Battle lines in the sand

Dugald Jellie stands in the desert at El Alamein, the last great killing field of Australian soldiers where the war was turned.

'I WILL REMEMBER, JOHNNIE," reads the inscription above Private S.H. Johnson's grave in the hard earth of Egypt. A volunteer infantryman of the Australian 2/43 Battalion, he died attacking Germans at dawn in the Western Desert. It was July 22, 1942. The world was at war. He was 37.

"JUST MEMORIES, MY PETO," says the headstone for Peter Munyard, a sergeant in the Royal Australian Air Force. "LOVING HUSBAND OF DORIS," farewells Private A. Hill. For Lieutenant R.F.Easton, who died on a final day of battle, his family chose only two words: "OUR DADDY."

Under clear skies on a stony plain in north Africa, I've come to remember the dead.

They're in neat rows on bare ground on a gentle rise overlooking the last great killing field of Australian men. Perpendicular sandstone blocks are each engraved with a "Rising Sun" shield and a string of names, ranks, units, ages and fatal dates. So many travelled so far to fall in such sparse country, now entombed forever in soil the colour of cinnamon.

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

I venture here to pay respects and to understand. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, a journey undertaken in the light of a story, as it is for those who gather at Anzac Day services at Gallipoli, Kokoda or Villers-Bretonneux and at cenotaphs and memorials across the country.

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.

Sadness is all about. There's a handwritten letter at the El Alamein museum donated in 2001 by a woman from Western Australia. Her uncle, Arthur Davis, was its author. It's dated January 27, 1942, and sent from "Australian Imperial Force, ABROAD".

"Dear Aud," it begins, "just a few lines to let you know I am still safe and well." He asks after mum and Pat and Aunty Pearl. "I suppose you must think I am seeing a lot of places and doing a lot of travelling, well I have covered a few thousand miles since I left Aussie and will cover a few thousand more before I see Aussie again."

But he never did come home. In this forlorn land, Private Arthur Davis of the 2/48th battalion was killed in action. Lest we forget? After El Alamein, you cannot forget the Australian men of the 9th Division.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines.


Getting there

Alexandria is about 100kilometres east of El Alamein; Cairo is about 240 kilometres south-east. Singapore Airlines has a fare to Cairo for $1579, with an aircraft change in Singapore and a transit in Dubai. Swiss Airlines charges $1510 to Cairo, flying a partner airline to Asia and then Swiss with a change of aircraft in Zurich. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) There are regular buses to El Alamein from Cairo and Alexandria, or you can hire a car at either airport. Australians require a visa for stays up to 30 days.

Touring there

The author's battlefield tour was booked though Peregrine Adventures as part of its three-day Alexandria trip. Alternatively, the north African WWII sites of Alexandria, El Alamein and Tobruk are included in Peregrine's 22-day Egypt and Libya tour, from $4990 a person. See The El Alamein Military Museum is best visited in autumn (September-November) and spring (February-April). Museum entry is 5EGP ($1.25), open daily. Entry to the Commonwealth War Cemetery and the German and Italian war memorials is free.