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THE PIVOTAL BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN

- 3 Squadron's Involvement in one of the Great Battles of World War Two


The North African Coast from El Alamein in Egypt to El Aghelia in Libya.  The scene of see-sawing desert battles from 1940 to 1942.

Background - 3 Squadron’s War in the Desert

Between August 1940 and July 1942, No.3 Squadron RAAF contributed to three great advances across the deserts of North Africa - and was also caught in two significant retreats.

In December 1940 the first (hugely successful) advance against the Italians began, capturing 130,000 Italian prisoners along with the strategic ports of Tobruk and Benghazi, and advancing halfway across Libya to El Agheila (700km) in two months.

Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans then sent some very capable help - the brilliant General Erwin Rommel and his 'Afrika Korps'.  In March/April 1941, Rommel unceremoniously wrested back the eastern half of Libya.  No.3 Squadron was booted all the way back to the Egyptian frontier (600km).  The strategic sea-port of Tobruk was besieged, but Allied forces (including a large proportion of Australians) successfully held on there for 240 days, far behind Rommel's lines.

3 Squadron was lucky to have been posted away to Syria in July 1941 when the first British counter-offensive against Rommel ('Operation Battleaxe') proved to be a fiasco.  This resulted in the sacking of General Wavell.

Six months later, in November/December 1941, 3 Squadron was back in the Egyptian Western Desert.  They were heavily involved in General Auckinleck's huge 'Crusader' invasion of Libya, which (despite heavy Allied losses) lifted the siege of Tobruk and eventually exhausted Rommel's ability to fight.  Rommel was pushed back (600km again) to his original starting point, El Agheila.

With his supply lines shortened, Rommel then counter-attacked almost immediately (to the great surprise of the Allies) in January/February 1942, recapturing Benghazi and pushing 3 Squadron 300km back east.  As the 3 Squadron song says: "South of Benghazi, down Antelat way... I've been to Agheila, but I did not stay!"

The front stabilised again west of Tobruk, at the Gazala Line, and 3 Squadron was briefed for another huge Allied offensive.  However, it was not to transpire - Rommel got the first punch in, with his own attack in late May 1942.  Then, for two weeks, Rommel wedged his Afrika Korps in the middle of the Allied Gazala minefields, beating off all attempts to dislodge him (‘The Battle of the Cauldron’) and succeeding in resupplying his units.  In mid-June 1942, his Axis forces successfully broke out of the Cauldron and the Allied Gazala Line collapsed. 

On 16 June, for example, 3 Squadron flew a record daily total of 69 desperate fighter-bomber sorties trying to turn back the Axis tide, but the situation was irretrievable and the Squadron retreated; firstly across the Egyptian frontier and eventually all the way back to El Alamein, as Rommel captured Tobruk and then kept outflanking British defensive lines.  This “big retreat” went on for a total of 700km.

El Alamein

The barren landscape around the tiny railway station at El Alamein was the last defensible position that remained before the lush Nile Delta and the major Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Cairo.  (Where considerable disquiet reigned amongst the Army back-office wallahs in mid-1942!)  However, an enormous advantage of the El Alamein position was that it could not be out-flanked.  The 65km-wide patch of desert running south from the Mediterranean Sea was bounded to the South by the impassable canyon walls of the vast Qattara Depression (a dried-up sea).

Most people have heard of the "Battle of Alamein", but actually three major battles were fought sporadically over four months across the plains and ridges of that parched landscape.  No.3 Squadron was based only 30km behind the El Alamein line for those four months, performing intensive fighter intercept, bomber escort and fighter-bomber sorties.


3 Squadron Kittyhawks at LG91 Amiriya.  [Imperial War Museum]
Some of these aircraft were camouflaged in an unusual scheme of overall 'Desert Pink'. 
However they happened to be shot down fairly rapidly - and the experiment was not repeated!

The First Battle of Alameinoffered Rommel his best chance at breaking through the hurriedly-established British defences.

- Rommel launched an attack on 1 July 1942, immediately after arriving in the area.  Luckily, Rommel's forces were severely depleted after their long advance and they could be stopped (just!).  3 Squadron’s Kitty-bombers mounted continuous attacks on Axis transport and airfields.

- On one occasion (3 July) the Squadron went hunting for General Rommel's personal Fieseler Storch aircraft, but they could not find it at the reported location.  Over the remainder of the month of July (mid-summer in the desert) the Allies counter-attacked several times, at first with success.  (Especially the Australian 9th Division on 10/11 July, which 3 Squadron helped to protect.)  On 12 July a flight led by Keith Kildey came across another Storch, landing in the desert, which they destroyed with dive-bombing.  However, despite their speculation, it hadn’t been carrying Rommel... 

- Kildey again featured in the Squadron history on 22 July when he dropped the 1,000th bomb delivered by 3 Squadron (all within only nine weeks of hectic operations since the Kittyhawks had first been used as fighter-bombers).


A GROUP OF 3 SQUADRON GROUND STAFF MEMBERS WITH THE 1000TH BOMB TO BE DROPPED BY THE SQUADRON ON AXIS TARGETS.
(LEFT TO RIGHT) CPL. W. A. CARREY; CPL. A. M. MCINTYRE; SGT. L. H. HURST; L.A.C. F. A. DORE; W. O. C. J. SHAW.
[PHOTO BY FRANK HURLEY.  AWM 013458]

- Towards the end of July, several further Allied thrusts were cut off by the German armour and heavy losses incurred.  Both sides then ground to an exhausted halt.

- General Auchinleck was later sacked by Churchill (rather unfairly) for not pressing harder.  (Astonishingly, the new commander of the British 8th Army, General Gott, was then killed before taking up his position - when a German fighter strafed his transport plane.  Very fortuitously, Gott's replacement was the dynamic General Bernard Montgomery - “Monty”.)

A nervous lull then ensued at Alamein.  This worried Rommel, as he realised that the Allies were rapidly assembling large stocks of new war materiel while the Germans' and Italians' own supply ships were being repeatedly sunk.  (Especially by British forces based in Malta, since the British had broken the Axis radio codes.)  The lull allowed 3 Squadron personnel to enjoy a very welcome week of leave in Cairo and Alexandria, and two further weeks of 'stand-down' to concentrate on training and maintenance.

At the end of August 1942, Rommel launched ‘The Battle of Alam Halfa’; an armoured 'right hook' towards a central ridge in the rear of the Allied position.  It was a desperate 'last throw of the dice', but if Alam Halfa could be captured, the British position at Alamein would collapse.


The unsuccessful Axis thrusts at Alam Halfa Ridge (El Alamein).

- The German attack successfully broke through the British minefields, but Montgomery had skilfully positioned the Alam Halfa defenders (again aided by codebreaking) and Rommel was stopped within two days.  Rommel's motorized forces had exhausted their fuel and had to withdraw under heavy air attack over another two days.  No.3 Squadron provided numerous fighter escorts for continuous shuttles of British Boston and USAAF B-25 Mitchell bombers attacking the German choke-points through the minefields. (German General Nehring, the commander of the Afrika Korps, was wounded in one of these attacks.)  Also 3SQN Kittyhawks were scrambled to chase off Axis fighter and dive-bomber formations.

The tide had turned and it was now clear that Rommel could not win at Alamein. …The only question was “when” would Montgomery launch his attack?


"Lets Go!"  The boys at Amiriya.  [Imperial War Museum.  Click for a short film made at roughly the same time.]

The 'Second Battle of Alamein' is the name given to the last phase of this titanic conflict.  This ground battle lasted over twelve days from 23 October to 4 November 1942.  (However the battle for air superiority actually began four days earlier, with saturation attacks on the Axis airbases from the 20th of October.)

- Monty had assembled enormous resources and also indulged in subterfuge - he sent trucks disguised as “tanks” to the south while moving tanks disguised as “trucks” to the north.  The real attack was in the north.  It included the Australian 9th Infantry Division under cover of a monstrous artillery barrage on the night of 23/24 October. 

- However this attack lost momentum after several days and Rommel’s forces plugged the gap.

- This apparent disaster did not daunt Monty; he rapidly re-planned his strategy and launched a new attack: Operation Supercharge.  On the coastal plain at the far north of the battlefield, the Australian 9th Division was ordered to create a diversion, launching a maximum-effort (and truly heroic) assault throughout several days from 28 October.  Rommel was forced to defend heavily against the Australian attack by committing his armoured reserves towards the north.  Once the Panzers were concentrated and on the move, they were then assaulted by the Allied air forces.

- Above the 9th Division battle, on 29 October Bobby Gibbes scored what was thought at the time to be 3 Squadron’s 200th aerial victory - a record far exceeding all other Allied squadrons in the desert.  Great celebrations marked this event!  (No.3 Squadron had typically been flying bomber-escort missions during this battle, often also carrying their own bombs to be used on targets of opportunity.)

   
The “200” Celebration. 
Rear (left to right): Ron Matthews, David Ritchie, “Huck” Finlayson, Andy Taylor, Doctor Stone, Garth Clabburn, Alex Richardson, Joe Holder, Rod Mackenzie,
Ken Bee, Reg Stevens, Rex Bayly, Norm Caldwell (dark shirt), Gordon Jones (with cigarette), and Pat Henwood (ground crew).
Sitting at front: Flight Commanders "Danny" Boardman and Keith Kildey (with microphone), CO Bobby Gibbes (with beer) and John “Donk” Bray.
 [AWM
SUK10410]

- Monty then proceeded to launch several massive tank attacks further south, supported by intensive bombing from the Desert Air Force, as the Axis army struggled to re-group. 

- By November 4th, the Axis line had collapsed into retreat.

 

Aftermath

The Battle of Alamein had been a major turning-point of World War Two.  - And one where No.3 Squadron RAAF had been involved from start to finish! 

Churchill said, (with only mild exaggeration…):
“Before Alamein we never had a victory.  After Alamein we never had a defeat…”


Ted Alderson with his Kittyhawk. 
After Ted went missing in combat, this picture
was sent to Ted's family by his good friend John Bray.

 

3 Squadron RAAF Fatalities in the Battle of Alamein:

 

15/07/42.  Flying Officer George DOUGALL (flak)

 

06/08/42.  Sergeant John MANDERSON (training flight accident)

 

18/08/42.  Flying Officer John MACTAGGART (bombing practice accident)

 

15/09/42.  Sergeant Gordon SCRIBNER (aerial combat)

 

20/10/42.  Pilot Officer Ted ALDERSON (aerial combat)

 

22/10/42.  Pilot Officer Garth NEILL Distinguished Flying Medal (flak)

 

Text by James Oglethorpe. 

References: 3 Squadron RAAF Operations Record Book (from Page 559), online in the National Archives of Australia. 
Australian Official History: "Air War against Germany and Italy 1939-43" by Herrington.

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