Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, highlights Rommel's relentless assaults on the 9th Division, saying: "Through their stubborn, repeated attacks and dogged resistance they had drawn the last reserves of the Panzerarmee into the fiercest fighting ever witnessed at El Alamein."

Former Australian War Memorial historian Peter Stanley tells Inquirer: "The Australian achievement still cries out for explanation. Its men withstood 12 continuous days of severe fighting. Their endurance made possible Montgomery's counter-stroke, arguably the only time in history an Australian formation made such a decisive victory possible."

At El Alamein, Montgomery's army was more than 200,000 strong (with some units unfit for offensive operations), with just over 1000 tanks. It faced an Axis force of about 110,000 with about 550 tanks.

In its victory the Eighth Army lost 13,560 killed, wounded or missing. The Commonwealth cemetery at El Alamein contains 7567 headstones and lists 11,945 soldiers and airmen from the African campaign with no known grave.


The official historian of Tobruk and El Alamein, Barton Maughan, who served as an intelligence officer with the 2/13th Battalion during the battle, records that the 9th Division lost 620 dead, 1944 wounded and had 130 taken prisoner.

In their 2002 book on the battle, historians Mark Johnston and Peter Stanley say: "The Australian division, although representing just under a tenth of the Eighth Army's strength, had suffered more than one in five of its casualties."

When the entire Alamein campaign is considered, from July to November, the division took a total of 5794 casualties out of a strength of about 15,000. A feature was the high degree of casualties among officers.

"Never again would so many Australians die in such numbers in such a short time," Johnston and Stanley write.

"Alamein was the last of the great killing matches in which Australians took part in the 20th century."

The key to the British victory was the appointment of Montgomery as Eighth Army commander. Yet this happened because of a wartime mishap.

In August 1942, Churchill had travelled to Egypt to resolve the command crisis and poor morale in the Eighth Army that had led to its humiliation by Rommel. Impatient to see an offensive, Churchill removed General Claude Auchinleck from command in favour of Lieutenant General "Strafer" Gott. Gott was self-confessedly tired, and it was a misguided appointment. But Gott was killed when his plane was shot down by the Germans while he was on his way to take up his post.

Only at this stage was Montgomery elevated. While a showman and egoist, his appointment was the critical decision. The transformation was immediate.

Visiting the Australians, Monty took to wearing a slouch hat that he would decorate with a variety of regimental badges. Morshead told his officers, "Things are going to be different soon."

"Montgomery was the best," recalls Australian veteran Ron Myers, 93, from the 2/2 Machine Gun Battalion. "He was visible and he was everywhere."

Joe Madeley, 92, from the 2/13th Battalion, says: "As soon as Montgomery arrived we got more of everything. He talked and gave you confidence."

El Alamein defied the usual mythology: the Australians respected their British commander; they trusted Morshead; and the Australian and British chiefs co-operated effectively most of the time.

An unlikely looking pint-sized leader, Montgomery was a social misfit, a clear thinker and superb organiser. His career had been a repudiation of Britain's class-based military leadership from World War I, when commanders rarely saw their men. Monty's dictum involved training, planning, morale-raising activity and communication from the top to bottom of his army.

Having halted Rommel's drive to the Suez Canal in September in a defensive operation known as the Battle of Alam Halfa, Montgomery moved the next month to take the offensive. He predicted El Alamein "will become a hard killing match and will last for 10 to 12 days, therefore our soldiers must be prepared not only to fight and kill but to go on doing so over a prolonged period".

He said the task of his infantry was to "eat the guts" out of the enemy infantry so "he will have no troops with which to hold a front", thereby setting the scene for the tank breakthrough that would scatter Rommel's forces. This tactic put much of the burden on selected infantry units, in particular the 9th Division. Montgomery's words became a literal description of the task of the Australians at El Alamein.

AT 8.40pm on the night of October 23, 1942, Morshead, located 1800m from the Australian start line, wrote to his wife, Myrtle: "In exactly two hours' time by far the greatest battle ever fought in the Middle East will be launched ... it is high moonlight, tomorrow being full moon ... A hard fight is expected and it will no doubt last a long time. We have no delusions about that. But we shall win and I trust put an end to this turning forward and backward to and from Benghazi. The men are full of determination and confidence."

At 9.40pm 900 guns opened up on Rommel's lines. The battlefield was lit up in a delusion of summer light. Australia's official World War II historian Gavin Long writes: "The floor of the desert shook, vehicles shuddered without pause, men's bodies and their very voices quivered under the mighty shock waves."

Veteran Gordon Wallace, 90, from the 2/15th Battalion, recalls: "There was a colossal movement of men and explosions. There were fellows dropping besides you and you had to keep going."

Bill Corey, 94, from the 2/43rd Battalion, says: "At the start it was like daytime. Then it was all noise and the flash of guns."

Madeley says: "When the bombardment began I thought, 'None of us will survive this.' But with the Germans taking the punishment, I then felt, 'It will be a walkover.' "

Montgomery had an integrated plan that required his 30 Corps in the north to break into Rommel's defences; his armour in the form of 10 Corps was to drive through to exploit the infantry's progress; and in the south 13 Corps was to draw off Axis armour, then seek to attack Rommel's rear areas.

The northern line was a rollcall of the old empire - the Australians on the extreme right, closest to the Mediterranean, then from the sea the 51st Highland Division, the New Zealanders, the South Africans and the 4th Indian Division, all under the command of Leese. Leese's records reveal his fears, despite numerical superiority - he wrote before the battle that of his five divisions only the Australians were at full strength and ready for sustained offensive operations.

The 9th Division consisted of three brigades - the 20th Brigade under Brigadier Victor Windeyer (comprising the 2/13th, 2/15th and 2/17th battalions); the 24th Brigade under Brigadier Arthur Godfrey, killed late in the battle (2/28th, 2/32nd and 2/43rd battalions); and the 26th Brigade under Brigadier David Whitehead (2/23rd, 2/24th and 2/48th). The division included five artillery regiments.

Several weeks before the battle the Germans dropped propaganda leaflets on Australian positions: "Aussies. The Yankees are having a jolly good time in your country. And you?" Many troops kept them as souvenirs.

Montgomery's ability to reach all troops was revealed in the pre-battle speech to the 2/24th by its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Weir. "Each of you will receive a personal message from General Montgomery which he has asked me to give to you. In it, he asks that every man will fight til he can no longer fire a rifle."

On opening night almost 10,000 assault troops advanced against heavily fortified Axis posts, minefields and infantry. Some veterans reported they heard bagpipes next to them. Asked how he felt, Corey says: "We never thought of getting beaten." Madeley adds: "I had a nine-man section and after the end of the first night only three were still standing." Corporal CW Mears of the 2/17th reports "dust and chaos, one cannot hear or see".

On the morning of October 24 the Australians were close to their first night objectives. Leese felt 30 Corps' opening had been a "great success". But Montgomery's overall plan had failed - the armoured divisions had failed to break through as instructed.

Even worse, they had hardly tried, thereby provoking serious ructions within the Eighth Army command. Montgomery was dismayed.

In his memoirs he wrote that this "infirmity of purpose on the part of certain senior commanders almost lost us the battle".

It took another 11 days to secure the vital armoured breakthrough. That meant the battle now proceeded into what Montgomery had thought might happen - a "dog fight" or "killing match" over another seven to eight days. The focus now fell on 30 Corps to keep advancing as the Germans geared for a long series of counterattacks.

In his history, Long says that from October 26 "the Australians started their drive northwards and brought the whole weight of Rommel's Afrika Korps against them".

One of Montgomery's intelligence officers, Lieutenant Colonel JO Ewart, described the tactics: "The plan had the simplicity of genius. It was to persuade the Germans that we were going one way and to go the other."

The key came when Rommel finally committed "the whole of the enemy reserve", the 21st Panzer and the 90th Light Division in the north, against the 9th Division where "the Australians had not yielded an inch".

The 9th Division's task was to function as a military sponge - to soak up much of the enemy's firepower to create the opportunity for a tank breakthrough farther south. With Rommel fixated on the northern front, in the south Montgomery on November 2 launched his long-awaited Supercharge, the name given to the armoured breakthrough that finally secured victory at El Alamein.

Morshead was ruthless yet responsible. He accepted the huge burden Montgomery imposed on his division. Leese told Morshead on the night of October 26 that Montgomery wanted the Australians to follow their initial success with more attacks in the north: they must draw everything they could upon themselves. "He (Leese) glanced at Morshead and saw no flicker of hesitancy disturb that swarthy face."

For individual battalions the intensity of prolonged fighting and the scale of casualties was immense. On the night of October 25-26 the 2/48th took Trig 29, a slightly elevated spur, with a combination of artillery and hand-to-hand fighting, with more than 100 Germans captured and nearly as many killed.

Across the next two days Rommel launched 25 attacks in an effort to regain the ground, declaring that "rivers of blood" were expended on a miserable strip of land.

By October 29 the 2/13th was near breaking point. "It had been attacking and beating off counterattacks for five sleepless nights," Long writes. Its rifle companies were reduced to 35 of all ranks, less than one-third of normal strength. Its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Turner, was killed early in the battle and his replacement, Lieutenant Colonel "Flash" George Colvin, was seriously wounded and evacuated on October 29.

The 2/15th commander, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Mango, advancing with his forward troops, lost his arm and suffered serious head wounds; he died two days later. In furious fighting the 2/23rd casualties included two majors, four captains and 10 lieutenants.

On October 28 Rommel had sent a message to all commanders: "The present battle is a life-and-death struggle. I therefore demand that every officer and man gives his all."

In the north the tempo intensified on October 30-31, with Morshead launching an even more ambitious attack relying on the 2/32nd, 2/24th and 2/48th, the last of these under the command of Lieutenant Colonel HH Hammer.

These battalions cut a passage two miles (3.2km) long in one of the enemy's strongest parts of the battlefield. But the casualties were crippling.

The 2/24th entered this attack with 206 men and had 42 killed and 116 wounded. The 2/48th lost 47 killed and 148 wounded. But the objectives that night had not been reached and Maughan, most unusually in an official history, criticises Morshead's judgment. Johnston and Stanley bluntly judge that Morshead had asked too much of his troops.

However, from Leese's position at 30 Corps headquarters the Australians were fulfilling their strategic brief to the hilt. He said: "They drew on their front most of the Panzer Corps, of which they destroyed a great part with their anti-tank guns. It was a magnificent piece of fighting by a great division led by an indomitable character, Leslie Morshead."

What was the key to sustained high Australian morale? Apart from more resources and more guns, Corey tells Inquirer: "The officers and men mixed together. They were one of us. We weren't like European armies, where the officers and the men were completely separate."

ALAMEIN was the beginning of the Allied march to Berlin. In London, before midnight on November 4, 1942, the BBC advised its audience "to stay listening because we are giving the best news we have heard for years".

Earlier that day the Eighth Army had captured General Ritter von Thoma, commander of the Afrika Korps, who was compelled to dine with Montgomery the night before he went into captivity. Rommel's son, Manfred, recalled long after the battle his father "knew it (the war) was all over" once Montgomery had prevailed in North Africa.

Von Thoma later said of Montgomery: "I thought he was very cautious considering his immensely superior strength but he is the only field marshal in this war who won all his battles."

Montgomery's biographer Nigel Hamilton says El Alamein had a double meaning: as a military victory and as a symbol to the free and enslaved world of the Allied ability to ensure Hitler's defeat.

On November 10, 1942, Churchill spelled out El Alamein's importance after a long run of British military defeats, famously declaring: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Yet El Alamein has a paradoxical ethos as both beginning and end. It was the beginning of the defeat of the Axis powers because it showed the democracies possessed the will and resources to prove Hitler could not win a war on two fronts.

Yet it was an end because, in the evocative words of Maughan: "The call to battle was a rollcall of the empire, that grand but old-fashioned 'British Commonwealth of Nations' fighting its last righteous war before it was to dissolve into a shadowy illusion."

Alamein was the empire's military swan song and where it left the stage. The battle ended that phase of war where the empire stood alone. The torch was passed to Russia and and the US. Never again would Australians fight under British command in the Middle East.

In his official history Maughan summarises the Australian role: during the first phase of the battle the 9th Division shared the heavy fighting with other assault units; in the critical second phase, the dog-fight, it "bore the main burden of the attack"; and in the final phase, though not heavily committed, all three brigades were involved.

Maughan quotes from the autobiography of British Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, commander of 13 Corps: "The success of Supercharge was largely due to the 9th Australian Division who had carried out continuous attacks night after night. After the battle I went to see General Morshead to congratulate him on the magnificent fighting carried out by his division. His reply was the classic understatement of all time: 'Thank you, General, the boys were interested.' "

Johnston and Stanley record that after the battle Morshead, aware the division would soon return home, invited the commander-in-chief of the Middle East, General Harold Alexander, to an event no other formation in wartime had tried: a parade of the entire division.

It occurred on Gaza airstrip on December 22, 1942, in bright sunshine with 12,000 officers and men in formation, a phalanx more than a kilometre long of troops somewhat jaded and tired, having risen early that morning. Alexander delivered a short but uplifting address: "Your reputation as fighters has always been famous, but I do not believe you have ever fought with greater bravery or distinction than you did during that battle, when you broke the German and Italian armies in the Western Desert." The Last Post was sounded with Maughan, at the event, remarking that it seemed the final wailing note must have reached back to "those rows of crosses at El Alamein".

On the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1967, Montgomery returned to the Alamein cemetery. Johnston and Stanley recount his remark: "The more I think of it, the more I realise that winning was only made possible by the bravery of the 9th Division."

He said he would visit Australia again to thank them. He never made it.

The battlefield today bears no signs of its epic past. There are just a few dirt tracks to guide explorers to the sites of once fierce encounters at Trig 29, Fig Orchard and Thomson's Post where many Australians fought and died. Close to the 2/13th's location on the second night we found the remains of a mine and shards of shrapnel.

The battlefield, however, is a reminder that World War II was a vast global struggle. Australia's security was threatened by the prospect that hostile and murderous regimes would establish global or hemispheric dominance. Our ultimate security was determined by the great encounters far from our shores and progress in the European and Middle East theatres, not just the Pacific theatre, directly affected our future.

There is no doubt British leaders at the time placed a rare value on the role of the 9th Division. As an imperialist, Churchill's technique was to offer patronising thanks to his "colonies" for a job well done. However, Churchill's message to prime minister John Curtin after the 9th Division's return was different: it reflected the recognition among British elites that, at the fulcrum of the war in the Western Desert, the Australians had done something special.

In his March 6, 1943, cable, Churchill said: "As I told General Morshead in a letter I gave him before his departure from Cairo, this division has left behind it a record of energy, courage, enterprise and daring which will be an imperishable memory among all the nations of the British Empire who fought in true comradeship in the Western Desert."

Source: The Australian


Diggers fought to keep the land of Libya free

AUSTRALIAN land, sea and air forces played a pivotal role in the liberation of Libya at the start of the North African campaign in December 1940.

Australia contributed warships, including the cruiser HMAS Sydney, two air force squadrons and thousands of Diggers from the 6th, 7th and 9th Australian Infantry Divisions to the Libyan and Egyptian campaigns between 1940 and 1942.

Early in 1941 the 6th Division helped capture more than 65,000 Italians when the fortresses at Bardia and Tobruk in Libya fell to the allies.

The Australians then pushed west along the coast and captured Benghazi. It was during this fighting that the men whose graves have been desecrated fell in battle.

In April, 1941, Axis forces launched an offensive and the untested Australian 9th Division, under Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead, took up the fight after the 6th was withdrawn and sent to Greece.

When a fresh German offensive forced a retreat to Egypt, the 9th Division and the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division were ordered to hold Tobruk at all costs and the "Rats of Tobruk" were born.

The 14,000 Diggers and 12,000 Brits held the port city from April to November 1941 despite an intense siege. The defence of Tobruk cost the Australian units more than 3000 casualties, including 832 killed - 941 were captured.

Fighting alongside our Allied soldiers in the battle to repel the Germans and Italians were the local muslim Bedouin tribes, whose same descendants ironically attacked the graves this week.

The Aussies adopted the moniker "Rats of Tobruk" after a Radio Berlin broadcast referred to the Australians as "caught like rats in a trap".

The Diggers considered the nickname as a badge of honour . During 1942 the 9th Division, four Australian destroyers and the RAAF squadrons fought with the British 8th Army at the battles of El Alamein in Egypt.

In November 1942, with the Australians involved in some of the heaviest fighting, the Commonwealth force, under the command of British Lieutenant-General Bernard "Monty" Montgomery, finally defeated the Axis force led by the "Desert Fox" German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.


The Rats of Tobruk: the Australian 9th Division

"Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat," Winston Churchill reflected on the course of World War II.

In El Alamein, an obscure railway stop west of Alexandria that in the course of a few days became known around the world, it was a battle that turned the fortunes of war. In November 1942, the Allied Eighth Army broke German and Italian lines to push Rommel's Axis troops back to Tunisia and defeat in Africa.

In the midst of "the blue" was the Australian 9th Division, famous throughout the British Empire a year earlier for its defence of Tobruk. Now they dug into slit trenches on low ridges in open ground to hold a line scratched in the stony sands of Egypt.

"They say the Aussies are great skites," wrote a private to his mother. "But they have something to skite about. They were given the hardest part of the line to smash."

I come in boots and football socks to visit the Australian dead, buried here at the Commonwealth War Cemetery where they fought: together, and in four plots on the western flank, nearest the front line. "Nine Div" comprised about 10 per cent of the Eighth Army's strength, yet accounted for more than one in five of its casualties.

"There are more Australians buried at El Alamein than there are at Pozieres in France," says Peter Stanley, a military social historian who for more than 20 years worked at the Australian War Memorial. "Yet the significance of the campaign has always been overshadowed by the war against the Japanese."

Eucalypts throw thin shade from a high African sun. Balls of clipped bougainvillea flower purple. Caretakers paid by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tend ornamental succulents, oleander and olives, planted on bare earth among headstones, overwhelming in number and laid in patterns to confer an order to an otherwise crazy death.

Of the 7970 men buried, 1234 are Australian. Never since have so many Australians died in such numbers in such a short time. The names of a further 655 are chiselled in limestone in a cloister honouring Allied servicemen who "died fighting on land or in the air where two continents meet and to whom the fortune of war denied a known and honoured grave".

The scale of loss is sobering. I walk haphazardly at first among the headstones, reading succinct obituaries: a trooper from the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons; a private from Black Watch; a southern Rhodesian rifleman from the King's Royal Rifle Corps; an air gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force. All so young and dead and buried so far from home.

I wonder about their lives. Who were they? Where were they from? Why were they here? How did their families grieve?

A visitors' register is signed mostly by Australians, with recent sightseers from Mudgee, Woodend, Randwick, Toowoomba, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice Springs. Holidaying Britons and Italians are the majority of other visitors. And Kiwis.

At the El Alamein Military Museum we meet five couples from northern England, one with a deep Yorkshire burr. All look of an age to have grown up on war stories of "Monty", the celebrated British field marshal we had toasted in a first-floor bar named in his honour at Alexandria's famous Cecil hotel, where Churchill once stayed.

We talk also to seven middle-aged Gold Coast and Brisbane women (and one from New Zealand) at the end of a 19-day Egypt tour. "We fly out tomorrow," says one. "We've seen everything." Their highlight was camping in the White Desert. "We froze our butts off."

Like most, the two of us visit El Alamein on a day trip from Alexandria, travelling west on the North Coast Road through fig orchards and border checkpoints and a ribbon of dusty Bedouin towns where slaughtered goat carcasses hang by the highway. "They keep from their old life their dress and their pigeon towers," says our guide. "The Bedouin like the desert."

Our trip is with Peregrine, one of many Australian tour companies visiting places abroad of national military significance. "Kokoda's the most popular, especially with groups," says Ryan Turner, a Peregrine Adventures tour operator. "It's a bit cheaper, it's accessible and it's a serious challenge."

John Waller, of Boronia Travel, the official agent for the Australian War Memorial, says dawn services on the Western Front are increasingly popular but Gallipoli still pulls the biggest crowds. "It's a rugged peninsula that hasn't changed," he says. "You can still understand and see the whole of what they were up against."

We travel further west, beyond the walled Egyptian summer resorts with golf courses and English names such as "Marina" that line glittering Mediterranean shores where Australian infantrymen once bathed and skylarked. Beach cricket was played in lulls between fighting.

"In April and May was the 'fifty'," says our guide, Soha Mohamed Ali, a specialist otherwise in Greco-Roman ceramics. He's referring to a wind that blows up sandstorms from the south and generally lasts about 50 days. "Always the war would end. And Christmas was a day off."

On the road to Libya we cross coastal marshes to see how the other side commemorates its dead. German volunteers in the 1950s interred the bodies of 4313 of their men in a grand octagonal ossuary built on the brow of a hill. Black basalt walls inside list the dead, grouped in regions that sound like football clubs: Bayern, Hamburg, Bremen, Baden, Preussen.

Frangipanis bloom in a garden by the Sacrario Militare Italiano di El Alamein, a tall white memorial column rising from a peak known in battle as Trig 33. "Ours is a funny sort of tourism," an Italian captain had confided in his war diary, "and it's beginning to go a bit sour on us." Dreadful numbers of Italians died: about 4800 are entombed in vaults in the memorial, another 38,000 are still missing in the sands.

A roadside stone cairn in the barren "no-man's land" marks the furthest limit they pushed east: 111 kilometres from Alexandria, on July 1, 1942. "Manco la fortuna, non il valore," reads a marble plaque. "We were short on luck, not on bravery."

In the days after the decisive November battle, Australian Sergeant John Lovegrove of the 2/43rd recorded the melancholy mood of his men. All were "very much down, virtually everyone grieved and saddened for lost comrades", he wrote. There was "no hilarity, each and everyone sombre and absorbed with his own grieving". And still it feels like a landscape of loss. The desert remains full of dead men.

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