El Alamein – Australians begin to break through

El Alamein 1942: Tracer gunfire photographed at night during an air raid on the new forward British positions.

The fight at El Alamein continued. According to the contemporary official account of the battle this was a relatively quiet time in the battle, as Montgomery continued to take his time in re-grouping his forces.

The following night [30th/31st October] an attack was launched in the northern sector by the Australian division. This attack was successful, and isolated several enemy positions. Elsewhere on the front there was only very slight activity.

Throughout the afternoon of the 31st a counter-attack against the Australian division appeared imminent, but by dusk it had not materialised. During the evening, however, some enemy tanks succeeded in joining the enemy isolated positions remaining behind our forward troops in the northern sector.

From the Military Situation Report for the week, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/30/40

Such an overview of events could not possibly do justice to what was happening on the ground. Some men had not yet taken part in the battle, others had been intensely engaged since the very beginning.

Keith Douglas, who was to write one of the classic personal accounts of the battle, had not even been at the front for the start of the battle. He was posted to a Divisional staff position in the rear. His requests to return to his regiment were repeatedly turned down.

After El Alamein began he waited six days before taking matters into his own hands and effectively disobeyed orders to return to his regiment on the front line. He was welcomed back by his commanding officer, if only because all but one of the officers in his squadron of Crusader tanks had already become casualties. He describes his first experiences under fire after they had been ordered to ‘dig in’:

After we had been digging about a minute, a projectile of some sort screamed over our heads and burst with an orange flame and a great deal of noise somewhere in the darkness behind us apparently among the heavy tanks. Another followed it, and I decided it would be ridiculous to attempt digging a trench under H.E. fire, when the tank turret was already available for our protection.

Evan came back from Sergeant Thomas’s tank and scrambled into the turret. I told Mudie to get in, and as soon as they had made room, stepped in myself, trying not to hurry too much. There was silence for the next two minutes and I began to wonder if I had made an ass of myself.

Sergeant Thomas’s head appeared over the top of the turret. ‘Here, Evan,’ he said, ‘what are you skulking in there for, man? If you stop digging every time a bit of shit comes over, we’ll never get finished. Come on out of it, now, and do a bit of bloody work. There’s no reason to hop in the turret every time you get a bit of shit thrown at you.’

‘All right,’ I said, giving in to Sergeant Thomas’s greater experience, ‘get out and do some more digging.” Evan and I climbed out on to the engine plates at the back of the tank and prepared to drop to the ground.

But with a scream and a crash another shell arrived. Something glanced along the side of my boot and two or three more pieces hit on the tank with a clang. Evan rolled sideways off the back of the tank and fell to the ground. ‘Are you all right?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Well get back in the turret, I’m not going to muck about digging in this stuff.”

See Keith Douglas: Alamein to Zem Zem

British Crusader tanks group together in the desert at sunset to defend themselves from surprise attack at night during the battle.

From two sides the Australians rush in to the German strong point. A German flings his hands up and surrenders.

Portrait of Sergeant William Henry Kibby VC.

By contrast Australian infantry Sergeant William Kibby had spent most of the battle right in the thick of it:

At El Alamein Kibby showed extraordinary and persistent courage.

On the night of 23 October 1942 his platoon was ordered to destroy a nest of machine-guns and mortars on Miteiriya Ridge. Calling ‘Follow me!’, Kibby charged it with a Tommy-gun, killing three enemy soldiers, capturing twelve, and clearing the post.

On the night of the 25th he repaired his platoon’s signal wires at least five times in the face of heavy fire. His company commander Captain Peter Robbins intended to recommend him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but was killed.

On the night of the 26th, while under heavy artillery fire and repeated tank and infantry attack at Trig 29, Kibby moved boldly into the open, directing his men’s fire and co-ordinating and inspiring their defence.

Before dawn on the 31st, Kibby’s platoon fought through the German lines at Ring Contour 25, then came under intense machine-gun and mortar fire as it attempted to reach the coast. Most of the platoon were killed or wounded. After reorganizing the survivors, Kibby charged forward and attacked a number of machine-guns which were firing directly at him from a few yards away.

He must have known that he would die, but he kept on, silencing with grenades gun after gun until a burst killed him. His Victoria Cross citation stated, ‘he left behind him an example and memory of a soldier who fearlessly and unselfishly fought to the end to carry out his duty’.

See Australian Dictionary of Biography for more.

A Martin Baltimore of No. 55 Squadron RAF flies over the target area as salvoes of bombs explode on tanks and motor transport of the 15th Panzer Division concentrated by the Rahman track near Tel el Aqqaqir, Egypt, during the Battle of El Alamein. Twelve Baltimores, accompanied by six North American B-25s of the USAAF, dropped 120 x 250-lb bombs through heavy anti-aircraft gunfire which damaged two-thirds of the force.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: