Friday, August 29, 2008

[Quote] Lt. Tas Gill, 2/48th Battalion

1st June, 1941. Tobruk, Libya.

Lt. Tas Gill, 2/48th Battalion.

Lt. Tas Gill of the 2/48th Battalion pictured above at the extreme right with mates in Palestine in 1941 had this to say about conditions at Tobruk;

"Today has been distressingly hot, about 115 I should think. Consider your plight for a moment - living in shallow holes in rocky ground, not a tree with[in] hundreds of miles, no shade except what we make with bits of wood and so on, none of the luxuries of life such as eats and drinks, and nowhere to go and no respite."

For those of you who like me live in a metric world, 115 degrees Fahrenheit is 46.1 degrees Celsius. That is hot.

image p00237.042 Australian War Memorial.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

[Image] The Price of Victory

27th January, 1943. El Alamein, Egypt.

The wrecks of allied tanks from Alamein.

These allied tanks, knocked out by Axis forces during the Battle of El Alamein, await transport to allied workshops for repair and refit. With a desperate need for all armoured vehicles to be serviceable and with production of new units unable to meet demand, it was a logical choice to repair these tanks.

In the foreground is the US built M4 Sherman Medium Tank. This was the tank that broke the Africa Korps. Supplied under the Lend-Lease Act where America supplied war materials to the Allies in return for military base rights in allied colonies around the world. The agreement also called for the return or destruction of all war materials after the war but with nearly a billion pounds of equipment enroute when the war ended which was vitally needed by the British it was decided by the Americans to sell it at 10 cents in the dollar.

The Americans allowed the British to pay off the money owed in 50 annual installments even allowing the British to defer payments when foreign exchange rates were not favourable to them. In essence it was a deal too good to be true. Over the years the British Government elected to defer payments on 6 occasions. The final payment was made to the US Government in 2006.

image 014269 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] 9th Div Salvage Unit under fire

5th October, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

9th Div Salvage Unit under fire.

Being shot at is all in a days work for members of the 9th Division Salvage Unit in the desert at Alamein. These men were working to recover a disabled Bren Carrier in the forward line areas when a German shell landed dangerously close.

Whilst some men have wisely gone to ground, some merely crouch. The Salvage Unit often worked extremely close to enemy lines and were often shelled or fired upon whilst conducting their vital work. With limited access to rapid resupply of lost heavy vehicles it was often in the best interests of the 9th Division to salvage what they could and repair it for further use. Anything that could be salvaged was, even enemy equipment and hardware was pressed into service against the Axis forces at Alamein.

image 013351 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Death of a Valentine

17th July, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

German shrapnel defeats the Allied Valentine Tank.

In a perfect example of why the allies needed heavier tank armour in the Western Desert this Valentine II Infantry tank has been disabled by shrapnel from German shelling. If shrapnel can be so devastating against an armoured target like this, it is horrifying to think of it's effect on infantry in the open ground of the Western Desert. This is a major reason casualties were so high at Alamein.

image 024552 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Take that Germany!

5th October, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

9th Div troops mock Hitler.

These unidentified troops of the 9th Division skylark on a destroyed Mercedes Benz Battle Wagon in a mock salute to Hitler. It was common practice for many Australian troops to skylark in photos wearing pieces of captured German uniforms. A particular favourite, as worn by most of the Diggers in the above photo, is the German M35 Steel Helmet.

image 013356 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] The Western Desert Today

The Western Desert still has secrets.

This amazing image was taken by a tour guide in the Western Desert upon discovering the remains of an allied Chevrolet truck. Even after all the decades that have passed since the early 1940's the wreckage is in surprisingly good condition. The truck's engine was found half buried in the sand nearby.

image Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society

click on the image for a high resolution shot.

[Image] What direct hit Sir?

19th September, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

Two direct hits on an M3 Grant Tank.

This 8th Army M3 Grant Tank, or General Grant, has taken two direct hits on it's forward armour by German shell fire. These two hits, side by side, have dented the armour but done no real damage. These same hits would have destroyed an English Crusader Tank and likely killed the crew. Whilst far from perfect, the Grant had it over it's English predecessors in the one department that truly mattered, the armour. With much thicker armour, the operational life of the tank, and it's crew, was extended beyond that previously experienced.

The M3 Grant Tank was an interim measure taken by the British after the initial devastating defeats in the Western Desert by the Panzer Divisions. Lacking armour and firepower the British tanks were decimated by the much stronger Germans. After being refused permission to have American factories produce an English designed tank, the British resorted to purchasing the M3 Medium Tank from the United States.

Whilst slow, heavy, with a high profile and with an unusually mounted main gun, the M3 was used extensively in the Western Desert until the M4 Sherman became available. Once the Sherman's arrived in numbers the Grant was rapidly withdrawn from front line operations.

image 025032 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Invaluable Aussie Advice

22nd July, 1942. Tel el Eisa, Egypt.

Good advice from the AIF?

The cabin door of this 9th Division ammunition truck is painted with either a timely piece of advice or a commentary on life in the Western Desert. In a typical display of Australian defiant humour the men who painted this sign leave it up to the reader to decide their intent.

image 024624 Australian War Memorial.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

[Image] A rare wash at Tobruk

June, 1941. Tobruk, Libya.

A rare chance to wash some clothes.

VX33235 Gunner J.W. Croft of the 2/3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment has saved enough of his litre a day water ration to give some basic kit a wash. Gunner Croft hangs his washing to dry on a low slung washing line for a very good reason.

With the flat terrain at Tobruk, anything standing higher than three feet of the ground would draw artillery fire as being unnatural, and therefore enemy. For most men at Tobruk though, a wash in the ocean would be the closest they got to clean clothes.

One Digger recalled that for the entire duration of the siege he only once got a chance to wash, and that was a brief one hour trip to the beach. He also stated that he didn't brush his teeth for six months as it was a waste of precious water that could be drunk instead.

image p01260.012 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] A Lucky Escape at Alamein

November, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

One Digger and a lucky escape.

This unidentified Digger of the 9th Division was wounded in both arms in the Second Battle of Alamein and captured by the Germans where he was transported, as a prisoner of war, to a German Dressing Station.

His wounds were treated by a German Medical Officer and when recovering the Dressing Station was captured by British Infantry where the Digger was released and returned to his Battalion. Here he is seen enjoying a smoke while catching up with excited mates.

image 042076 Australian War Memorial.

[Memorial] Australian War Memorial, Tobruk


16th October, 1941. Tobruk, Libya.

The unveiling of the Australian War Memorial.

This photograph was taken at the official ceremony to commemorate the unveiling of the tablet on the Australian War Memorial at the Tobruk War Cemetery. The memorial, built entirely by sappers of the Royal Australian Engineers, included a marble tablet inlaid at the base of the memorial.

The inscription reads;

"Here is hallowed ground, for here lie those that died for their country".

Major General Leslie Morshead officiated the official dedication of the war memorial to honour the Australian fallen of the Tobruk campaign. It would be some years before Maj. Gen. Morshead was to return to this site but return he did to honour his Rats of Tobruk.

image 020988 Australian War Memorial.

[Slang] Meet the Baitlayer

5th October, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

The baitlayer prepares his bait.

In another amusing example of Australian slang, the cooks of a battalion were referred to as "baitlayers". This derogatory term was a cheeky reference to the food being poisonous much like a bait for a wild animal.

In this picture the baitlayer is NX34516 Sapper Thomas M. O'Connor of the 2/4th Field Park Company, Royal Australian Engineers who has a reputation amongst the 9th Division as supposedly having 1001 recipies for bully beef. In this case he makes bully pancakes, which the men report as 99% pancake and 1% bully beef.

image 013357 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] The P.M. and the Private.

5th August, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

The Hon. Sir Winston Churchill.

The Prime Minister of England, Sir Winston Churchill, visits the 9th Division forward lines at Alamein. Dressed in Suit, Tie and with Pith Helmet, Mr Churchill uses a horsehair fly swatter to keep the insects at bay. He smokes one of his trademark cigars whilst he is escorted by Major General L.J. Morshead, GOC 9th Australian Division.

And the Private.

SX13319 Pvt. Stanley Collins

2/23rd Infantry Battalion.

When touring the front lines Mr Churchill stopped to speak with Pvt. Collins of Adelaide. What happened next ensured that Pvt. Collins was the most famous man in the 9th Division for a day. He bummed a cigar off the Prime Minister of England.

When later asked by curious mates if he intended to smoke it, Pvt. Collins joked that he was going to take it home have it sealed in glass and would then pass it down as a family heirloom. Pvt. Collins survived the war, discharging in September, 1946 as Staff Sergeant Collins. It is not currently known if he did indeed take the cigar home with him in early 1943.

images 024760, 013354 & 013355 Australian War Memorial.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

[Quote] Lt Gen Erwin Rommel

1941. North Africa.

Lt General Erwin Rommel
GOC Deutsches Afrika Korps

Rommel, never one to hold back with his thoughts, when asked his opinion on the Australian 9th Division opposing him in Tobruk had this to say;

“The toughest but least disciplined troops in North Africa".

image p01112.001 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Tobruk's Anti Tank Ditch

1941. Tobruk, Libya.

The Red Line's Anti-Tank Ditch.

QX6167 Lieutenant William Spencer Beaney of the 9th Division Signals examines a stretch of the anti-tank ditch in the forward lines of the 2/48th Battalion positions. This ditch was originally constructed by the Italians in the 1930's but was never entirely completed.

Some sections of the ditch were over 15 feet deep yet other parts the ditch was as shallow as a couple of feet. The Australians completed what work they could with limited manpower and tools. The fact that the ditch was in the forward Red Line meant that it was also within range of the enemy. If any work was done on the ditch it was likely done at night under cover of darkness and out of the heat of the day.

This photo is great for not only the view of the ditch but the cross section of the wall of the ditch gives a great indication of what the land was like. Hard rock is visible all the way to the bottom of the ditch and this shows that digging anything in Tobruk was a hard slow process. I also love the vast flatness of the landscape here. You can see why strategic points like Hill 209 were so important to the outcome of the battles there.

image 020094 Australian War Memorial.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

[Image] 9th Division scroungers at work

23rd July, 1942. Tel el Eisa, Egypt.

Scrounging from a German Tank.

These two unidentified members of the 9th Division go over a disabled German Panzer Kampfwagen Mk III for anything of value to use against the Axis forces.

Whilst this tank looks relatively intact the telltale dark scoring around the open turret hatch suggests that there will be little of use found inside this tank as it appears to have burnt from the inside. A fire of this magnitude usually meant that the tank took a direct hit from a large calibre anti tank gun. While there is no visible point of entry it is most likely the entry point is on the other side of the tank out of view. The fact that the tracks appear intact also suggests that the tank took a direct hit.

That being said it doesn't look like this is going to deter the Digger on the left who appears to be attempting to move the forward mounted machine gun. This wouldn't be the first German machine gun (likely an MG34) that was taken from a disabled Panzer and put back into service against their former owners by the 9th Division.

image E014741 Imperial War Museum.

[Memorial] Alamein 9th Division Memorial

22nd December, 2006. El Alamein, Egypt.

The 9th Division Memorial.

This is a modern photo of the 9th Division Memorial at Alamein. The site of the major battle's of 1942 has now been built upon, as evidenced by the buildings in the background. A 5 star hotel now stands on the site of the 2/17th's front line positions during the 2nd Battle of Alamein.

image by Acad Ronin from Wikipedia Commons. Click on the image for a high resolution shot.

[Image] Phone for you Sir!

1st August, 1942. Tel el Eisa, Egypt.

9th Division Signals sets up a mobile switchboard.

This photo, taken during the 9th Division advance, shows two unidentified members of 9th Division Signals working rapidly to establish lines of communication across the newly captured front.

The soldier to the right is setting up and operating a mobile switchboard. The linesman to the left has a reel of signal wire mounted on his back in preparation for the mad dash he is about to perform to front line postions. A seperate wire would need to run to each position from the switchboard. These wires would often be cut by shell bursts and it would be necessary for men to go out under extreme fire to repair the wire. There are many stories of bravery by members of 9th Div Sigs, many of whom were killed or wounded attempting to repair a wire during a battle.

Not often given their due, Signalmen performed many of the unseen tasks that made the Infantry's job alot easier by ensuring rapid voice communication, by 1940's standards, was possible.

image 041965 Australian War Memorial.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

[Image] The German MG34 Machine Gun

25th July, 1942. Tel el Eisa, Egypt.

A Digger and his captured MG34.

This unidentified soldier of the 9th Division proudly poses with a captured German MG34 Machine Gun. The Maschinengewehr 34 was accepted into service in the German army in 1934 and during the Western Desert campaign featured heavily in action with the Afrika Korps.

This particular gun is being used in a set up that was not originally intended. The MG34 was designed to be able to be used as both a light and medium machine gun. When deployed in LMG mode it was meant to use the barrel mounted bipod, as the one pictured does, and a 50 or 75 round drum magazine. In MMG mode it was meant to use linked 50 round belts, and one of two heavy tripods.

In practice, the Afrika Korps favoured the light weight and maneuverability of the bipod with the sustained firepower of the linked belt fed ammo, with as many as 250 bullets being able to be linked together at once. This Digger uses the MG34 in the exact same unofficial configuration as that favoured by the Afrika Korps in the field, leading one to think that this gun was set up this way when captured.

The MG34 was used extensively during the Siege of Tobruk and it was one such weapon that NX15705 Cpl Jack Edmondson V.C. of the 2/17th Infantry Battalion was mortally wounded by whilst capturing it during the Easter Battle. This action ultimately led to his death from wounds and the posthumous awarding of the Victoria Cross.

image E014847 Imperial War Museum.

Monday, August 18, 2008

[Image] Fleecing the Saffas

21st July, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

9th Div troops play cards with the South Africans

These two 9th Division Machine Gunners pass the time in their weapons pit, between engagements, with a game of cards with two members of the South African Army.

The British War Photographer who stumbled across this scene must have had a good laugh at the sight of dominion troops so engaged in gambling that they haven't even noticed they are being photographed. This is a great photo to demonstrate the different, yet distinct, styles of head wear in service with dominion troops at Alamein. The slouch hat and the pith helmet, symbols of their respective armies, and both being quite practical in the Western Desert. I suppose Aussies and Saffas know a thing or two about the desert. There are no deserts in England, Italy or Germany.

image E14671 Imperial War Museum.

[Image] A letter home from Alamein

10th September, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

A precious letter home.

This unidentified Digger of the 9th Division enjoys a few hours out of the front lines in organised relaxation at the Alamein beachfront. Rather than go for a much deserved swim this soldier prefers to write a letter home but ponders what to write.

In typical Australian fashion this soldier is shirtless, yet still wears the very practical slouch hat. The leather thong of his identity discs are visible around his neck and this lucky soldier writes with a fountain pen and appears to have a ready supply of proper writing paper. Both pens and paper were always in short supply for Diggers in the Western Desert. Letters would often be written home on any kind of scrap paper available. It was not uncommon for Aussies to write letters home on paper that they had captured from Italian or German troops.

Troops of the 9th Division always enjoyed their brief stints at the Alamein beach front. Often the swim in the ocean would be the only wash the troops would get for weeks on end and one wonders how much the trips to the beach were motivated by a genuine concern for the men's welfare or more an opportunity for the officers to rid their men of the horrible smell that accompanied them where ever they went.

image 042004 Australian War Memorial.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

[Image] Rommel in Colour

1941, Western Desert, Libya.

Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel.
GOC Deutsches Afrika Korp.

This rare photo of Rommel in colour in the Western Desert gives a great insight into the German high command of the Afrika Korp. The formality of the uniforms is astounding considering the heat experienced in the desert. Even Morshead wore shorts.

An interesting anecdote I have come across worth sharing is one about Rommel's goggles. It was written that Rommel found these goggles in the wreckage of an Australian armoured vehicle lost in the Benghazi Handicap. Liking the design so much he discarded his German issued goggles and for the rest of the North African campaign Rommel wore Australian goggles.

[Image] The Digger of Alamein

The Australian Digger, Alamein 1942.

This photo taken at the Alamein War Museum in Egypt shows the typical Australian Infantry soldier of the Western Desert of 1942. A Lee-Enfield .303 rifle, a bayonet and of course the tin hat are ever present.

Several things differ between the model soldier here and photos of actual Aussie soldiers at Alamein that are worth mentioning. I think that this photo is how the regulation Australian soldier should have looked. In reality the Australian soldier at Alamein was most likely bare chested. He was more likely to wear a slouch hat than a tin hat and was more often than not bare footed. This Digger is also way too white in skin tone to have spent any length of time in the Western Desert.

The Diggers of the 9th Division may have gone away white but came back the very image of the 'bronzed aussie'. This was an era decades before sunscreen. As a result skin cancers were a huge concern for returned men of the 9th Division even way into their latter years. For some it wasn't the Germans that killed them but the Western Desert sun itself many decades later.

The Australians were a casual lot with their uniforms in all theatres of the second world war. This is what makes some of the photos even more powerful because of the contrast in their casual appearance and the horrible nature of their surroundings.

image Alamein War Museum, Egypt.

[Image] Crocodile Dundee of Tobruk

26th September, 1941. Tobruk, Libya.

SX1417 Pvt. V.J. Fuller models the new look slouch hat

Pvt. Victor John Fuller of the 2/3rd Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, finds a new way to accessorise with a belt of captured Italian Breda Model 37 8mm machine gun bullets making a nice hat band for his weathered slouch hat.

I think Paul Hogan has a lot of explaining to do after seeing this photo. Crocodile Dundee anyone?

image 020644 Australian War Memorial.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

[Image] Tobruk's Anti Aircraft Defenses

6th September, 1941. Tobruk, Libya.

VX24598 Bombardier E.J. Courtney MM

VX24598 Bombardier Edward James Courtney of the 2/3rd Light Anti Aircraft Regiment, attached to the 9th Division demonstrates the Italian Breda Model 35 20mm cannon that he won his Military Medal on.

His citation for the Military Medal reads;

"For bravery and devotion to his duties in an A.A. detachment whilst under heavy dive bombing and machine gun fire."

At Tobruk on 25th April and 7th May, 1941.

"1. On 25th April at Pilastrino when over forty E.A. (Enemy Aircraft) took part, the Breda gun on which Gnr Courtney was a gun number had a stoppage during the engagement. The detachment took cover, with the exception of Gnr Courtney who remained at his post working to free the stoppage in spite of heavy machine gun fire and near bomb explosions, and succeeded in getting the gun into action again and enabling to detachment to reengage the E.A."

"2. On 7th May when protecting a troop of 60-pdr. guns in another dive bombing attack, Gnr Courtney's gun again had a stoppage. He preceded to clear the stoppage despite the fact that three ME.110's were machine gunning along the ridge and several of the bullets entered the gun pit narrowly missing him while he was working. Through his efforts the gun was eventually brought back into action."

Another classic example of Australian troops using a captured Italian gun against German aircraft. If it would shoot Aussies would use it.

VX24598 Bombardier E.J. Courtney MM's entire service record has been digitised by the Australian National Archives. Find the link in the "Research Links" sidebar to the right.

image 020589 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] The RAAF drops in at Alamein.

21st September, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

RAAF Kittyhawk makes a forced landing.

This RAAF Kittyhawk made a forced landing in 9th Division positions at Alamein after a succesful attack run over German held territory. Unfortunately on the return run he was hit by severe anti-aircraft, or ack ack fire and was forced to make a rather skillful forced landing. This plane would have been rapidly salvaged, repaired and put back into service.

My mate Terry is currently restoring a 26 litre supercharged V12 Allison Engine out of one of these planes. I bet his neighbours can't wait for it to kick over for the first time.

image 013279 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] German War Graves at Alamein

September 1942, El Alamein, Egypt.

German War Graves found inside Australian positions.

When the Germans attacked 9th Division positions in September 1942 at Alamein they took a portion of the Australian minefield and held it for a number of days until a counter attack dislodged them.

During this time the Germans buried a number of their dead that had fallen in the no mans land between forward positions. Both sides buried each others dead if it was safe to do so. The men who occupy these graves were buried during this brief period. The Germans brought with them a supply of ready made wooden crosses in anticipation of having to perform this task.

An unidentified Tommy Gunner of the 9th Division looks on at the final resting place of the men who were his enemy.

image 042007 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Death of a Stuka

1941. Tobruk, Libya.

One less Stuka in the parade.

For troops in Tobruk, the daily raids by the German Stuka dive bombers on their harbour and artillery positions became known as "The Stuka Parade". Often these planes would descend on their targets at incredibly steep angles with large payloads of bombs. Sirens attached to the planes would scream the faster they dived in an attempt to demoralise the opponent.

Once their bombs were released they often flew out towards the El-Adem area to circle around below the line of the escarpment held by the German's in safety to return to strafe the Australian positions holding the red line. It became almost like a game with the same planes flying over the same positions each day at the same time often at altitudes of little more than 100 feet.

This particular Stuka flew a little too close to the Red Line and was brought down. Wrecks like this were often stripped by Australian souvenir hunters. You can see that someone has cut the swastika out of the aluminium of the tailplane. These were often the first thing to go as they were light and could be mailed to unsuspecting relatives back home. There is very little of value left on this plane.

image 040612 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] The Crusader Tank

10th July, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

The 9th Division's Cavalry Regiment's Crusader Tank.

Meet the Crusader. This is the best that the British had to counter the German's Panzers. Whilst faster than the Panzer, the Crusader was lacking in every other department. It had less armour, a much smaller two pounder gun and was plagued by mechanical problems.

It also had the severe tactical disadvantage of not having a High Explosive shell for it's main gun. Whilst these shells existed they were not made available in time. Realising the severe disadvantage that they faced with their lack of armour these tanks were replaced later in 1942 by the American built Shermans and Grants which were much more capable of taking on the Panzer's of the Afrika Korps on a much more even footing. The Crusader finished the War in a support role and was more often used as an artillery tractor.

image 024483 Australian War Memorial.

Friday, August 15, 2008

[Image] The Hessian Spitfire of Tobruk

23rd September, 1941. Tobruk, Libya.

9th Division Sappers show off their hessian Spitfire.

Engineers from the 9th Division proudly display one of their latest achievements. A dummy Spitfire made from wood and hessian. Whilst boredom was a major obstacle of the Australian soldier in Tobruk, this display of modelling did have a military application.

The German's relied heavily on aerial reconnaissance of the Allied positions at Tobruk, with even Rommel himself known to fly his Storch occasionally for a personal view of the battlefield. With Allied aircraft numbers rapidly dwindling in the Western Desert with each sortie and the Luftwaffe possessing unprecedented air superiority a need for deception was required. Australian Sappers built these dummy aircraft to fool German reconnaissance pilots into thinking that Tobruk possessed a higher number of serviceable fighter planes than they actually did. They also served the added purpose of drawing Luftwaffe bombs away from actual planes, thus increasing their survival chances.

This campaign of deception was used again to great effect by Montgomery at Alamein where the widespread use of dummy troop trucks and tanks gave the Germans an inflated estimate the the Allied numbers that they were facing.

image 020685 Australian War Memorial.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

[Image] The business end of the Panzer Mk IV.

El Alamein, Egypt, 1942.

The business end of a Panzer Mk IV.

This amazing photo was taken by a member of the 9th Division at Alamein in 1942. This tank is the Panzerkampfwagen MkIV, or more commonly known as the Panzer MkIV. The MkIV was a masterpiece of German engineering. It was heavily armed and armoured and with the main 75mm gun it could deliver devastating firepower quickly.

In the Western Desert campaign there was initially very little in the allied arsenal that could cause the MkIV any concern. It had 100mm thick armour that could withstand almost anything fired at it. Unfortunately for this Panzer and it's crew the troops that disabled this war machine targeted the most vulnerable part of the German tank, it's tracks. Whilst there was very little that could penetrate it's armour there was however, a number of weapons that were capable of disabling the tracks. This particular tank carries a number of sections of spare track mounted across the front of the armour plate. A machine gun (likely an MG42) is turret mounted in a forward hard point. The salvage division vultures would soon be there to take it away for further use against Axis forces.

It was tanks such as these that first probed the 9th Division's positions along the El-Adem road during the Easter Battle of 1941 at Tobruk. Around 20 tanks, including some MkIV's, approached the lines of the 2/17th Battalion and stopped approximately 30 yards from the Aussies in the defensive posts. The above photo, whist taken at Alamein and disabled, still for me conjures up a horrifying image of what it must have been like for men like my Grandfather who were the first Australians to engage the tanks of the Panzer Divisions. It was also these same men, in this same battle, that gave the allies their first ever victory over the Germans on land.

It is not a fact widely known that Australian troops of the 9th Division were the first allied troops to defeat the Germans in battle on land. The Easter Battle of 1941 at Tobruk was the first time the allies had repulsed a German attack in the war to date. The motto of the 2/17th Infantry Battalion is "What we have, we hold". On this occasion just like the many more to follow, the 2/17th held their ground and won a decisive victory against superior numbers and equipment.

image p04734.011 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Captured German mortar is stamped "Return to Sender"

Tobruk, Libya. 15th September, 1941.

The German 50mm Mortar.

This unidentified member of the 9th Division Salvage Unit demonstrates how easy it is to fire a captured German 50mm mortar. Equipment like this was invaluable to the Australians as at the time they occupied Tobruk, they were short of many items, especially weapons.

This 50mm Mortar was designed for use by infantry units. Ideally it would be operated by a crew of two. One to aim and steady the weapon, the other to fire it. Even with it's base plate it was still man portable. The High Explosive shells had an approximate rage of 500 yards and each shell weighed about 2.25lbs (approx 1kg). Many such mortars occupied the area known as "the salient" and they had a distinctive 'whoosh' sound when fired. Troops in forward posts would hear the sound of the mortar firing and would literally have a matter of seconds to take cover. In open ground these weapons can be devastating on soft targets like infantry.

The 9th Division's Salvage Unit was one of the most important units of the western desert campaign. Up until Alamein, the 9th Division was predominantly under equipped and poorly armed. Making use of captured enemy weapons and equipment soon became a necessity. The 9th Division Salvage Unit would be like ants at a picnic. Anything that could be salvaged from the battlefield and repaired, reused or recycled would be devoured and put back into the hands of the 9th Division's troops to use against their former owners. The Australian ability to scrounge and salvage was legendary.

image 020752 Australian War Memorial.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

[Image] German shells fall at Alamein

1st November, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

German shells burst in 9th Division positions.

Late on the afternoon of the 1st November, 1942, Australian positions at Alamein came under shell fire from German artillery. A shell explodes behind a large 9th Division truck. A lone digger can be seen running for the cover of the dug out in between the two trucks to the right of picture. This explosion is huge when compared to the size of the trucks in the foreground. This is not a barrage to be caught out in the open in.

image 042082 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] The true origins of Beach Cricket

September, 1942. El Alamein, Egypt.

The birth of beach cricket.

Australians have always loved sport and the outdoors. In spite of what beer company marketing gurus will tell you these photos don't lie. Australian troops of the 9th Division invented beach cricket during a spell in the beach area away from the front lines at Alamein in 1942.

Whilst not having the entire regulation kit nor proper grass wicket the troops of the 9th Division did what they do best. They made do with what they had. A bat, ball, stumps and even a set of pads and keeper's gloves were located and a sand wicket established.

"Slips Fieldsman"

"another cracking shot"

images 041992, 041993 and 041994 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] The Vickers of Tel el Eisa

Tel el Eisa, Egypt. July, 1942.

The Vickers Machine Gun at work on German positions.

NX25016 Pvt. Barrie Rymer and NX21498 Pvt. Paul Cullen of the 9th Divisions' Machine Gun Regiment fire their Vickers Machine Gun at German positions. This particular gun crew fired this gun at the German positions for two whole days. The spent cartridges burnt their hands and arms and they even used water from their own personal issue to keep the gun cool so that it would remain in action.

At the time of this action in 1942 the Vickers Machine Gun had been in service with allied forces for 30 years. It was water cooled, which meant it was heavier than air cooled machine guns and relied on a ready supply of water. The reservoir around the gun's barrel held 4.3 metric litres of water which boiled in the jacket around the barrel. This then converted to steam, which ran out a rubber hose at the back of the gun into a metal can to condense where it could be poured back into the jacket.

Whilst impractical in a desert environment the entire closed nature of the cooling system meant that there was no telltale steam emissions from the gun when fired allowing a Vickers crew to keep firing from fixed positions for longer before being given away. The constant need for water was a problem with many crews resorting to measures from using their own personal drinking water to urinating in the jacket. Any spare liquid would be pressed into service to cool a raging Vickers gun in action.

There was an action documented during WW1 at High Wood on 24th August, 1916 where a British Vickers gun regiment was tasked with keeping a large open area 2,000 yards away covered with suppressing fire for a period of 12 hours to ensure that the German infantry didn't form up for a large scale attack. Two entire infantry companies (several hundred men) were allocated to support these 10 guns with water, ammo and spare parts for the duration of the action.

Between them, and over the allotted 12 hour period, these 10 Vickers Guns fired one million rounds at the Germans. Barrels were changed every hour, a process that took a well trained crew two minutes and at the end of firing not one Vickers had broken down. It's easy to see then that the men pictured above could have easily fired for such an extended period.

With this kind of reliability it's no wonder the Vickers was used extensively in the desert by the 9th Division in spite of all it's inherent impracticalities.

image 041953 Australian War Memorial.

WW1 Vickers Gun anecdote source;

"Weapons & War Machines." by Ian V. Hogg & John Batchelor. London: Phoebus, p. 62 (1976).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

[Propaganda] 1941 AIF Recruitment Poster

"Mister, Here's Your Hat!"

This AIF Recruitment poster, as published by the Department of the Army in 1941, was used to entice young men into enlisting in the Army. An attractive young woman hands an Army slouch hat to a prospective recruit.

How many men of the 9th Division were swayed into enlisting by the nameless girl will never be known, however I'm sure there were plenty of Diggers who wished they'd never laid eyes on her before.

In 1941, just like today, sex sells.

image ARTV06443 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Thirsty work this desert warfare.

Western Desert, Egypt. 1st August, 1942.

Filling water cans at 9th Div HQ.

Fighting in the Western Desert is thirsty work, and none know just how thirsty like these men of 9th Division HQ who are filling water cans from the 500 gallon tanker in the picture.

Every single drop of water needed to be carted across the desert to the armies in the field. Rommel had more of a problem with the huge distance that his supply line had to transverse to get to the battlefields of Egypt. Water was a precious commodity, even more so when some could be spared from drinking for washing body and clothes.

Many Australians chose to drink their water and just rely on the occasional swim in the ocean at Alamein for all their bathing. The veterans of Tobruk were well versed in water rationing and had many novel ways to maximise the usefulness of even the tiniest amount.

image 024690 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] Bren Carriers at Tel el Eisa

Tel el Eisa, Egypt. 1st August, 1942.

Bren Carriers advance in support of 9th Division troops.

These Bren Gun Carriers are photographed at Tel el Eisa in support of an infantry advance by the 9th Division. The lead carrier seems to be mounting a Boys Anti-Tank Rifle in it's forward hardpoint whilst the unmistakable silhouette of the Bren Gun and bipod is visible out of the open topped carrier at the left.

image 041966 Australian War Memorial.

[Image] "Monty" and THAT Slouch Hat.

Lieutenant General B.L. Montgomery, CB DSO
Commander of the Eighth British Army
Tel el Eisa, Egypt. 21st August,1942.

When Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery CB DSO paid the forward positions of the 9th Division at Tel el Eisa a visit on 14th August 1942 he is reported to have requested an Australian slouch hat to wear.

Members of Headquarters, 24th Infantry Brigade quickly found "Monty" his requested hat and from that point forward Montgomery chose to wear the Slouch Hat as a part of his standard field uniform.

In the photo above Montgomery is photographed with a rare smile on his face a week after being presented with the hat. By this time word had spread that the Commander of the British Eighth Army had taken to wearing Dominion head wear as standard dress. This caused a mixed reaction amongst members of the Eighth Army.

Here Montgomery is seen wearing the hat at Tel el Eisa after having toured the forward positions for himself. As he inspected his lines he passed through positions held by different forces under his command. At each opportunity Montgomery collected the hat badges of the units and attached them to his slouch hat. A good collection of them can be seen above.

Reactions to Montgomery's choice of hat varied. Members of the Royal Australian Artillery stated that he looked like a "prize galah", whilst members of the Infantry saw it as an honour that out of all the different nationalities and units under his command that he chose an Australian Slouch Hat. In spite of all the inherent practicalities of such a hat in the Western Desert it was a real morale boost for members of the 9th Division to see Monty in their hat.

Others however were not convinced as to the suitability of their General wearing this hat and members of the Royal Tank Regiment saw to it that they presented Monty with a black beret in the hope that he would restore order and wear appropriate head dress. Someone must have had a quiet word to the General as he gave up his adored slouch hat and wore the Royal Tank Regiment's beret for the rest of the Western Desert campaign.

Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery CB, DSO's slouch hat is currently in the collection of the Australian War Memorial at Canberra, Australia.

images 041980, 044866 and RELAWM30701 Australian War Memorial.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

[Image] "...a brave, dashing and resourceful soldier." - Morshead.

VX27678 Pvt. Morris J. O'Connell M.M.
2/23rd Infantry Battalion.

1st January, 1942, Palestine.

At the time that this photo was taken on New Year's Day in 1942, Pvt. Morris O'Connell was taking a break from competing in the Hockey tournament of the 9th Division Sporting Day.

Pvt. O'Connell was awarded the Military Medal (MM) for bravery in the field at Tobruk. The final sentence on the citation for the award, written by Morshead himself, called Pvt. O'Connell a "...brave, dashing and resourceful soldier". Further investigations into Pvt. O'Connell reveal a soldier with a few more disciplinary issues than the citation would have you believe, but in true Australian fashion some of the bravest soldiers in battle are often the most defiant outside of it. In any case you judge for yourself.

Pvt. O'Connell's citation for the Military Medal reads;

"The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East has approved the immediate award of the Military Medal to VX27678 Pvt. M.J. O'Connell of the 2/23rd Inf. AIF."

"Pvt. O'Connell was a member of a party that carried out a raid successfully against enemy forces of unknown strength west of Tobruk on April 22nd, 1941. He took part in the capture of the first enemy post and then dashed ahead on his own."

"Jumping into a sangar he threw a Mills Bomb (hand grenade), killed several of the enemy and captured an officer and seven other ranks."

"During the withdrawal of the patrol he escorted his prisoners back to the perimeter, a distance of 3,000 yards, in the face of intensive artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. A brave, dashing and resourceful soldier".

Looking at Pvt. O'Connell's service record at the National Archive's website one can see a few disciplinary issues. Before embarking to the Middle East, Pvt. O'Connell faced a Board of Enquiry when the Army truck that he was driving crashed into a private bus when he was on leave and not supposed to be in control of an Army vehicle. He sustained a rather bruised buttock and was fined.

In Tobruk in March of 1941, a mere 12 weeks before his MM, Pvt O'Connell was charged with two offenses.
  1. "Failing to appear at a place of parade appointed by a commanding officer" for which he was fined 10 shillings and 7 days pay.
  2. "Conduct prejudicial to a Commanding Officer's Military Discipline" for which this offence cost him a fine of 20 shillings.

In spite of his reported disciplinary issues Pvt. O'Connell showed all of his commanding officers that they were wrong about him and proved himself a soldier when it mattered most, when with his mates and under fire.

It was whilst Pvt. O'Connell MM was with his mates and under fire at Tel el Eisa on the night of 22nd July, 1942 that he was killed in action. He is buried at the El Alamein War Cemetery. He is memorialised on the Roll of Honour here;

At the time of his death, like too many of the men killed at Alamein, Pvt. Morris Joseph O'Connell was 23 years old.

image 022764 Australian War Memorial

Pvt. O'Connell's entire digitised service record can be viewed at the National Archives Website. See the link in the sidebar on the right under "Research Links".

[Image] 2/13th Mortar support at Tel el Eisa

Tel el Eisa, Egypt, 1st August, 1942.

A two pounder gets sent on its way.

NX16706 Pvt. Leslie S. Myers of the 2/13th Infantry battalion drops another two pound mortar shell into his launcher in support of the 9th Division advance at Tel el Eisa (The Hill of Jesus).

You can see what appear to be vehicles of some description on the horizon. Whatever they are they are above ground level and in this case a very valid target. You can see also a plume of smoke in the distance in the direction of fire of Pvt. Myers’ mortar. There also appears to be another dug in position several hundred yards in front of Pvt. Myers’ position. As he is firing live rounds in that direction my guess is that’s where Gerry calls home.

This photo taken not far above ground level can give you an appreciation of just how dangerous it would be to be caught in the open of the desert during a shell attack. Your only hope would appear to be to keep moving forward.

Pvt. Myers seems to have quite a bit about the top of his weapons pit. A Lee-Enfield .303 rests on the sandbags behind him as too does his cigarettes and matches. He looks like he has more mortar ammo to his right within easy reach and he is wearing the commonwealth Tin Hat with hessian cover.

To his left is what looks like a binoculars case. Makes sense that the guy with the mortar would have field glasses to spot targets with and to accurately gauge the range on enemy positions. Empty tins of bully beef can be seen in the foreground of the photo below. In the bottom photo Pvt. Myers looks like he has some kind of rangefinder or telescope.

images 0941967 and 041968 Australian War Memorial.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

[Image] Tobruk (c.2002 in colour)

The lone Fig Tree still stands north of the Derna Road

During the Siege of Tobruk, the 9th Division operated a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) in a cave underneath the lone fig tree just north of the Derna Road and behind the Red Line. The cave, like the fig tree is still there.

Weapons pits of the Red Line still virtually untouched.

Only time itself seems to have been in these weapon pits since the departure of the allied forces from Tobruk. There is even still, in 2002, evidence of spent shell casings and magazines found in these trenches.

The Harbour as it was in 2002.

And this is what the whole thing was all about. Whoever controlled the deep water harbour in Tobruk, the only deep water port between Egypt and Tripoli, could rapidly move troops and supplies via sea rather than transport them up to 1,200 miles over the harsh desert.

Holding Tobruk for the time that they did meant that the Australian's and English troops there delayed the Battle of El Alamein until a time when the Allies were adequately reinforced and supplied. It seems weird to see the harbour in colour and without the wrecks of so many ships in it.

images from Galen R. Frysinger, Wisconsin, USA.