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Address on the occasion of the opening of new offices for the Australian Consulate-General: Istanbul, Turkey.

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30 APRIL 2006

• Your Excellencies • The Hon Bruce Billson, Minister for Veteran Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence • Senior Officers of the Egyptian and Australian Armed Forces • Veterans

• Distinguished Guests, including our servicemen and women from UNTSO • Ladies and Gentleman

This morning we are in the presence of a remarkable group of Australians. They are veterans of the north African campaigns of 1941 and 1942, men of the 9th Australian Division whose units in battle faced one of Germany's most skilful commanders - General Erwin Rommel - and his elite 'Afrika Korps'. On the outcome of that struggle hung the fate of Egypt, the Suez Canal, the oilfields of the Middle East and Great Britain's lifeline to India and Australia.   At this memorial we should remind ourselves that for Australia World War II really began in these deserts. In January 1941, the 6th Division took Bardia in Libya from the Italians and advanced westwards seizing Tobruk. It was at that point that Hitler sent Rommel to Africa to prop up Mussolini's crumbling armies. By April 1941 Rommel with his splendidly trained German troops, a magnificent tank in the 'Tiger' and a brilliant artillery and anti-tank/anti-air weapon in the '88' had forced the Allied armies back and then commenced one of the campaigns for which the 9th Division and its commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, have gone down in history - the Siege of Tobruk.   For eight months at Tobruk, by dominating No Man's Land and through a well coordinated defence, Australian, British and Indian forces held off Rommel and thus saved Egypt. From the siege emerged one of the most famous epithets ever given to an Australian military force - the 'Rats of Tobruk'.   From Australia the Prime Minister called - "You are … putting up a fight which will live in our history".   If Tobruk lives in our history so do other events which occurred in this desert in 1942. Here were fought two desperate battles; in July, the First, and in October, the Second Battle of El Alamein.  In the July battle both the 9th Division and the men of the RAAF of the Desert Air Force were in the thick of the fighting from the start. Our veteran party will remember locations in this otherwise featureless landscape like Tel el Eisa, Trig 33, Baillieu's Bluff and a dozen others where Australians fought and gave their lives to hold Rommel from Egypt.   One story conveys the essence of the élan of the 9th Division and what it achieved in this First Battle of El Alamein.   On the afternoon of 12 July 1942, German infantry attacked Trig 33 in waves. Defending it were men of the 2/24th and 2/23rd Battalions and the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. Private Edward Buckingham, the official history tells us, maintained fire, though with little cover' having 'first one and then another Bren

gun shot out of his hands'.

  Corporal Victor Knight and his section of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, carried their weapons forward to exposed positions where they blazed away at the enemy. Knight stood 'nonchalantly' in front of his gun positions directing fire on to enemy targets. For his courage that day Knight was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. By 9 pm, the Germans pulled back - leaving, it was estimated, 600 dead. For five more days Australian soldiers resolutely held this vital ground.   Of course, in scale and ultimate importance that first battle of El Alamein was dwarfed by the second, which itself was preceded by the successful Battle of Alam Halfa in which the newly arrived Commander of the 8th Army, General Bernard Montgomery stamped his authority on his men by ensuring his troops did not withdraw. They were to win or die where they stood. Alamein was a complex, hard fought and lengthy battle in which General Montgomery aimed to finally break and destroy Rommel's army. As he awaited the great opening artillery barrage of the battle from over 800 guns on the night of 23 October 1942, 9th Division Commander General Morshead wrote:   A hard fight is expected, and it will no doubt last a long time … The men are full of determination and confidence …these grand fellows have never failed to respond fully.   And a long hard fight it was, lasting twelve days and involving an elaborate deception plan as to the timing and location of the main assault which took Rommel completely by surprise. When it was over, the division had suffered 2,694 casualties of whom 620 were killed in action or died of wounds. The 9th Division's vital role in this great victory cannot be told in a few words but we must try.   After the relative stalemate of the initial attacks, the Australians were handed the unenviable task of advancing to the north towards the coast. They were to draw down upon themselves the brunt of German counter- attacks so allowing the allied tanks to break out through heavy minefields to the south. In this so-called 'crumbling' battle every unit of the division, but especially the infantry and pioneers, were involved to the full, every one of them suffering heavy losses. The 2/13th Battalion, for example, took 286 casualties and the 2/32nd, 201. Here again our veterans with us this morning will recall hard and terrible struggles at places such as the 'Saucer', Barrel Hill, and Trig 29.   The pages of Australia's official history of the Second Battle of Alamein are laced with stories of courage, endurance and determination. Not all of them involve men who were recognised by any particular award, save that of the acknowledgment of their mates. On 31 October 1942, at the 'Saucer', Gunner Albert Schwebel of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, was on a gun where the whole crew was killed or wounded. As the least wounded, Schwebel helped two men to an aid post then returned alone to the gun. While he was getting it ready for the next attack, the gun was hit and knocked out of action. Schwebel, who the official historian described as 'typifying the spirit of the defence', seized a machinegun and fought on.   By 5 November 1942, the Allied divisions had achieved a break out through the minefields and the Africa Korps were in retreat - the battle was over, Egypt and the Suez saved. In Britain Churchill ordered the church bells to be rung throughout the land for the first time since the outbreak of war. Similarly, the bells rang out in Australia when the news reached home. Churchill famously summed up the battle on 10 November 1942 with the words: "Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."   It was however the end of the 9th Division's war in North Africa. In early 1943 the division returned to Australia but fought on with honour and success in New Guinea and Borneo. At the division's farewell parade in the desert it was addressed by the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, General Sir Harold Alexander, and I know that at least one of our veterans here today heard these words which no one in the 9th Division would ever forget:   The Battle of Alamein has made history and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory … I do not believe you have ever fought with greater bravery or distinction than… when you broke the German and Italian armies in the Western Desert.


So I say to the veterans of 9th Division here today - Australia is very proud of what you did here at El Alamein. This re-dedicated, beautiful memorial and this cemetery, where so many of your mates lie buried, will remain part of the Australian military ethos for ever. As a nation we thank you for those years of blood and sacrifice when with your RAAF and RAN comrades in arms, you did so much to bring about the defeat of a tough, well trained and determined enemy.   Let us never forget.