The Other Pearl Harbor

This work was drawn from a small set of photographs taken by an able seaman on a corvette on the day that the Japanese first bombed Darwin. The SS Neptuna was bombed whilst berthed at the Darwin Jetty. The ship was loaded with mixed cargo and depth charges, it caught alight and eventually blew up. Directly in front of the explosion the tiny Vigilant can be seen doing rescue work. To the right in the background is the floating dock holding the SS Katoomba which escaped the bombing. In the foreground is the SS Zealandia which was dive bombed and which eventually foundered. On that day 9 of the 13 ships in the Harbour were sunk.  AWM

This historical painting is a reinterpretation of the Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942. Japanese aircraft fly overhead, while the focus of the painting is the Royal Australian Navy corvette HMAS Katoomba, in dry dock, fighting off the aerial attacks. In 1972, artist Keith Swain, approached the Australian War Memorial with a sketch for the proposed large-scale painting. Swain had based the painting on the records, photographs and descriptions of Captain Allan Coursins of HMAS Katoomba. He also sourced photographs and records from the US Navy vessel, USS Peary. The Memorial agreed to commission Swain to complete the painting. To assist him, the Memorial provided photographs to Swain, including images of Australian vessels and aerial shots of Darwin Harbour, as well as topographical maps of the area.

Bombing of Darwin

After the fall of Singapore on 15 February, the now invincible Japanese forces moved quickly south and east through the islands of the East Indies. Bali fell on the 18th, and Timor was awaiting invasion at any time. Japanese troops were rapidly drawing close to the Australian mainland, while the same fast carrier group that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor cruised menacingly in the Timor Sea.

Belatedly, it now came home to the Australians that their homeland was under serious threat of attack, if not invasion, with their northern port of Darwin first in the line of fire. Yet the Australian authorities still took no steps to improve the defences of the port, which had become an important base for the supply of troops and war materials to Java and Sumatra, both now awaiting a Japanese attack.

The full strength of the Royal Australian Air Force in the Darwin area consisted of seventeen Hudson light bombers and fourteen Wirraway fighter patrol planes. Both types were antiques in terms of modern air warfare, and certainly no match for Japanese fighters and bombers of the day, especially the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which had a top speed of 332mph, and was armed with two 20mm cannon. Visiting the RAAF Base, having arrived on 15 February, were ten P40 Kittyhawks, one B17 and one B24 bomber of the US Army Air Force, all in transit to Java. Three PBY Catalinas flying boats of the US Navy were in the harbour.

Faced with the threat to Timor, the Allied Command took steps to strengthen the Australian garrison on the island. A convoy consisting of the Burns Philp ship Tulagi, and the US transports Mauna Loa, Meigs and Portmar, between them carrying nearly 1,700 Australian and American troops, left Darwin on the 15th bound for Koepang, on the south-west coast of Timor. The convoy was well defended, being escorted by the US light cruiser Houston, the old four-funnelled destroyer USS Peary, and the Australian sloops Swan and Warrego. However, the transports had no air cover, and when, on the morning of the 16th, two four-engined Japanese seaplanes appeared, the escorting ships kept them at a distance with anti-aircraft fire, but could do nothing to stop them reporting the position and strength of the convoy.

The dive bombers, four squadrons flying in tight formation, arrived some five hours later. Houston ordered the convoy to scatter, and all ships began zig-zagging and opened fire on the bombers with every gun that could be brought to bear. But seemingly oblivious to the curtain of fire put up, the Japanese came relentlessly on, splitting up into formations of nine planes each as they singled out the troop transports for their attack.

The Mauna Loa, the largest ship in the convoy at 11,358 tons displacement, and carrying 500 troops, was the first to come under attack. She was making violent alterations of course to throw the bombers off their aim, but at her maximum speed of 10 knots she could not escape. A near miss close to her No. 2 hold caused her to take on water and killed one crew member and one soldier. The other transports all had some damage, but thanks largely to the fierce barrage put up by the escorts, none received a direct hit.

However, once having been detected by the Japanese, the convoy was ordered to return to Darwin, where it arrived on the 18th. Houston sailed immediately for Java, but the other ships remained in port, the Tulagi still having 560 men of the US Army 148 Field Artillery Regiment on board.

On 19 February 1942, Darwin awoke to another busy day. Including those from the returned invasion convoy, there were now forty-six ships in the port, berthed alongside, or anchored in the harbour, loading or discharging supplies, under repair, refuelling, or in the case of the Australian hospital ship Manunda on standby to receive casualties from the fighting further north. With so much shipping concentrated in the harbour, there were many in Darwin who feared they would soon become a target for Japanese bombers. They were not to be kept in suspense for long.

At 0815 one of the US Navy’s Catalinas, PBY VP22, took off from the harbour, the roar of its powerful Wasp engines drowning the clatter of cargo winches coming from the wharves. Piloted by Lieutenant Tom Moorer, the ‘Cat’ was on a routine patrol keeping watch for any threatening Japanese activity. At 0920 the flying boat was 140 miles north of Darwin, when Moorer sighted an un-identified merchant ship below. He descended to 600 feet to investigate, and was immediately pounced upon by eight Japanese Zeros. Moorer took violent avoiding action, but his plane was raked by cannon fire. The port engine caught fire, and one of the fuel tanks exploded. With his plane now well on fire, Moorer quickly lost height, and made an emergency landing on the sea. He and all his crew were able to evacuate the plane before it blew up. Fortunately for them, the merchant ship they had been about to investigate was the Florence D., a supply ship on charter to the US Navy, which was then bound south for Darwin with a cargo of ammunition. By this time the Zeros had gone away, leaving the ship free to pick up Lieutenant Moorer and his crew of seven.

The Catalina’s attackers were from a Japanese force consisting of the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu which, accompanied by cruisers and destroyers, had sailed from Palau on 15 February and, quite unknown to Darwin, were then 250 miles to the north-west of the port. At 0845 these carriers had launched an attack force of eighty-one ‘Kate’ high level bombers, seventy-one ‘Val’ dive-bombers and thirty-six Zeros. Led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had commanded the raid on Pearl Harbor, their target was the port of Darwin.

Having downed Lieutenant Moorer’s Catalina, the eight Zeros continued south towards the land, passing over Bathurst Island, 50 miles north of Darwin, at about 0930. Father John McGraph, who ran the Catholic mission station on Bathurst, saw the planes passing overhead, correctly identified them as Japanese, and radioed a warning to the RAAF base at Darwin. It must then have been obvious to those on the base that an attack on the port was under way, but for some reason they failed to notify either the town or the ships in the harbour. The Florence D., meanwhile, had been attacked near Bathurst Island by Japanese bombers, which sank her. Fortunately, her cargo did not explode, and only three of her crew of thirty-seven lost their lives. With them died one of PBY VP22’s crew, who had been plucked from the water only a few hours before. The survivors were picked up by the Australian minesweeper Warrnambool and the Bathurst Island Mission boat St. Francis. The Warrnambool was bombed by a Japanese seaplane while she was involved in the rescue, but suffered no damage.

The Florence D.’s attackers also came across the 3261 ton Philippine-flag Don Isidro, also carrying supplies for the US Army, and bound for Darwin. She received a direct hit and was run ashore on the north coast of Bathurst. Eleven of her sixty-seven crew died on the beach while awaiting rescue, which did not come until the 22nd, when the Warrnambool came in to pick them up. Two others died after the minesweeper returned to Darwin on the 23rd.

Earlier that morning, the USAAF Kittyhawks had taken off from Darwin on the final leg of their flight to Java, where they were to help strengthen the defences of the island. Led by Major Floyd Pell, and accompanied by the B17 bomber, which was acting as navigator, at 0930 the Kittyhawks were only a few miles on their way when bad weather over Java forced them to return to Darwin. They were back over the town at 0938, by which time Major Pell had been notified of a possible Japanese air attack. He allowed five of his flight to land, keeping the other five in the air to provide cover. His caution achieved nothing, for at that moment the same Zeros that had shot down Moorer’s Catalina appeared overhead. The five Kittyhawks still in the air met the Zeros head-on but they were outgunned, and four out of the five were shot down. The other Kittyhawks tried to take off again, but, caught at a disadvantage, were shot down before they could gain height.

There were now no Australian fighters in the air, and if there had been, the antiquated Wirraways must have suffered the same fate as Pell’s Kittyhawks. When Mitsuo Fuchida led his bombers in, the skies over Darwin were clear. Flying in tight formation at between 8–10,000ft, and ignoring the anti-aircraft fire, the ‘Kates’ attacked first, their target the closely packed ships in the harbour below. Commander Fuchida reported: ‘The airfield on the outskirts of the town, although fairly large, had no more than two or three small hangars, and in all there were only twenty-odd planes of various types scattered about the field. No planes were in the air. A few attempted to take off as we came over but were quickly shot down, and the rest were destroyed where they stood. Anti-aircraft fire was intense but largely ineffectual, and we quickly accomplished our objectives.’

Stoker 2nd Class Charlie Unmack, serving in the 480 ton minesweeper HMAS Gunbar, was an early eye-witness:

On the morning of Thursday, 19 February 1942, my ship was heading out of port and those of us who were not on duty were sitting on deck. We had not cleared the harbour when we noticed a formation of planes approaching over East Head. It would have been close to 10.00 am when we first saw them. The planes were glinting in the morning sun, and we remarked on the good formation they were keeping.

At first we thought these planes were ours, and then we noticed some silver-looking objects dropping from them. It was not long before we knew what they were as they exploded in smoke and dust on the town and waterfront. More Japanese planes came in from another direction. These were dive bombers, and they attacked the ships in the harbour. We saw a couple of planes crash into the sea. I thought they were ours.

Then it was our turn for some attention. They began strafing us from almost mast height. As the only armament we had against aircraft was a Lewis machine-gun, and this had been disabled by a Japanese bullet hitting the magazine pan, the skipper was firing at them with his .45 revolver. This strafing went on for approximately half an hour before my first taste of action ended. Our casualties were nine wounded out of a crew of thirty-six, and one of these died on the hospital ship Manunda on the following day. The skipper had both knees shattered by Japanese bullets.

We transferred our wounded to the Manunda, and then our motor boat began rescuing survivors in the water.

The scenes in the harbour during the raid were horrific, with ships on fire, oil and debris everywhere, ships sinking and ships run aground …

It was unfortunate that the first ship to be hit was the 5952-ton Burns Philp motor ship Neptuna, which had been requisitioned by the Admiralty to carry military stores. Under the command of Captain W. Michie, she had arrived in Darwin on 12 February after loading a cargo at Sydney and Brisbane, which included 200 depth charges and a very large quantity of anti-aircraft shells. She was a very vulnerable target.

When the Japanese bombers arrived over Darwin, HMAS Swan was berthed alongside the Neptuna replenishing her magazines with anti-aircraft shells from the merchant ship’s hold, having exhausted her supply in defending the Timor-bound convoy. The transfer of this ammunition was being carried out by sailors from the sloop. On the shore side of the Neptuna, dockers were discharging general cargo from the ship onto the wharf. This seemed like a perfectly sensible arrangement, the Swan being short of shells, but Australian dockers are sticklers for ‘union rules’, even in wartime. When they realized that someone else was doing what they rightfully regarded as their work, they threatened to walk off the ship, so bringing the whole cargo operation to a standstill. The dispute had become very heated, with the Petty Officer in charge of the naval party threatening to throw the union delegate into the dock, when someone noticed the aircraft overhead. Seconds later the bombs began to fall, and the argument was settled decisively and finally. The Swan cast off and backed away to give herself room to fire her guns, the ‘wharfies’ ran for the hills, and the Neptuna’s crew went to their emergency stations. They were not a moment too soon. A bomb landed on the wharf close to the Neptuna’s bow, the blast from which damaged her hull, and she began to take on water.

Other bombs followed the first, causing devastation to nearby installations, including an oil storage tank, from which oil gushed into the dock, turning the water around the Neptuna black. Then the ship received two directs hits one after the other, which wrecked much of her superstructure and started a number of fires. Captain Michie, his chief and second officers were killed, leaving Third Officer Brendan Deburca to take command. The ship, which was now listing heavily, was obviously finished, so Deburca wasted no time in organizing the rigging of a temporary gangway to the shore – the original gangway had been destroyed by the first bomb – and evacuated all surviving crew to the wharf.

Once ashore, Deburca called the roll, and established that in addition to Captain Michie and the deck officers, fifty-two men were missing: three engineers, a cadet, the three radio officers, and forty-five Chinese ratings. There was no going back to look for them, for the Neptuna was now blazing furiously, and with hundreds of tons of ammunition still on board, she was liable to blow up at any minute. She did in fact explode in a sheet of flame soon after the survivors were taken off the wrecked wharf by small boats, and put on board the depot ship HMAS Platypus. One of the survivors died on board the Platypus, bringing the number lost with the Neptuna to fifty-six.

Another target singled out by the Japanese bombers was the British Motorist, a 6891-ton motor tanker owned by the British Tanker Company and commanded by Captain Bates. She carried a crew of sixty-five, and was armed with a 4.7-inch and a 12-pounder, both mounted aft, and four .303 Lewis machine-guns. The British Motorist had arrived in Darwin on 11 February carrying 9,500 tons of diesel oil from Colombo for the Admiralty. She completed discharging on the 17th and then moved out to an anchorage in the bay, where she was to carry out engine repairs. Her log book reports that on the morning of the 19th the weather was extremely good, with light variable airs, a calm sea, and very good visibility. At about 0930, the Third Officer, who was on anchor watch on the bridge, saw a V formation of nine aircraft approaching, which he recognized as being Japanese. He immediately sounded the alarm, and the tanker’s crew went to their action stations. Second Officer Pierre Payne wrote a detailed report of what happened next:

On my way to the after gun station I saw a salvo of bombs explode on the jetty. About 5 minutes later, when standing by the 12 pdr., I sighted a second wave of nine planes coming in from a south-easterly direction also in V formation. I saw nine bombs, which were released from a height of about 10,000 feet, fall about 15 feet from the starboard side of the vessel. The explosions were terrific and caused the vessel to roll and pitch violently and it was found that the starboard side and bottom had been blown in and the deck buckled up in an arch amidships, and, on looking over the side the water could be seen pouring out of the ballast tanks as she listed … Owing to the height of the planes, we did not open fire during the attack, as they were out of range of our guns.

Some Japanese planes then carried out dive bombing attacks, the planes coming in from a general south-westerly direction, and we were attacked once or twice but were not hit, the nearest bombs falling about 50 yards away. Meanwhile the other ships in the harbour, the jetty and the town were attacked, resulting in a great deal of damage being done.

Our 12 pdr. H.A. gun was in action throughout the attack, and we concentrated our fire on the planes attacking us. Our firing was effective, definitely disturbing the aim of the attacking planes, which gave us a lull of about 15 minutes.

I told the gun’s crew to stand by for further developments, meanwhile the ship was gradually sinking. After a quarter of an hour, at about 1030, we sighted another wave of planes coming in from the south-east. These planes dropped a salvo of bombs, one of which hit the fore deck, the other eight being dropped into the sea near the starboard bow. These near misses caused the ship to pitch and roll; the direct hit made a terrific explosion, the bridge ladders being blown away and the fore side of the saloon accommodation and bridge being severely damaged. A great deal of debris was thrown up into the air, and I could see fire had broken out amidships.

At about 1045 dive bombing was resumed, during which a direct hit was scored on the port wing of the bridge, destroying all the midship accommodation, and completely destroying the port lifeboat. I was still in the main gun pit aft, firing my gun. The Chief Officer was attempting to put out the fire with the help of other members of the crew, using pyrene fire extinguishers and a small hand pump. The water service lines were completely destroyed, and the ship was increasing her list to port.

The Captain had visited the gun position previous to this latest bombing but had decided to go amidships to direct the machine-gun fire from the bridge guns and when the bomb exploded both he and the Second Wireless Operator were very severely injured.

There was one more bombing attack at about 1100 which was ineffective owing to the accurate fire from our gun which prevented the planes from taking up a good position …

When the Japanese bombers had gone away, and there was no sign of any more coming in, Second Officer Payne left his gun and went forward to ascertain the state of the ship. This was not good. Much of her superstructure had been destroyed, she was on fire in several places, listing heavily to port, and seemed to be on the point of capsizing. There was obviously not much more to be done for her. Captain Bates was lying severely injured, and the Chief Officer could not be found, so Payne took command and ordered the ship to be abandoned.

Payne supervised the launching of three lifeboats, and while this was being done, a number of small naval craft came alongside the tanker, taking off the injured men and transferring them to the hospital ship Manunda. The nearest landing point for the lifeboats was the jetty which juts out into the harbour, but the two ships on each side of the jetty, had been hit and were burning. Oil had spilled from their ruptured tanks into the water, and this too was on fire. Payne decided to take his lifeboats to the nearest beach, which proved to be a wise precaution. As they were passing within 100 yards of the jetty, one of the ships, the Zealandia, blew up, throwing burning debris in all directions.

When the British Motorist’s boats reached the shore, the survivors reported to the company’s agent in the town, but such was the state of confusion reigning in Darwin that he could do nothing for them, except to take a list of their names. No food or shelter was available, so Payne led his men back to the beach, where for the next two days they camped out alongside their boats, living off the emergency provisions they carried. At last, on the 22nd, they were accommodated at an old hospital building near the beach, and were fed by the Army. The last they saw of their ship was her lying capsized, with her port side, most of which had been ripped open by the bomb blasts, about 3 feet above the water. The British Motorist would never sail again.

The Burns Philp ship Tulagi, participant in the ill-fated Timor convoy, was also anchored in the harbour, and still had 560 US Army men on board. When she came under attack from the air, her master, Captain Thompson, slipped his anchor and ran the ship aground in a muddy creek with the object of landing his troops before the Japanese planes came in again. Using lifeboats and rafts, all troops and crew were put ashore, and the ship temporarily abandoned.

Next afternoon, Captain Thompson reboarded the Tulagi, but only five members of his crew, one engineer, three wireless operators and the Purser, volunteered to come with him. With the assistance of a naval working party and some of the Neptuna’s officers, the Tulagi was floated off the mud and re-anchored in the harbour. Nine days later, after repairs had been carried out, she left Darwin for Sydney, crewed by volunteers from the Neptuna, the British Motorist, and a naval party consisting of a Chief Petty Officer and six ratings.

HMAS Swan, having pulled clear from the Neptuna before she blew up, did not escape the attentions of the enemy planes. Despite the extremely accurate anti-aircraft fire she put up, she was attacked on seven separate occasions. Several near misses caused considerable damage to the sloop, three of her crew were killed and nineteen injured.

USS Peary, the largest naval ship berthed in Darwin at the time of the raid, for all her great age, carried a formidable anti-aircraft armament of six 3-inch dual-purpose guns, and these she put to good use when the Japanese planes came over. But at 1045 she became the main target of the ‘Kate’ dive-bombers, and was hit by five bombs in quick succession. The first bomb exploded right aft, over her steering gear, the second, an incendiary, hit the galley deckhouse, the third failed to explode, the fourth dropped on the fore deck, causing her forward magazine to blow up, and the fifth, also an incendiary, landed in the after engine-room, completely wrecking it.

The American destroyer was hard hit, on fire, and sinking, but she was not about to give up without a fight. Her six 3-inch guns hurled their shells skywards as fast as their crews could load and fire, while the two machine-guns mounted aft raked any of her attackers that dared to come within their range. All guns continued to fire until the Japanese planes had gone away, by which time the Peary’s after deck was under water. She finally sank stern first at 1300. Eighty-one of her total complement of 136 died, and thirteen were injured.

Darwin’s first air raid was over by 1040, when the Japanese planes, their mission accomplished, returned to their carriers. In a momentous forty minutes, they had sunk ten Allied ships, including the Florence D. and the Don Isidro, and damaged many others. A total of 187 people were killed in those ships, while another 107 were left injured, some seriously. In addition, twenty-two of the dock workers engaged in discharging the Neptuna lost their lives when they were trapped on the jetty by burning oil.

While the bombs were falling on Darwin’s harbour, the hospital ship HMAHS Manunda found her services to be very much in demand. The 8853-ton ex-Adelaide Steamship Company’s passenger liner, under the command of Captain James Garden, had arrived in Darwin on 14 January, and over the intervening weeks her medical staff, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Beith, had been in constant training to cope with the casualties that the war, which was moving ever nearer, might bring.

When the Japanese bombers arrived over Darwin on the morning of 19 February, the Manunda, although she must have been easily recognized as a hospital ship by her white painted hull and prominent red crosses, soon became a prime target. A near miss sprayed her decks with lethal fragments of shrapnel, causing widespread damage and a number of casualties. A second bomb narrowly missed her bridge and exploded on B and C decks, totally destroying the medical and nursing quarters and starting a number of fires, which could not be controlled as the fire mains were cut.

Eleven members of the Manunda’s crew were killed, including Third Officer Alan Scott Smith, eighteen were seriously wounded, and forty others slightly wounded. Three of her medical staff, including Nursing Sister Margaret De Mestre and Captain B.H. Hocking, a dentist, lost their lives. In spite of the terrible carnage wrought by the Japanese bombs, the Manunda continued to function as a hospital ship, using her boats to pick up hundreds of casualties from the wrecked ships in the harbour and from the water. When she sailed for Fremantle in the early hours of the 20th, she had on board 266 wounded, many of whom were stretcher cases.

While the Japanese dive bombers concentrated on the ships in the harbour, the high-level ‘Vals’ had been systematically bombing the town of Darwin. The devastation they caused was widespread. One of the first buildings to be hit was the Post Office, where the Postmaster, his family and all the staff on duty were killed. The Police Barracks, the Police Station, Government House, the Cable Office, and the local hospital, along with a number of private houses were all either hit or damaged by blast. And no sooner had the people of Darwin recovered from the shock of this raid than they found themselves under attack again. A few minutes before noon, the air was once more filled with the sound of high-flying aircraft. This second wave of Japanese planes consisted of fifty-four twin-engined land-based bombers flying from Kendari, in the island of Sulawasi and from Ambon. They had no fighter escort, not did they need one, for all Darwin’s air defence force had already been crushed. Ignoring the sporadic anti-aircraft fire, they proceeded to pattern-bomb the RAAF airfield, destroying eight aircraft still on the ground and most of the buildings, and causing serious damage to the hospital.

In the two raids on Darwin that day, a total of 243 Japanese planes dropped 628 bombs, nearly three times the number dropped on Pearl Harbor. No exact figure is on record of the number of civilians killed in the town of Darwin during the raid. Army Intelligence sources at the time put the figure at 1,100, while the Mayor of Darwin estimated that 900 had been killed. The Australian Government, on the other hand, anxious to avoid any panic, claimed that casualties amounted to only seventeen killed and thirty-five injured. Their reassurances fell on deaf ears. The population of Darwin was convinced that a Japanese invasion was only hours away and streamed out of the town, heading south in what became known later as ‘The Adelaide River Stakes’. At least half of the civilian population left, the panic spreading to the Australian servicemen based in Darwin, who deserted their posts in great numbers. Three days after the attack, 278 soldiers and airmen were still missing.



The first major Australian SAS operation began on 21 June 1965, when a patrol led by Corporal John Robinson helped guide a company of Gurkhas under the command of a British officer, Captain Ashman, to attack Lumbis, a village about ten kilometres inside Indonesian territory. After three days walking, they reached the target undetected. Indonesian soldiers were active within the village, and Ashman deployed his forces around the settlement. Mortars and machine guns were in place by 6 am the following morning. However, Ashman waited until a gong sounded at 9 am to summon the troops to breakfast before ordering his men to aim their weapons. According to the official history, ‘A group of about ten men gathered and started to eat and only then was the order given. Four to six enemy were killed in the first machine-gun burst and the Gurkha mortars quickly adjusted their fire onto the village. The second salvo went through the roof of the eating hut.’

Though the Indonesians were ‘slow to react’, they eventually answered the fire with machine guns and a mortar. However, they were ineffective, and at 9.50 am Ashman ordered the company to withdraw, and a British 105-mm Howitzer about 10,000 metres to the north-west began to shell the village. According to an observer, ‘One shot landed a little over a metre from the enemy’s radio shack whose roof lifted then settled again.’ The attacking force returned to the border, reaching it just before last light.

On 1 July, the Australian unit planned its own attack on an Indonesian airfield well inside the border at Long Bawan. Garland sent Warrant Officer Alan ‘Blue’ Thompson with his patrol to complete the reconnaissance. Four days later, they had reached a position about three kilometres from the airfield and set up a lay-up position (LUP) when they spotted an Indonesian patrol, travelling in single file, coming up behind them. They quickly took up ambush positions near the track, and when the leading Indonesian was only four metres away they opened fire. According to the operational report, the leader was struck by eight rifle and six Owen gun rounds, the second by ten rifle and six Owen gun bullets. Both died instantly. Their compatriots took cover and returned fire, but by then the Australians were on the move out of the area. The airfield attack never eventuated.

Further ambushes by 1 Squadron followed, and on 3 July Sergeant John Pettit took his patrol south into Indonesian territory, reaching the Salilir River the following day. There they established an overwatch position, and on 5 July they saw boats travelling up and down stream with paddlers stripped to their shorts, but in each case apparently commanded by a figure in an olive-green shirt. Suddenly a downstream craft turned towards the Australians’ position on the bank, where they apparently planned to beach their boat.

When they were ten metres from the shore, Pettit and his patrol opened fire. According to their report, ‘In less than a minute the patrol poured 81 rounds of [rifle] and 26 rounds of Owen gun into the boat. Not one enemy was able to return fire with the submachine guns they were carrying. Most were either knocked overboard or jumped into the river.’ Pettit estimated they had killed seven and seriously wounded two. Later intelligence suggested one had been killed instantly, while three died of wounds.

On 21 July, another patrol spotted a prahu powered by an outboard motor with six men in white T-shirts and blue shorts. As it approached the Australians’ position on the bank, a Bren-gunner, Lance Corporal Chris Jennison, saw ‘rifles, webbing and kitbags’ on the bottom of the boat. He opened fire. Three rounds struck the man in the bow. The force of the bullets threw him into the water; three others were killed before they could move but two others leapt into the water. However, when they reached the shore and began to scramble up the bank, they were gunned down. The patrol withdrew without loss, and by 24 July they had returned to Brunei Town.

When Garland’s men completed their mission after five months in country, they had killed 17 enemy with only one fatal casualty – Paul Denehey. However, by any reasonable measure it was not the most propitious beginning for an outfit that aspired to be the best of the best, operating at the highest levels of military endeavour and from its most lofty principles. It had secretly invaded the territory of another country, one that represented no particular threat to its Australian homeland. It had operated as a puppet to a colonial power whose motives remained the assertion of its own interests in a post-colonial world that no longer accepted its presumptions. Indeed, the first director of Borneo operations revealed the underlying motives nine years later, when he wrote that the mission illustrated ‘the art of hitting an enemy hard by methods which neither escalate the war nor invite United Nations anti-colonialist intervention’.

Nevertheless, the unit had been ‘blooded’, and it had learnt some hard lessons in the process. It had been exposed to the unvarnished reality of Special Forces warfare, where the unexpected was the norm and the need for initiative and versatility was paramount. Tactically, it had confirmed Garland’s belief that insertion by helicopter followed by a hard walk was far more effective than parachuting into action. And strategically there was a growing realisation that Australians operated best when given outright responsibility for an area of operation, then left to devise their own methods to achieve an agreed outcome. And nothing that occurred during the remainder of the unit’s time in Borneo would contradict these conclusions.

After 1 Squadron returned to base, there was a five-month hiatus before 2 Squadron under Major Jim Hughes was considered battle ready. Hughes had won a Military Cross in Korea, fought with the British in the Malayan Emergency in the late 1950s and had been an instructor at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Short and slight, he was nevertheless as tough as leather and a natural leader of men.

By the time they arrived in January 1966, the strategic situation had changed totally. The attempted coup in Jakarta on 30 September 1965 had not only diminished Sukarno’s authority but it had also undermined support for konfrontasi within the military. But while most of the regular army forces had been withdrawn, there remained a number of militia groups trained by their Special Forces, later known as Kopassus.

By now the Allied operation was dominated by Big Army personnel, and Hughes was unsettled by his reception in Brunei. ‘I always remember the indifference to our arrival shown by the staff of HQ Australian Army Force, as if we were an embuggerance factor – you know, “We got rid of 1 Squadron last year, now you buggers are here!” I had a feeling I might be interfering with their golf or something.’

However, at least the Brits were pleased to see them when they reached their Kuching HQ. ‘[When] we got down to B Squadron 22 SAS who we were replacing, they all bent over backwards,’ he says. ‘The difference was chalk and cheese.’ Sergeant Ian Conaghan said the training at nearby Matang with their British colleagues was first rate. ‘We did a tremendous amount of live firing,’ he says, ‘and because it was under operational conditions the normal safety limits were reduced to the absolute bare minimum. We had Iban border scouts attached who taught us tracking and they were very good. And we were introduced to Claymores there.’

The Claymore, an American invention, was a flat, rectangular mine that stood just above the ground on two folding legs. When detonated, it propelled 700 deadly steel balls in an arc 60 degrees wide, two metres high and 50 metres deep. A 22 SAS officer, Captain Angus Graham-Wigan, promoted a technique of linking an array of the mines with an electrical cord to be fired when ambushing the enemy. On the first occasion an Australian troop from 1 Squadron employed the Graham–Wigan technique, the array failed to explode. There is no record of the device being used in this fashion by 2 Squadron. Indeed, according to Jim Hughes, the emphasis of his mission was different from that of his predecessor. ‘Our [aims] were firstly reconnaissance, secondly hearts and minds, thirdly border scouts for the 3rd Division, fourthly air rescue. I was a bit worried about doing that because I found the parachutes sitting on pallets on a dirt floor covered in dust and cobwebs in a shed.’

In the event, they would not be needed.

The first taste of battle came early in 2 Squadron’s deployment, when three of the NCOs – Sergeant John Coleman and Corporals Frank Styles and Jeff Ayles – joined B Squadron in a cross-border operation. Commanded by Major Terry Hardy, they deployed into Kalimantan with 50 British SAS soldiers at last light on 3 February, planning to attack an enemy camp at dawn. Visibility was reduced by a heavy downpour, and at 10.30 pm they stumbled into an enemy position. Coleman was with the leading troop, and they turned away quickly and began to clamber up a steep track towards a clearing. The militia opened fire with a .30-calibre machine gun. The attackers took shelter in a flimsy hut and responded but quickly retreated.

On the way out of the shelter, one patrol member threw a phosphorus grenade, but it struck an upright, rebounded and exploded. Coleman later wrote, ‘We were not in a good tactical position, with our hut burning and a few of the blokes on fire, me included.’ Pinned down, Coleman found himself ‘well alight and hurting’, while the rest of the force had departed. ‘This wasn’t the best news I’d ever received,’ he says. Major Hardy ordered distant artillery to target the camp. As the shells struck, flaming SAS operators raced for the river and jumped in. Coleman and several others joined them and drifted downstream.

When they came ashore, according to the official history, ‘It was a nightmare journey for Coleman. For two hours they crawled on hands and knees along wild pig tracks and then rested before first light. They then came across a long house which could have been a base for local [enemy] scouts and then turned sharply towards the border.’ During the morning they arrived at a Gurkha patrol camp and the first thing Coleman’s medic did was offer him a cigarette. ‘Before this I had never smoked,’ he says, ‘but with the burns and such I sucked the bloody thing inside-out and from that day to this, I smoke.’

It was the last time 2 Squadron members were part of a British force. After this, they carried out their own operations, albeit within their non-offensive limitations. This was ‘exceptionally frustrating’ to Hughes and his men. ‘We had honed our fighting skills to a very sharp edge and were unable to put them into practice,’ he says.91 Nevertheless, they did venture across the border several times early in their deployment. There were no contacts with the enemy, but the terrain itself proved a hazardous opponent. On 3 March, Lieutenant Ken ‘Rock’ Hudson led a four-man reconnaissance patrol into enemy territory and discovered footprints of what appeared to be a militia patrol. They followed the tracks until they came to the flooded Sekayan River. Hudson resisted the urgings of his men and decided against risking a crossing. On their return, Hughes backed his fellow officer. However, on 17 March they returned to the area, and on this occasion Hudson spotted what seemed to be an enemy base across the river. Though it was raining lightly, he decided to make a night crossing for a closer look.

They left their overwatch position at 3 am, with Hudson leading. When they reached the river, Hudson entered first and behind him, with each man holding the belt of the man in front, were privates Bob Moncrieff, Frank Ayling and Bruce Gabriel. The current was moving very fast, and as they waded at chest height there was a sudden fall in the riverbed that broke their hand-holds. All four were swept into the current. Ayling, a strong swimmer, found Gabriel in the darkness, and they floated about 500 metres downstream together before they were able to scramble to the bank. There was no sign of Hudson or Moncrieff.

The two survivors made their way back to their OP, and when their compatriots failed to return they headed for the emergency rendezvous, reaching it at 7.15 am. There they tried unsuccessfully to make radio contact with base before striking out for the border. They reached it at 5.30 that evening, and once again tried to call base, but without success. Finally the next morning they got through, and a helicopter arrived at midday.

Hughes was then faced with the terrible difficulty of mounting a search for his men without alerting the enemy – or indeed the world at large – that they had trespassed into Indonesian territory. This meant they could not use helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft or large ground parties in the search area. So on 23 March, Corporal Jeff Ayles, with Gabriel as his guide, took a patrol into the area. They searched for the next five days but in vain. The army released the names of the two casualties but no details of the incident at the time.

Meanwhile, on 25 May 1966 a party of senior Indonesian officers flew to Kuala Lumpur to start negotiations to end konfrontasi, and three days later orders reached British SAS headquarters in Labuan that all ‘Claret’ operations across the border were to cease immediately. On 21 July, 2 Squadron was relieved by D Squadron of 22 SAS, and five days later they flew out of Kuching for the Australian RAAF base at Butterworth. They were given a short R&R in Penang, and all were returned to Swanbourne by 15 August. By then the peace agreement had been signed between Indonesia and Malaysia.

It was the last time the British would seek to assert their military force in the region. The fading imperial ambition to regain their colonial power was finally put to rest. For Australia, it meant a recalibration of its defence ties, with the new emphasis heavily weighted towards America. And with the intervention in Vietnam turning into a major war on the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, Australia’s Special Forces would be driven very firmly into the American camp. But while Borneo had taught many valuable lessons in jungle warfare, there was still much to learn. And before they were deployed to Vietnam it became routine for the SAS to undergo a final training operation in Papua New Guinea.

There they were free of certain restrictions placed on Australian operations at the Canungra Jungle Training Centre in Queensland. Claymore mines, for example, were only detonated in strictly controlled environments on the mainland, while in Papua New Guinea they could be used in situations that more closely resembled contacts with an enemy force. Major Reg Beesley, the OC of 3 Squadron, says, ‘Some of my blokes had never seen jungle, let alone fired a shot in it, so it allowed me flexibility in regard to live firing.’

The training exercises typically involved SAS patrols of five or six men in opposition to soldiers from Papua New Guinea’s PIR in a variety of locations, not least the border with their new neighbour, Indonesia. It provided equally valuable training for the PIR soldiers and revealed a substantial military presence to any Indonesian observers. It also gave the squadron commanders the chance to gauge the quality of their men since only three of their four troops would be required for the Vietnam engagement. This was yet another factor in the recalibration of Australia’s forces to correspond with their American ally. Jim Hughes says, ‘The four troops would be in competition. First rate people got left behind but collectively they weren’t the best troop.’

Most of the SAS operators relished the training. According to a former regimental NCO, ‘Operators had to become acutely familiar with one another’s skills and idiosyncrasies to the point where they almost knew what each member was thinking. The aim [was] to hone jungle skills, acclimatize to a tropical environment but more so for each patrol member to bond.’ Lieutenant Bill Hindson says, ‘We worked up from small patrol activities to long-distance patrols. It was essential to get the patrol working together under very difficult conditions. I think eventually we came to respect one another.’

They also learnt to take advantage of all available means to get the job done. For example, when faced with a trek over mountainous country where ridges became rock climbs and the jungle between them almost impenetrable, they were not above hiring local bearers to carry their heavy packs. This was not always successful, as even the locals demurred at some of the peaks. Others accepted payment and then departed the scene.

Back in Australia, there was a further period of fine-tuning before the final selection was made. By now, according to Jim Hughes, ‘They were jumping out of their skin. They wanted to go.’ The trainers worked their men hard, determined to prepare them for combat following the old army dictum of ‘train hard, fight easy’. But accidents were inevitable and a Silver Star swimmer, Private Tom Irwin, drowned during a crossing of the Collie River.

The first to deploy would be 3 Squadron and its final training was done in and around Swanbourne under the watchful eye of its new OC, Major John Murphy, who had served with US Special Forces in Vietnam. He quickly replaced a number of Borneo veterans whom he regarded as insufficiently flexible to adapt to the new American-style regime.

After negotiations at High Command, it had been agreed that the unit would form part of the 1st Australian Task Force with 5 and 6 RAR battalions in Phuoc Tuy Province, its designated AO, in combination with the 173 US Airborne Brigade. The Australian plan was to establish a base at Nui Dat, a small, sharply rising hill about five kilometres from Baria, the provincial capital. When Murphy arrived on the afternoon of 16 June he immediately made contact with the Task Force CO, Brigadier David Jackson. Jackson approved the SAS to go into action immediately, and on 30 June five separate patrols set out through the Task Force perimeter and into hostile territory.

Now they were in a real war.

“I have seen the Australians” Part I

British, American and Australian troops lunching in a wood near Corbie the day before the attack at Hamel.

Early in July, now under General John Monash, the Diggers win a model victory with his new tactics. Weeks later the AIF and Canadians lead an Allied attack which inflicts a resounding defeat on Ludendorff’s army. In the ensuing offensives, the advancing AIF carves a corridor of victories. With pace and initiative, the Australians keep piercing strong defences, and finally they break the Hindenburg Line. Controversy from these gruelling days, and the last experiences of the Diggers, complete our odyssey with these big-hearted Australians. The defeated Kaiserreich surrenders, and 11 November 1918 is a historic day for the AIF and the navy.

By the end of May, the Australian Corps of five hardened divisions had a new commander: John Monash, the gifted citizen-soldier. Born in Melbourne a year after his Jewish parents arrived from Prussia, he became the most outstanding German-descent Australian in the AIF. After Gallipoli he trained and led the new 3rd Division, and its performances against the Germans were soon earning the respect of the older divisions. Broadly educated, with a brilliant mind and fresh ideas, Monash was highly effective and insisted on the careful, practical follow-through of plans – which he communicated clearly. Building on his experience and the limited-objective method of attack, he was ready to expand into bigger offensives, where all available weapons and the latest technology would work together for maximum effect.

Attack on Hamel-Vaire 1918, by A. Henry Fullwood


Monash showed an early interest in the new, improved Mark V tank, and if he could get these, with extra artillery and aircraft assistance, he knew he could take Hamel (5 km north of Villers-Bretonneux) and its nearby strongpoints. But with Germans on the Wolfsberg ridge, right behind Hamel, watching the preparations, and a flat battleground for the Diggers to cross, Fritz had such defensive advantages that a Gough-style attack would have been cut to pieces. Monash understood this, and was the last man who would order a rush-and-hope job. He even altered his original, tank-dominant plan to satisfy MacLagan’s 4th and 11th infantry brigades. The 4th had been decimated in Gough’s tank fiasco at Bullecourt, and 15 months later its men still hated tanks. So did most Diggers. But Monash and the tank chiefs showed the men what damage these better, stronger Mark V tanks could do and see what they could withstand; the Diggers trained with them and soon took a liking to them, as the infantry’s concerns and problems were given high priority, and a new confidence was built.

Artillery and aircraft were employed in a variety of ways, and low-flying aircraft made a lot of noise for several days to cover the sound of approaching tanks. And there were Yanks as well as tanks. Adopting their celebrated 4 July as the day of battle, Monash and Rawlinson acquired some US companies to be attached to all ten Australian battalions, and the Diggers became tutors to these enthusiastic Americans. The arrangement was good for everyone, as Ted Rule wrote:

It bucked our lads up wonderfully … the novelty of war had long vanished for our boys [and] before such a fight one now sees only set grim faces, but on this occasion, everyone was smiling … they were determined to let the Yanks see what Aussies were capable of …

Unfortunately, Pershing heard about this breach of his policy, and most of the Americans were belatedly pulled out. “Those with my platoon had to withdraw,” said Rule, “and I never saw such disgust and disappointment in my life. Our boys were just as disappointed”. But with a timely display of backbone (which put the wind up Rawlinson) Monash insisted it was too late to pull out the last four companies of Americans, and they took part in the battle.

Zero hour was 3.10 am, and 300 guns flashed in the pre-dawn fog. Aircraft flew in “swarms” while the infantry and tanks advanced with the creeping barrage, but despite Monash’s coordination, his exemplary all-arms attack could not be all like clockwork. At the formidable Pear Trench, when the tanks got lost, the Diggers reverted instantly to their old ways. Henry Dalziel, a Gallipoli veteran, led the way in furiously attacking and silencing machine-gun nests. Uncut wire also faced other Diggers, who didn’t wait for their tanks, and got through a gap under fire. Cpl Thomas Axford’s blood was up, and he attacked the machine-gunners with bombs and bayonets, killing ten and capturing others, who were happy to be prisoners. Both Axford and Dalziel won the VC. Meanwhile the Mark Vs were not idle. To the Diggers’ delight they were smashing machine-gun posts. At the Wolfsberg objective, the tanks rumbled forward, crushing and blasting the last machine-gun obstacles. The Diggers charged in, capturing dugouts containing scores of men and a headquarters. Impressively, the 90-minute plan was carried out in 93 minutes. Over 1000 Australians and 176 Americans were casualties, but the enemy lost 2000 dead and wounded, 1600 prisoners and weapons galore.

As a key player within a cooperative all-arms attack, the Mark V tank was a roaring success. Rawlinson and many a BEF general realised that these greatly-improved tanks, working together with the other fighting elements, could make a huge difference. Out of one well-defended German trench, which survived the artillery, 26 machine-guns were excavated – after a single tank had crushed that trench. While saving heavy infantry losses, tanks could support more momentum on the battlefield, as well as having their own ferocious impact. This, and above all Monash’s skilful coordination of his “all-arms offensive” (like conducting some lethal orchestra) provided a sound model that inspired confidence, and many a BEF commander hastened to study it in anticipation of coming offensives.

The Supreme War Council, including Clemenceau, Lloyd George and a host of Allied leaders – which happened to be meeting at this time – were delighted by this auspicious victory. Congratulations began flowing to Monash and the AIF, but the old “Tiger” delivered his personally. On the following Sunday, he came and stood before a gathering of the Diggers, and said:

When the Australians came to France [we] did not know … you would astonish the whole continent … I shall go back tomorrow and say to my countrymen ‘I have seen the Australians … I know that these men will fight alongside of us again until the cause for which we are all fighting is safe for us and for our children.’

Der Schwarze Tag – “the black day” of the German army

If Hamel, for the Australians and for Rawlinson, augured well for the Allies’ big Amiens battle in August, a truly stunning affirmation of the Allies’ prospects was delivered soon afterwards. It was Foch’s counter-offensive of 18 July, which transformed the Second Battle of the Marne. This tremendous blow, by 5 August, had sent the Germans reeling back 40 km, and out of the entire Blücher salient they’d earlier seized.

In combination, the Second Marne and Amiens victories would pave the way to a vast Allied counter-offensive, which would inflict almost continuous defeats on the Kaiserreich’s armies. Anglophone history says little – too little – about the Second Marne, but Ludendorff heard too much, and he blamed the “surprise” of 18 July on France’s “small, low, fast tanks” attacking with their mounted machine-guns through the wheat fields. There was a lot more to it than that. On 18 July alone, the main attack had eighteen divisions (four times as many men as all the Diggers in France) led by those 300 light tanks; and on its flank nine more divisions and 145 tanks joined in. At Hamel, Monash had used about 2.5 per cent of Foch’s resources, but his two brigades had 60 heavy British tanks. Thus, Monash’s ratio of tanks to men had been stronger, and it suggested to British commanders what might be done in future. Demand soon overtook production, maintenance and transport facilities; and there were other problems, such as attrition among the limited supply of tank men. Before all that, however, the improved Mark V tanks would have their greatest success on 8 August, east of Amiens, where almost every Mark V in France participated.

“August 8th was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.” In this famous line, at least, Ludendorff’s memory was accurate, for the German army was never as impressive again. But the disaster happened on his watch, and in his 1919 memoirs, he was quick to shift the blame – onto the troops, of course. They should have coped, he wrote, because they were in good shape. He had to say that because, on the eve of battle, he’d given them this ill-informed and arrogant assurance:

… we occupy everywhere positions which have been very strongly fortified … Henceforth, we can await every hostile attack with the greater confidence [and] we should wish for nothing better than to see the enemy launch an offensive.

Whether this reflected complacency or ignorance – “very strongly fortified” was not the description his troops would have used for their shallow and inadequate defences – the Allies had a much better idea of how things might go. Rawlinson’s main concern was Haig who, having got over his big fright of March and April, reverted to his old ways and called for another distant objective, 43 km away. Rawlinson hadn’t forgotten the bad old Somme days, when Haig had rejected his offensive plan, imposed distant goals, dissipated the artillery’s effectiveness and caused the disaster of 1 July 1916. This time, however, Haig’s intervention was contained, and did not waste the formidable power and accuracy of the BEF’s 1918 gunnery. Rawlinson was careful to humour the chief by inventing a job for his obsolete cavalry, which in Haig’s dreams might still ride to glory. At Amiens in August, the initial aim was to drive the Germans well away from the city and its railway hub; but Rawlinson, Monash and others wanted to do more, and deliver “a stunning blow to German morale.” This they achieved, so well that the battle is still described as “the BEF’s greatest victory of the war”.

It was a victory spearheaded by the Australians and their Empire comrades, a point Ludendorff himself made, in a distorted way. The battle began “in a dense fog [when] the English, mainly with Australian and Canadian divisions [attacked] with strong squadrons of tanks, but otherwise in no great superiority” – and yet his men “allowed themselves to be completely overwhelmed”. Allowed themselves? As if they could have chosen to repel this terrific assault; they were outnumbered as well as outgunned. But Ludendorff didn’t want to know what it was like to be one of his weary soldiers, who had somehow just survived a deadly shelling, and now found himself in the path of the war’s heaviest tank attack; or what it was like to be in a trench as a 29-ton Mark V tank bore down on him, and his armour-piercing ammunition (if his platoon had any) simply bounces off the monster.

The attack drove east along the Somme, with the British III Corps fighting north of the river. The Australian Corps stretched from the south bank, on a starting line that ran past Hamel right down to the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. On their right, below the railway were those solid Dominion cousins, the Canadians, and alongside them was a larger French force. In the Australian line, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions attacked side by side, and later, to maintain momentum, they were leap-frogged by the 4th and 5th Divisions. The 1st Division, brought back to rejoin the rest, was in reserve. “All the Australians were gathered together,” Jimmy Downing recalled, “and we had the advantage of being with men on whom [we] knew we could rely”.

Among the 2nd Division was Joe Maxwell and his irrepressible mate Doc, hard fighters who somehow always survived. When the sun broke through, one German pilot seemed bent on ending their lucky streak. His aircraft machine-gunned them and then dropped a cluster of bombs with deadly effect, but Joe and Doc slowly emerged, covered in dust, but still intact. Next day, the fight on the ground got just as close and personal. Joe’s company lost thirteen of its sixteen officers, but, after winning a bar to his MC (as he later heard) Maxwell was still in one piece, as well as Doherty.

When the battle ended, the achievement south of the river had been astonishing. The Australians, Canadians and French had shattered the German army across their 25-km front. The Dominion troops had broken stiff defensive efforts and powered so far forward that they were now more than 20 km east of Villers-Bretonneux. Just as they’d done at Hamel, but this time with their entire Corps, the Diggers had been all over Fritz, capturing him and his guns. Monash had told them they were about to “inflict blows upon the enemy which will make him stagger” and they had done even more. Within hours, jubilant Diggers were calling out “G’day Fritz” and “You were lucky” to flocks of prisoners heading to the rear. By early afternoon, the Australians had captured over 7000 Germans and 173 of their guns. They were also ready to work with the Canadians. Elliott’s 15th Brigade gave exemplary support in one hot action – during which Pompey got his ample backside grazed by a bullet. With his trousers down, Elliott had himself patched up while continuing to shout out his directives. The sight of their burly brigadier “with his tailboard down” amused his soldiers mightily. Later the superb Canadian general, Currie, told Monash, “there are no troops who have given us as loyal and effective support as the Australians”.

Over four days, the Allies took 499 guns and 30,000 prisoners, while more than 40,000 enemy troops were wounded or killed. Seven German divisions were “completely broken” and Ludendorff saw his hopes of victory (and the Kaiserreich’s dreams of conquest) disappear. “Our only course,” he wrote, “was to hold on”. Fearing a collapse of morale on both home and battle fronts, he dared not retreat all the way to the Hindenburg Line. As his reinforcements marched up to the front, some of the mauled survivors were calling out to them, “You’re just prolonging the war”. This, in the German army, shocked Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and they knew the game was up: the 8 August battle had “put the decline of [our] fighting power beyond all doubt” and a comeback was impossible.

“The war must be ended,” Ludendorff concluded, but this end had to be delayed. It was – and hard fighting continued, on a large scale. Despite lowered morale and indiscipline along the supply lines, most German troops were in essence loyal to a Fatherland which might soon suffer an Allied invasion. This built-in patriotism, in effect, maintained (for some three months) the support for that Prussian regime that had deceived and exploited them. Fritz, therefore, remained a tough opponent, and the Allies still assumed that final victory would not arrive until mid-1919. As for the Prussian warlords, they needed the German soldier to defend stubbornly, above all at the Hindenburg Line – to secure tolerable peace terms, whenever the ultimate Schwarze Tag arrived.

“I have seen the Australians” Part II

Mont St Quentin and Péronne From Near Maisonette, 1918 (Art.IWM ART 2289) image: A view of Péronne and Mont St Quentin with artillery fire on the peak of the hill. The town lies at the foot of the hills, and the river below this. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Corridor of victories …

After 8 August 1918, with some excellent leadership, the Diggers headed eastward, on both sides of the river. The Allied victory at Amiens proved to be the starter’s gun for an extraordinary Australian offensive up the Somme valley – roughly 35 km to the Péronne area where, around the river’s bend, enemy defences exploited the complex terrain. Once through all that, the Australians kept pressing on over a similar stretch, to their final attack. In these eight weeks, up to early October – with skilful fighting and a speed that allowed the enemy no recovery time – the Australians carved a great corridor of victories through the German defences.

Simultaneously, right along the western front, the Allies combined to force the enemy ever backwards. To the north, the replenished British armies hammered the thunderstruck Ludendorff. That he would suffer beatings at British hands was a thing he couldn’t comprehend. Yet the BEF’s “Hundred Days” (up to November) of continuously defeating the Kaiserreich’s army was, as historians have shown, the British Army’s most sustained success in modern times. In the late summer of 1918, the BEF made short work of Ludendorff’s intended “Winter Line”, the Canadians smashed the powerful “Drocourt-Quéant” defences, and the Germans were driven further back into a sector of the Hindenburg Line. South of the Somme the French were also hammering forward and doing the same in Champagne, where Foch’s attacking general, Mangin, was relentless. South of Verdun, 550,000 Americans, 110,000 poilus and 267 French tanks were all too much for the defenders of the St-Mihiel salient, who cleared out for the loss of 450 guns. Pershing’s army then took on a much tougher prospect in the steep and wooded terrain of the Meuse-Argonne (north of Verdun). Here he had to slug it out with a harder set of defenders, who fought bitterly for every metre of the region, with well-placed machine-guns.

In the Australian zone, by late August, the Diggers had reached the great bend in the river at Péronne, where the north-flowing Somme swings westward. Here were marshes, streams and higher-ground defences, above all at Mont St Quentin, overlooking Péronne. By taking “the Mont” and Péronne itself, the Australians could force Fritz out of this awkward zone and right back to the Hindenburg Line. This they did, and with minimal forces. With rapid bridge-building and brilliant manoeuvres, the Diggers surprised a renowned Guards division at the Mont. In furious fights, parts of the summit were taken, defended, lost, and then finally secured by the 6th Brigade’s second assault. Though “tired” and numerically small, the Australians had nonetheless “captured one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front and taken over 500 prisoners”.

And by 3 September, the whole Péronne area had been taken. Elliott’s 15th Brigade, like others, had played its part to the full. At one stage, the impatient Pompey tried to cross the Somme canal via a broken bridge. He slipped, fell in, and for a large man he did well to get out onto the bank. While his embattled trousers were drying, the unabashed brigadier stalked around in his shirt-tails giving out fresh orders. His signallers gleefully spread the news: “Pompey’s fallen in the Somme.” Among official signals, Haig sent congratulations for the capture of Mont St Quentin and Péronne. And from Fourth Army, Rawlinson, who believed Monash lacked sufficient resources but had still allowed him to try, expressed his delight at this magnificent feat – which drove Fritz out of the position he’d expected to maintain, and into another demoralising retreat.

… and troubles

One great task remained for the Australians who, like Monash himself, were now close to exhaustion; to break through the Hindenburg Line. Beyond its sheer difficulty, it was a gamble. Would the Diggers’ physical and mental reserves be enough to overcome the gruelling ordeal and the heavy losses this task would take? AIF battalions were now a shadow of their earlier strength, for the Diggers had been paying a heavy price for their swift advance: over 35,000 casualties in the final three months, with reinforcement seriously inadequate. Battalions were down to a quarter of their proper manpower. On paper, a battalion had four companies, each about 210 men; but by mid-September, most AIF battalions had been reduced to glorified companies, except that they did have more firepower, and more men carried Lewis guns.

Firepower was welcome, but these remorseless losses were starting to haunt the Australians. For the men still in action, a “casualty” was a well-known comrade until yesterday, or last week; he was a staunch mate who fought with you at Broodseinde, or Bullecourt, or back in the madness of Mouquet Farm; but he was gone, and you just had to fight on without him. And with bodies close to exhaustion, the Diggers’ minds were now troubled by a new kind of demon. It was an idea, a possibility, that had never before confronted them so starkly. And it was deeply unsettling: the way things were looking, by the time these never-ending attacks were over, a man’s own battalion would be completely wiped out.

As an Australian volunteer on the western front, your battalion was something special. Families and loved ones were far away; but your own unit was here, full of spirited young men who’d made the same choice as you. You were there among them in March and April’s desperate fights, and you had counted on each other. You belonged in this battalion, you were proud of it. So despite relentless attrition, the terrors of gas and heavy shelling, army food, sleep-deprivation, miserable dark winters, a world without women, and the boredom of trenches between actions … you wouldn’t swap your battalion for anything. You all shared the same conditions, ran the same risks and enjoyed the irreverent humour. This band of men was going to taste the victory, and carry home the battalion banners – and somehow, you would always be part of that. Or so you’d assumed. But now, when you looked around in September, you saw your battalion cruelly whittled down, you received no word of relief, and you began to hear the murmurs: they’re going to keep us at it until there’s none of us left. And that, along with your own fate, meant your battalion would be rubbed out. Extinct – and soon forgotten.

In this situation, a form of mutiny – refusing to attack as ordered – was no longer unthinkable. With battalions down by 75 per cent, and unless the constant pressure ceased, it could only be a matter of time before the camel’s back broke. The last straw, as it turned out, came down on a proud battalion which had fought ever since the Landing. Of its 973 Gallipoli soldiers few remained, and by mid-1918 the 1st Battalion had lost its entire strength three times (over 3000 casualties). Now, three quarters of its fourth life cycle was gone. At the Hindenburg Outpost Line in mid-September, having attacked for five days, this rump battalion was about to head off for its scheduled rest – until these Diggers heard they would have to do another attack, at dawn. On British turf. Once again Diggers would be doing III Corps’ job, and bailing out that teflon dud, General Butler.

To an exhausted battalion remnant, this order to cover for an adjacent corps that couldn’t keep up – and the order’s timing – were too much. Given their condition, as one corporal told a court martial, he was “dumbfounded” by the idea; and, he added, when he and other NCOs tried to report the men’s disturbing reactions, the officer leading his company dismissed their approach with the comment “I can’t tell the colonel this.” Instead, he told the NCOs to go and get their men ready for the extra dawn attack.

The reaction of over half the battalion, 119 men, was to execrate this order and refuse to do the attack. One author considered it “telling” that 50 per cent of these mutineers had only joined the battalion after May 1917 (Second Bullecourt). He added, “The majority [of the battalion] were short on experience and not sufficiently imbued with … esprit de corps.” Yet twelve of the 119 men enlisted in 1914-15; the other 107 must have included Pozières/Mouquet Farm/Flers/Bullecourt survivors; even among the other 60, some were probably at Broodseinde, and the repulse of Ludendorff offensive. Because the battalion, from mid-1917 to Monash’s fighting advance, earned nine more battle honours. Short on experience? Surely it was too much experience, battle experience. This, together with the cumulative effect of all the losses, and sheer exhaustion, had overloaded these men. As one wrote at the time, “all the boys are fed up … they won’t give us any rest”. Yet it was only an ill-timed, unfair and (as they saw it) shabby arrangement that pushed them over the edge. In all the non-stop fighting, other battalions were also pushed close to their physical and mental limit. It happened to be the 1st Battalion which got that last straw.

Their action was mutiny – a capital charge even in the AIF. Maybe that’s why these men were charged with desertion. But desertion, with its whiff of cowardice, was still a very severe penalty. These volunteers naïvely assumed a civilian right to strike over unfair treatment, but they didn’t run away; and given the intensity of the fighting, real deserters would have scarpered long ago. And as long as fit men in Australia could refuse all combat with impunity, was it just to criminalise men who’d been putting their lives on the line? If such mitigating factors were taken seriously, this is poorly reflected in the outcome. The NCOs, who drew attention to the men’s grievances, got the roughest justice: five to ten years jail, while the men got three. After the armistice, they were all pardoned, but as “pardoned deserters” they went home in disgrace. It was a miserable conclusion to arduous, brave, volunteer service, which effectively junked their previous fighting record. Their ostracism continued, bitterly, in their postwar lives. These men had fought Fritz to the point of exhaustion, and at a fateful moment, they refused to be pushed any further.

Before this incident, the 1st Battalion had no reason to believe their battle duty was over – but they did expect, and badly needed, the standard “six days rest and a bath” which, Monash said, restored the Digger’s “elasticity” and had him “quite ready to fight again”. But by mid-September, that formula didn’t address a new threat to morale in every battalion: the Digger’s growing suspicion that, at the current rate, his whole unit would be destroyed. The AIF soldier accepted his risk of death or a bad wound, but he was deeply angered by the prospect of his battalion being driven to oblivion. Joe Maxwell VC and his mates, in this situation, certainly felt this way: “We began to reflect that it was merely a matter of time [before] we would all be killed off.”

This unease was also expressed within a very different “mutiny”, whose Diggers gained widespread sympathy in other units. To raise and equalise the strength of battalions, eight brigades were told to disband one of their battalions to enlarge the others. This directly challenged that key AIF loyalty in which a Digger’s battalion was almost his clan. The earlier dissolving of three battalions had been very unpopular. Now, to have another eight broken up was too much. Only the 60th Battalion obeyed, after a strong appeal by Elliott, its brigadier. The other seven battalions, after their officers had left a final parade, simply carried on with normal duties, with their NCO’s and other elected leaders keeping up excellent discipline. Food supplies kept mysteriously reaching them from other units, and they declared themselves willing to fight in the hardest parts of the next battle, as long as they kept their identity. Monash agreed – he had disliked the disbandment order himself – and a confrontation was avoided. But as those who were earmarked pointed out, the army had always told them that the esprit de corps and honour of their battalion were paramount. After the final battles of the Hindenburg Line’s locality, the measures took place quietly. By then the 37th Battalion, which had strongly opposed its disbandment, was down to 90 men – 10 per cent of its proper strength. The affair wasn’t called a mutiny; it was anything but desertion; and there were no more repercussions.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

All the while, the Australian advance kept going. Once the Diggers got close to the Hindenburg Line, they could see some of its multiple trenches and endless belts of barbed wire. Along with older works and related lines, the main defence was over 5 km wide, with integrated canals, obstacles and a vast network of tunnels and passages. What an attacking infantryman could see, he knew, would be only part of this evil labyrinth. Among the veterans who eventually saw it were Maxwell and Doherty, who had recently come through the victorious action on the slopes of Mont St Quentin. What they observed, on reaching the vicinity of the Hindenburg Line, was enough to dampen even Doc’s jauntiness. No wonder: miles of murderous fire could meet the Diggers in this place; in fact, it was “the most formidable defensive position in the history of warfare”.

Even with the shrewdest, most comprehensive plan, assaulting the Hindenburg Line meant a big, ferocious battle for the Australians (as it did for allies well to the north and south). With his manpower limited, Monash gave some supporting US units a lot to accomplish; though courageous to a fault, they took heavy losses and struggled to make headway in conditions of smoke and fog. Across the whole battle area, setbacks and well-placed, toughly-defended positions were expected, and beaten, at a cost. The Diggers were thinly stretched but yet again did more than seemed possible for their resources. In a crucial move, the unsung British 46th North Midlanders Division (with brilliant artillery support) made a brave and famous crossing of the St Quentin Canal, a murderous complexity in the enemy system. On 29 September this achievement gave the Diggers a fighting chance to break right into the Hindenburg Line. In its fiendish maze of trenches and traps they gradually outfought, outflanked and overcame the enemy. By 1 October 1918 the AIF 3rd and 5th Divisions had captured one of the most vital sectors of the great Hindenburg Line.

By now, did the German troops not see that all hope was gone? The bulk of them probably did. With their ranks horribly thinned, with morale deteriorating (into serious trouble along the supply lines) the German army had been sliding to its doom since July. Its soldiers sensed this, and the figures show it: in the final four months, there were another 800,000 German casualties. Most revealing are the prisoners: in these months the Allies captured (or simply escorted to the rear, in hundreds) 385,000 German soldiers: over half of all their western front POWs of the previous 47 months. Yet with all that, and the punishment they kept taking on the battlefront, the resilience of the fighting German was extraordinary.

The tragic truth was that “the discipline of the Field Army largely held” until early October, when news rapidly spread that Berlin had contacted President Wilson with a “peace note” and asked for a prompt armistice. Once this became known among German fighting divisions, what was the point of dying? Countless men, old comrades, were already slain: as one young Prussian-Silesian woman, Ruth Höfner, cried out, “For what have German mothers sacrificed their sons?” No-one, least of all any Prussian warlord, was going to tell her that. At the front, the soldiers’ loyal tenacity finally started cracking, like a great dam, and the large-scale surrenders multiplied. Nonetheless, in many areas, bitter fighting did continue right up to the point of armistice.

All this news came too late for the Diggers and their grim adversaries at the Hindenburg Line. When that great obstacle was beaten, the Germans still had a tough fallback, the Beaurevoir Line. On 3 October, the AIF’s 2nd Division returned to the fray to attack it. Maxwell and Doherty would need another slice of their overstretched luck, a big one. Their supporting barrage, with badly-worn barrels, was “atrocious” and some shells dropped short, with lethal results, among the Australians. Then there was Fritz and his infernal wire. As Joe recalled:

I had never seen such wire entanglements as confronted us. Belt upon belt of it barred our way [and] our artillery made no impression on it … From the enemy came a hail of machine-gun fire … The whole of our advance was held up …

What happened next is understated in Maxwell’s memoir (but not in his army record). His company commander was hit and Joe took over. With everyone pinned down, facing the wire and machine-guns, he spotted a close German gunner and crawled forward. “Bonzer”, his young Lewis gunner, got in first by shooting the German. In a flash Joe exploited the confusion: moving fast and leaping up onto thickly-wound reams of wire, this lightweight fighter bounded across them like a kelpie, to land in the machine-gun nest with his revolver. He shot three gunners, subdued four, and called his company up; the next company was also pinned down, so he tore along the trench and silenced that crew as well. There was an ugly struggle with yet more Germans who had feigned surrender, but he found a way to outwit them. For his “personal bravery, excellent judgment and quick decision,” Joe was awarded the VC. He was just as happy for his game and quick-witted Lewis gunner, Bonzer, who had fought furiously, destroyed another gun crew, survived, and received the DCM.

This was the last time Maxwell, Doherty and their mates went into action. Just as well, they reckoned: of their 103-strong company in that morning attack, only seventeen were standing. Night fell, and with a battered old guitar and their company’s rum ration, they tried to put this day of wrath behind them. And the rum flowed “till nobody cared whether Hindenburg himself led an assault”. Two days later it was the task of the next brigade to capture nearby Montbrehain village, the very last objective in the AIF’s great run of victories. Joe and Doc later walked up to the liberated Montbrehain, which had been in German hands since 1914:

Worn and haggard by their long serfdom, the French residents of this little hamlet presented a pitiable sight when we pushed into its main street. The old people wept for joy at our entry … On 6 October we left the front line for ever.

Having broken the Hindenburg and Beaurevoir Lines, the surviving Australians were finally sent off to rest. Their swathe of victories now stretched back 65-70 km down the Somme valley, through Mont St Quentin and Péronne to Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux. The Diggers returned to the front early in November, but before they could fire another shot, the war was over. The enemy had just signed a ceasefire agreement – the armistice of 11 November.


Ottoman defences

Positions of forces at dusk on October 31, 1917, during the Battle of Beersheba at the time of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade.

British forces are shown in red, Turkish forces are shown in blue. The position reached by the regiments of the 4th Light Horse Brigade after the attack is shown in pale red. Note: there is no evidence that the 4th Light Horse Regiment crossed the Wadi Saba during their attack, nor that the 60th Division attacked south of the Wadi Saba. The Australian Mounted Division headquarters is shown where the Anzac Mounted Division headquarters moved to, after the capture of Tel el Saba. Neither the Gullett map nor Bou’s map locates the headquarters of Anzac Mounted Division, Australian Mounted Division and Desert Mounted Corps at Kashim Zanna despite numerous sources placing them there. [Preston 1921 pp. 25–6, Powles 1922 pp. 136–7, Hill 1978 p. 126]

The final preparations for the attack on Beersheba began in the middle of October 1917. The last branch lines of the railways running east were laid as quickly and as late as possible, while supply dumps and hospitals were also delayed until the last possible moment. On 22 October, Allenby issued his final orders. It had been thought that a week would suffice for moving the divisions involved, but this was extended to ten days. Troops would only move at night, and an average speed of 1mph had to be allowed for, given the difficulties of navigating in the dark across ground that was broken with wadis and nullahs, and offered little in the way of definite landmarks. Some brigade columns ended up using a system of setting up lamps at intervals, between which the troops would march. The two cavalry divisions aimed deep into the desert south of Beersheba – the Australian Mounted Division to Khalasa and the A&NZ Mounted Division to Bir Asluj. Both divisions, like the infantry that moved through positions closer to the front lines south-west of Beersheba, moved in stages as brigades, so as not to over-tax the water supplies at any one place. In preparation for the offensive, nine officers and 117 other ranks were left behind by each infantry battalion, to form a cadre to either provide reinforcements, or for the battalion to be re-formed around if casualties were catastrophic.

Engineers worked hard to develop these water sources as rapidly as possible, and supplemented some of them by connecting them to the pipeline system. The springs at Shellal were connected to the pipeline, so that water came to it all the way from the Sweet Water Canal outside Cairo, while the pipe-head and springs had equipment installed that could fill some 2,000 ‘fanatis’ (large, metal jerrycan-like containers which could be carried, one on each side, by camels) with 25,000 gallons per hour. Supply dumps were also rapidly thrown up. It was intended to place dumps containing everything the army would need for the first week of the offensive as close to the front lines as possible, and along its entire length. XXI Corps, holding the line opposite Gaza, would need these supplies just as desperately as the more isolated Desert Mounted and XX Corps, despite being nearer the railway system. To give the two eastern corps as much support as possible, XXI Corps’ transport was stripped away and sent to their aid, leaving the corps essentially immobile from 8 October. Three motor transport companies totalling some 130–140 vehicles were also brought up from Cairo, despite their limited use in the rough desert terrain, while 134 of the more useful Holt’s tractors were also used. These heavy caterpillar-tracked vehicles were more adept at crossing rough ground, although they did it slowly and noisily, and were useful for hauling ammunition in bulk.

Camel companies would form the backbone of the mobile supply system. Some 32,000 were deployed with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF]. For now, XX Corps had 20,000 of them – 8,000 attached directly to the divisions to carry their own stores when they moved, and 12,000 under the direction of the Corps HQ for forming supply convoys. XXI Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps each had 6,000 camels for their own use, to carry food, water and ammunition. Eventually, of the four infantry divisions of XX Corps (10th, 53rd, 60th and 74th), three had three echelons of transport, and the fourth had two, while the Desert Mounted Corps also had three. Each echelon carried a day’s worth of supplies for each division, and the three echelons would, in theory, create a continuous chain of convoys moving between the advancing divisions and their supply dumps.

This activity could not and did not go unnoticed, and in the early hours of 27 October the Ottomans pushed out a large reconnaissance west of Beersheba. This operation was actually carried out in considerable force – the 125th (OT) Regiment of the 16th (OT) Division towards the ridge of El Buggar, and elements of the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division and 27th (OT) Infantry Division slightly to the east. It struck against an extended piquet-line of British cavalry provided by the 8th Mounted Brigade, screening the movements of the 53rd (Welsh) Division, and strung out in a line along El Buggar ridge and then across several hills known as Points 720, 630 and 510. The right of the line was held by the 1st County of London (Middlesex) Yeomanry, the left by the 3rd County of London Yeomanry, with the City of London Yeomanry in reserve behind. The line was 19km (12 miles) long, and held by isolated posts of one or two troops (thirty to sixty men) at key points. The advancing Ottoman formations broke over these scattered posts at 4.15 a.m. on 27 October, supported in places with artillery fire. On Point 720 Major Alexander Lafone, commanding ‘B’ Squadron, 1st County of London Yeomanry, had only two of his troops with him, but still managed to hold off several charges by the Ottomans throughout the morning. At 10.10 a.m. he managed to send a final message to his headquarters that: ‘My casualties are heavy. Twelve stretcher-bearers required. I shall hold on to the last as I cannot get my wounded away.’ In fact, he managed to move most of his wounded – which was most of his men – down into trenches behind the crest of the hill, covering their retreat with the remaining three unwounded men. Soon after 11 a.m. another wave of Ottomans attacked and, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Lafone ordered his remaining men to fall back, apparently stepping out into the open to meet the charge on his own. The post, and Lafone, fell. He would receive a posthumous Victoria Cross for his ‘conspicuous bravery, leadership and self-sacrifice’.

Attempts by the brigade reserves to relieve the various posts failed, although they did, with artillery support from the Hants Battery RHA, stem the Ottoman advance. Late in the day the 3rd ALH Brigade and 158th Brigade arrived to counter-attack and the line of outposts was reoccupied. Both sides would claim inflated enemy numbers and casualties, but the 8th Mounted Brigade suffered ten officers and sixty-nine other ranks killed or wounded (against ‘200’ claimed by the Ottomans); of these, ‘B’ Squadron, 1st County of London Yeomanry suffered two officers and eight other ranks killed, ten wounded and eight missing. The Ottomans recorded one officer and nine men killed, and around forty wounded, but had failed in their aim of clarifying the numbers and intent of the forces moving across their front. While an attack on Beersheba still remained the likely answer, the true question – whether this was to be the main British thrust or merely the diversion – was as unanswered as before.

On the same day, a massive British bombardment of the Gaza defences began.

To prepare for the coming attack, the III (OT) Corps commander, Colonel Ismat Bey, did all that he could to defend his post. Beersheba was a new town, although on very ancient foundations. It was the site of the Wells of Abraham, the very reason why it was being fought over and the source of its name. Sometimes rendered as Bir Es Saba, Bir Saba, or some variation on those spellings, the name meant ‘The Seven Wells’, and the source of the water was the Wadi Saba, which runs down from the north-east to a point 3.2km (2 miles) east of the town, where it joins several smaller wadis near the mound of Tel Saba. It then runs west, past the southern edge of Beersheba. In recent centuries it had been a small village existing on trade with the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Negev desert to the south, but at the turn of the twentieth century the Ottomans decided to develop it into an administrative centre for the Negev region. A railway, a governor’s residence (now the Negev Art Museum), a mosque and other building had been built as a nucleus for the new town, and parks were laid out around them. This central area was widely spaced out, and the houses and commercial premises that grew around them were also well dispersed. By August 1916, when Swedish explorer Sven Hadin visited the town as Djemal Pasha’s guest, it had become something of a model town, albeit still on the inhospitable side:

Until the war broke out, Bir es-Seba – or ‘The Seven Wells’ – was a miserable hole; now it has suddenly become an important base … When the worst heat was over, the colonel and the government surveyor, Dr Schmucher, took me on a tour of the town, which is springing forth out of the desert at an American pace. We visited various buildings on the base, the electric stations, the factories and workshops, the printing office, the bazaar, the hotel, the parks and gardens – which of course have not yet grown much – and the ice factory – the most beneficial establishment in this heat. Then we visited the agricultural school, the motor-driven pumping plants, the immense reservoirs, at which water is distributed to camels, horses, asses, and mules. Finally we visited the hospital, in which 400 sick were lying at the time, cared for by Austrian physicians and nurses. Bir es-Seba’s climate, while not exactly unhealthy, is very unpleasant. The region is very windy, the desert sandy, the soil broken up because of the heavy traffic, and no vegetation offers protection from the suffocating dust clouds that roll from all sides into the burning hot streets.

Ismat Bey threw out forward defences around 3–4km from the centre of the town in an arc running from the south to the west, covering the most likely lines of approach for the British. He added further defences at Tel Saba, which dominated the approaches from the otherwise flat east and south-east. All of these defences had been seen and plotted by British reconnaissance, although a smaller crescent of trenches, closer in and to the south of the town just below the Wadi Saba, had not. To man these positions, Ismat Bey had ten battalions of infantry (seven from the 27th (OT) Infantry Division and three from the 16th (OT) Infantry Division), two cavalry regiments from the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division, a reserve of one infantry battalion and one cavalry regiment, and an assortment of support troops – engineers, searchlights, signallers and a mobile bakery. This gave a total fighting strength (i.e. riflemen and cavalry sabres, as opposed to supporting clerks, cooks, herdsmen, etc.) of somewhere less than 5,000 men. For heavy weapons, he had just five batteries of four field guns each, although between his various regiments and battalions he could muster some fifty-six machine guns. To provide enough troops to man his defences, he was forced to deploy his cavalry as infantry rather than maintaining them as a mobile reserve, a decision that would be heavily criticised by Kress von Kressenstein later. For his own part, the German was still convinced that there was not enough water to sustain a serious British attack on Beersheba.

The British had found the water, though, and by dawn on 30 October all was ready. At Bir Asluj (where the water supply was shorter than expected), 38km (24 miles) south of Beersheba was the A&NZ Mounted Division and the headquarters of the Desert Mounted Corps. At Khalasa, 48km (30 miles) south-east of Beersheba, was the Australian Mounted Division, while the Yeomanry Mounted Division was detached to Shellal, covering the gap between XX and XXI Corps. The 7th Mounted Brigade, still independent and under Allenby’s direct control, was at Bir El Esani. At dusk on 30 October, having drunk their fill, the two Mounted Divisions would strike out on long flanking marches to the east of Beersheba; the A&NZ Mounted Division would be east and north-east of the town for the attack, and the Australian Mounted Division to the south-east. The 7th Mounted Brigade would remain to the south, ready to support the main infantry assault.

This assault would be launched by the 60th and 74th Divisions. The former spent the night at Abu Ghalyun, and the latter at Khan Khasif, which still placed them some 16 or 19km (10 or 12 miles) from their starting points for the following day. The 60th Division would attack Beersheba from the south, and the 74th from the south-east. The 53rd Division was slightly further west, applying pressure to the Gaza–Beersheba road, while the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade (with two battalions of the 158th Brigade, 53rd Division) covered the gap between them and the 74th Division. The 10th Division was held back in reserve. Between the cavalry and infantry divisions, the British fighting strength was over 40,000 men.

Charles Hennessey of the 2/15th London Regiment (also known as the 2nd Civil Service Rifles) was briefed by his commanding officer at the assembly point:

From this we learned exactly how the various British Divisions were disposed along the front from Gaza on the extreme left, to where we were on the extreme right. We were also shown a number of aerial photos of the Turkish trenches, and were told to make a particular study of the ones it was ‘C’ Company’s business to deal with.

Following this cosy chat we were each issued with 2 Mills Bombs, an extra bandolier of ammunition, and a couple of aeroplane flares. It now appeared that the Battalion was on the extreme right of the British line; that the only troops on our right were a few squadrons of London Yeomanry; and, as we had already been told, that our Company was to form the first wave of the attack on Beersheba.

One night only was spent at the Assembly Point, and the following evening ‘C’ Company moved off to take up a position in a ‘wadi’, which we learned was to be our jumping off point. Our soda water bottles had been filled with tea and rum the day before, and dire were the penalties threatened if we drank any of it if permission hadn’t been given. The march to our ‘wadi’ began after dark and word was passed that there was to be no smoking, and no talking or other noise, in case the Turks should hear us. What a hope! Of course Johnny Turk could hear us coming. The loud clanking of our equipment could have been heard for miles.

At dusk on 30 October the desert seemed to come alive as tens of thousands of men, horses and vehicles rose out of their daytime cover and began the advance on Beersheba. Captain Ashton of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was with the 53rd Division:

The noise of tractors bringing up guns was overpowering, as if the whole British Army was on the move, and sounded like the roar of London traffic from a little way off. The whole plain behind us hummed with mechanical noises, and I marvelled that the enemy in their trenches could not hear it. They afterwards told us they were taken by surprise, but it is indeed hard to believe.

The night was bitterly cold, but marching kept the men warm. When the units began to reach their allotted positions in the early hours the real suffering began. Hennessey:

Around midnight we filed into a shallow wadi and were told to make ourselves comfortable till dawn. It soon became very cold, and we missed our greatcoats which had been left behind in our packs. We were also short of our tunics as we’d been told we should be carrying out the attack in our shirt sleeves. There certainly seemed a lot of people who were determined to make the war as difficult for us as possible. Taking it all round it was a dreary time waiting in the dark and cold for the arrival of dawn.

For Gunner J.W. Gough of the Royal Field Artillery, waiting was also the hardest part:

3 a.m.: We have now been in our position for an hour or so, it is very cold hands quite numb. Laying tel. wires etc. here. Bty is opening fire on enemy at 7 am. 6.15 a.m.: Bty ready for action & lined on target – only awaiting orders from Hdqrs. All the men are tired & hungry after travelling and digging etc. Hostile planes are about, we’re not spotted – yet. I am detailed to repeat orders from B.C. to B.L. by megaphone. I’d gladly accept a cup of tea or anything warm before we ‘raise the curtain’ – with I trust, a splendid ‘debut’ for Johnnie Turk.

The curtain was to be raised by the 60th Division. In front of the Ottoman line to the south of Beersheba stood a hill, known at the time as Point 1069, although it was later renamed Point 1070. Point 1069 gave good views over the Ottomans lines, the British positions, and the surrounding landscape. It had to be taken before the general attack could go forward, and responsibility for this fell on General Shea, commanding 60th Division. He was given free rein as to judging when the preliminary bombardment had cut the wire, and so when to send his men in. This was not an easy call to make. The guns designated for the barrage on Point 1069 opened fire at 5.55 a.m. Over a hundred guns [1] concentrated on a 4,500yd front, and after an hour so much dust had been raised by the explosions that nobody could tell what the state of the wire was. The barrage was suspended for half an hour or more to let the dust settle, but even then the view was unclear. In the end Brigadier General De Costa, commanding 181st Brigade, who would be making the assault, requested and received permission from Shea to resume the bombardment while he moved his force forward behind its cover. An intensification of the barrage was planned for 8.20 a.m., to last ten minutes, by which time his brigade were only 460m (500yds) from their objectives on the crest of the point. Wire-cutting parties went forward under the cover of the barrage, which was landing in some places just 27m (30yds) ahead of them, and made gaps or widened existing holes. At 8.30 a.m. the 2/22nd London Regiment stormed the point. The following day, Colonel A.D. ‘Bosky’ Borton, commanding the 2/22nd, wrote home to his father, with slight variation on the official reports:

The eyes of many were on us, and we ‘did them proud’ … We worked our way up to about 500 yds. of the enemy and lay ‘doggo’ while our Artillery tried to cut gaps in the wire. This however they could not do as well as each shell raised such an awful dust that observation was impossible and we had to lie up for two hours under a very heavy fire in the open. It was darned trying, but the men were too wonderful. Our casualties during this time was pretty high – about 15%. The Brigadier then got a message out to me to know whether we could go without the gaps being cut?

It was the one thing that I had been hoping for, as I felt that no was wire was going to stop us. I was very lucky, as owing to my having had to shove all my 4 companies into the line, I was able to hand over my Battalion HQ to my Adjutant and go with the men. I’d got a flag with the Queen’s badge on it, in my pocket, and … I tied it to my walking stick and away we went. I’ve never felt so damned proud in my life. The Flag was a surprise to the men and tickled them to death! We got in practically without loss, we cut the wire 25 yards behind our own barrage. This of course meant a few hits from our own guns, but not a soul in the trenches dared show his head, and the moment the guns lifted we were into them with bomb and bayonet and scuppered the whole garrison.

As Borton led his men on, the 2/24th Londons swung around the flank and cut the Point off from the Ottoman forces to the north. The 2/23rd Londons then came up to support the 2/22nd and extend their line, while the 2/21st remained behind in reserve. Once the Londoners burst through the wire it was all over in a matter of minutes, with ninety prisoners and Point 1069 being taken.

The way was now clear for the 60th and 74th Divisions to advance on the main Ottoman line. The 74th had already marched as close to the Ottoman lines as possible, suffering from artillery and long-range machine-gun fire as they did so. Their path lay across a series of low rises, and as the columns crossed the crest of each they stood out stark against the skyline as easy targets. This fire pushed the right-hand unit, 231st Brigade, further right, and the left-hand unit, 230th Brigade, had to extend their own line to cover the growing gap between them. Despite these problems, by 10.40 a.m. the 231st Brigade had advanced to within 460m (500yds) of the Ottoman lines, while 230th Brigade was held at around 820m (900yds) out. Meanwhile, 60th Division paused, and had breakfast.

With guns having been hauled up onto the point to support the attack, the barrage was restarted. Again, it fell to Shea to decide when the wire was suitably cut for the two divisions to advance, and at 11.40 a.m. he consulted General Girdwood, the commander of 74th Division. Girdwood’s view of the Ottoman wire was also obscured by dust, but he assured Shea that his men would find a way regardless. Shea passed this up the chain of command to Chetwode, who authorised the attack to start at 12.15 p.m. William Hendry of the 2/14th London Regiment (London Scottish) recalled:

Then an order came to make a meal, in which we soon consumed our bottle of rum, as it was a cold night. We then said good-bye to the desert. Our machine gunners took up their covering positions, then our guns started to bark, pouring shells on a hill on our left which had to be taken before we could advance. Suddenly a rocket burst in the air, which was the signal that the hill had been captured, and over the top of the hill we went, with the din of our machine gun bullets and shells whizzing over head. We dropped down like lightning into the wadi below and up again we went hard for the Turk’s trenches. The barbed wire was well cut by our shells and all we found was a few killed and wounded. According to a doctor we captured the men had flown along the trenches to be taken prisoners by the trousered regiment, as they did not want to be captured by the skirted devils as called us, they were given to understand we took no prisoners. Well we advanced to a position as arranged and soon got to work with picks and shovels digging in, as bullets were still coming at us from the direction of Beersheba.

[1] Consisting of seventy-six 18-pounders, twenty 4.5in howitzers, four 3.7in howitzers, eight 60-pounders, eight 6in howitzers, and some 4.5in howitzers designated for counter-battery fire as and when the Ottoman artillery revealed their positions.


The town of Beersheba in Palestine, 1917. Captured by Australian light horse on 31 October 1917 during the First World War.

By 1 p.m., the 60th Division (less the 2/22nd Londons, digging in on Point 1069) had taken all of their objectives, about a mile and a half beyond the Ottoman trenches. The 74th Division had been delayed by having to send forward wire-cutting parties, but were able to declare their own objectives achieved only moments later. Acting Corporal John Collins of the 25th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers took a leading role in the attack, and was one of the first to enter the Ottoman trenches and engage the enemy hand to hand. During the 74th Division’s long march under fire he had repeatedly risked himself to rescue the wounded and bring them back under cover, and after the final assault he led a Lewis gun section out beyond the objective, giving covering fire for his unit as it consolidated its position and reorganised their scattered men. For his ‘conspicuous bravery, resource and leadership’ throughout the day, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Over all, resistance had been lighter than expected. Although well sited, the Ottoman lines were thinly held, and once the British infantry had closed to bayonet range the 67th and 81st (OT) Infantry Regiments had been unable to resist the weight of numbers thrown against them. As the final assault started, as many Ottoman units as possible were withdrawn in good order back towards the town, and for the moment no British pursuit was mounted. After their night march and morning’s action, the troops badly needed to rest, quite apart from the need to re-form themselves after the advance. On top of this, it had been decided that the Desert Mounted Corps should be the ones to actually take the town, as they would be in greater need of the water. In fact, only the 230th Brigade of the 74th Division would see any further action, at dusk as they advanced north to cut the Beersheba to Tel el Fara road. At 9.40 p.m. the divisional commanders received news that the town had fallen into British hands at 7.40 p.m.

While the infantry had been coming on from the south-west, the cavalry had attacked from the east. Theirs had been a long ride to get into position, and Lieutenant Briscoe Moore of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles found that:

The early morning hours of darkness are the most trying, for then vitality is at its lowest and fatigued bodies ache all over. Then comes the first lightening of the eastern sky, and the new day dawns with a cheering influence, which is increased as the next halt gives the opportunity for a hurried ‘boil-up’ of tea; after which things seem not so bad after all to the dust-smothered and unshaven warriors.

The A&NZ Mounted Division had advanced to the north-east of Beersheba. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade had turned towards the eastern side of the town, with the 1st ALH Brigade slightly behind them in reserve. Meanwhile, the 2nd ALH Brigade carried on north and pushed back the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division, capturing the Ottoman post on Tel el Sakaty at noon, and from there cut the Hebron road by 1 p.m. This road would later also be cut much further north, about 32km (20 miles) north-east of Beersheba, by a small but heavily armed party of about seventy cameliers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Newcombe of the Royal Engineers. Newcombe had already established a reputation for daring independent action with the Sharifian forces in Arabia, and on the night before the attack he had led his force out of Bir Asluj as far north as they could reach. Armed with ten heavy machine guns and a number of Lewis guns, his men established themselves across the Hebron road late on 31 October and proceeded to create as much noise and destruction as possible, attacking passing convoys and cutting the telegraph lines. He had hoped to attract local tribesmen to rise up and aid him, but was disappointed in this. Even still, his force held out until 2 November, created much confusion (giving the Ottomans the impression that the British intended to advance on Hebron) and drew off small but significant Ottoman forces to deal with him. Eventually the force was overwhelmed after taking 50 per cent casualties. Newcombe was taken to Constantinople as a prisoner, although he would rapidly escape with the aid of a French lady whom he later married, and lived free in the city for the best part of a year. This amazing character deserves to be better known.

The A&NZ Division then began to advance in towards Beersheba at shortly before 9 a.m., and the NZMR Brigade and the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade (attached from the Australian Mounted Division) were told off to attack the dominating height of Tel el Saba. Around 300m (1,000ft) high at the time, the tel sat at the convergence of two wadis, and these would provide the key to taking the position (as well as a source for a small amount of water for the horses). They provided the only decent cover in the area and led directly to the tel, but even so, it would prove a tough nut to crack. A battalion of the 48th (OT) Infantry Regiment was well dug in, with machine-gun and artillery support, and excellent fields of fire. The Auckland Regiment NZMR was first into action, supported by the Somerset Battery RHA. Their 11th Squadron rode along the wadi bed to about a mile from the tel before dismounting and beginning to advance on foot, coming under heavy machine-gun fire from the tel, and from a smaller hill slightly to the east of it. The other two squadrons – the 3rd and 4th – managed to close to about 800m (875yds) from the tel before being forced to dismount in the wadi. The Canterbury Regiment NZMR came up on their right flank, while the Somerset Battery opened fire from around 3.2km (2 miles) away, at which range their fire was too inaccurate to be very effective. The 3rd ALH Brigade advanced on their left, and at 10 a.m. the 1st ALH Brigade was also committed to the attack. An hour later the Inverness Battery RHA added their fire to the barrage, and under the cover of this the Somerset Battery advanced, halving their own range and improving their accuracy. This battery was being directed by the commander of the Auckland Regiment, and the regimental history records that, after this move:

No time was lost in correcting the range of the guns, a signaller with flags passing on the messages given to him orally by the Auckland colonel. It was only a matter of minutes before several changes in the range were flagged back, and the shells were bursting right over the machine-gun emplacements of the enemy. ‘That’s the stuff to give ’em,’ ejaculated Lieutenant-Colonel McCarroll as he saw the goodly sight.

Immediately this remark was sent back as a message by Lieutenant Hatrick, who doubtless had his tongue in his cheek as he did so. After the fight the battery commander, an Imperial* officer, inquired who sent this message. ‘I could not find it in my book of signals,’ he said, ‘but I would like to say that we understood it perfectly, don’t you know.’

As the barrage gained effectiveness, the attack moved closer in short dashes under galling machine-gun fire. New Zealand and Australian troopers converged on the tel from the north, east and south, and at 2.40 p.m. the smaller hill was captured, along with sixty Ottoman soldiers and two machine guns that were turned onto the tel. With this additional covering fire, the Aucklands rose for a final dash. Briscoe Moore recorded:

The line then commenced to move forward, first one part advancing covered by the fire of the others, then another section. The ground, being more or less broken, afforded fairly good cover, but the Turkish artillery made good shooting and put over many good bursts of shrapnel which whipped the ground amongst the advancing New Zealanders into myriad spurts of dust. The engagement thus developed until the attacking line was perhaps two or three hundred yards from the Turks, when heavy fire was exchanged from both sides. Then the New Zealanders charged with fixed bayonets, pushing the attack home with great determination as they mounted the rising ground towards the enemy. The sight of the cold steel coming upon them was evidently too much for the morale of the Turks, for their fire died down as our panting men approached their trenches, and those that did not bolt soon surrendered. Thus was another victory added to the record of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade.

The Ottoman forces had already begun to withdraw towards the town as the final assault swept over the tel at 3 p.m., but even so seventy prisoners and two machine guns were captured. The way now lay clear for the advance into Beersheba itself.

However, time was beginning to become an issue. The remains of the Ottoman forces were consolidating in the town, and were in a position to easily blown the wells should either wing of the British attack resume its advance. Meanwhile, dusk was approaching, only two hours away. The next move had to be not only decisive, but also swift, and Chauvel turned to his last uncommitted cavalry formation, the Australian Mounted Division under Major General Henry Hodgson. A brief consultation followed. The 5th Mounted Brigade was probably best suited to make a mounted charge into the town; they were equipped with swords and trained for fighting from the saddle. However, they were several miles away, and with time of the essence it was decided to use Brigadier General William Grant’s 4th ALH Brigade instead. Although unsaddled and dispersed, they were close at hand and well rested having seen no action yet during the day. Although no water had been found for the horses, some feed had been issued to them. At 3.45 p.m. Grant ordered his men saddle up and form up, and called his senior officers together for a briefing. They would have to cross several miles of open ground, swept by artillery and machine-gun fire, and then tackle a crescent-shaped system of trenches just south of the Wadi Saba. This system consisted of several lines of trenches, but thankfully had no barbed wire protecting them.

At 4.30 p.m. his forces were ready. The 4th ALH Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Murray Bourchier) were on the right, with the 12th ALH Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron) on the left. Each was drawn up in three lines, each of a single squadron, with their headquarters, signallers and ambulances behind. Within each line, each trooper was spaced at about 4 or 5m (4 or 5yds) from his neighbours, so that a single burst of machine-gun fire or shell would not cause too many casualties. The gaps between the squadrons was 300m (330yds), giving plenty of time for the riders coming up behind to swerve around any fallen men or horses in front of them. Behind the two leading regiments, the 11th ALH Regiment was held in reserve. The 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades were also ordered to come up with all haste to support the attack, while the Notts Battery RHA and ‘A’ Battery HAC provided covering fire.

As the advance started, two German aircraft swept out of the sky to bomb and strafe the advancing ranks, but with little effect. Instead, the advancing squadrons, beginning at the walk, sped up into a trot. Artillery, long-range machine-gun and rifle fire was now falling among them, but the advance remained steady and sedate, making sure that the formations remained together for maximum impact. Closer to the enemy, they broke into a canter, and finally a gallop for the last few hundred metres. The fire of all calibres was heavy and intensive now, but the Australians had two advantages: the dust thrown up by their horses’ hooves, and the speed of their advance. As panic and urgency gripped the Ottoman defenders, many forgot to adjust the sights of their weapons. These had been set high initially for the long-range fire, but as the troopers got closer many forgot to lower their sights, sending their bullets and shells high over the Australians’ heads. According to one study, most of the weapons recovered after the charge still had their sights set at 800m (875yds). However, enough accurate fire was being laid down, and the horsemen faced additional dangers from steep-sided wadis, rifle-pits and trenches, all of which could easily disable a horse. Sergeant Charles Doherty charged with the 12th ALH:

As the long line with the 12th on the left swung into position, the rattle from enemy musketry gradually increased in volume … After progressing about three quarters of a mile our pace became terrific – we were galloping towards a strongly held, crescent shaped redoubt of greater length than our own line. In face of this intense fire, which now included frequent salvos from field artillery, the now maddened horses, straining their hearts to bursting point, had to cross cavernous wadies whose precipitous banks seemed to defy our progress. The crescent redoubt – like a long, sinuous, smoking serpent – was taking a fearful toll of men and horses, but the line remained unwavering and resolute. As we neared the trenches that were belching forth death, horse and rider steeled themselves for the plunge over excavated pitfalls and through that tearing rain of lead.

Trooper J. ‘Chook’ Fowler, in one of the following lines, captured the confusion of the charge:

The level country near the trenches was deep in dust. This was one of the worst features of the Palestine Front, for six months each year without rain. The horses in front stirred up the dust and we could see only a few yards, our eyes almost filled with dust, and filling the mouth.

The artillery fire had been heavy for a while. Many shells passed over our heads, and then the machine-gun and rifle fire became fierce as we came in closer to the trenches some of the Turks must have incorrectly ranged the sights on their rifles, as many bullets went overhead … The machine-gun fire was now very heavy. I felt something hit my haversack and trousers and later, on inspection, I found a hole through my haversack and two holes in my trousers. One bullet left a black mark along my thigh. Some horses and riders were now falling near me. All my five senses were working overtime, and a ‘sixth sense’ came into action; call it the ‘sense of survival’ or common sense. This said, ‘If you want to survive, keep moving, keep moving,’ etc. So I urged my horse along, and it wasn’t hard to do so as he was as anxious as I was to get past those trenches … No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did. Suddenly through the dust, I saw the trenches, very wide with sand bags in front; I doubt if my horse could have jumped them with the load he was carrying, and after galloping two miles. The trench was full of Turks with rifle and fixed bayonets, and hand grenades. I heard many grenades crash and ping-g-g-g-g over the noise of rifle and machine-gun fire. About 20 yards to my left, I could just see as a blur through the dust some horses and men of the 12th Regiment passing through a narrow opening in the trenches. I turned my horse and raced along that trench. I had a bird’s eye view of the Turks below me throwing hand grenades etc. but in a flash we were through with nothing between us and Beersheba, and the sound of machine guns and grenades behind.

The 4th ALH met the thicker sections of trenches and became embroiled in clearing them, using their bayonets as swords or dismounting to clear the trenches hand-to-hand. It was hard, grim work but many of the Ottoman defenders were stunned by the suddenness and brutality of the attack. The 12th ALH met with less resistance and fewer trenches; parts of their leading squadron dismounted to clear those they encountered while the two following squadrons sped on into the town. At 4 p.m. Ismat Bey had ordered a general withdrawal of the forces in Beersheba, and the effect of the Australians, even if now in small, scattered groups, erupting through the streets was immense. Ismat Bey barely escaped, while most of his staff and the papers in his headquarters were captured. The Australians rounded up over a thousand prisoners, and captured nine field guns and three machine guns. The 11th ALH, coming up behind, carried on through the town and pushed the last Ottomans out of the northern parts. Ismat Bey was only able to stop the retreat and begin re-forming his men some 8 or 9.5km (5 or 6 miles) north of Beersheba, although it took days to properly re-establish his corps.

Beersheba had fallen. A few demolition charges had been set off by the Ottomans, but the wells were taken largely intact, but unfortunately proved not to as prolific as thought. Barely enough was found to water the mounted divisions, and over the next two days the cavalry and infantry carried out small, limited attacks north and east of the town to secure further sources. The infantry had to remain reliant on water convoys from the rear. In the town, the work to clear up after the battle began. Patrick Hamilton helped to collect and treat the wounded:

In the operating tent our medical officers worked steadily and almost in silence. Continuous skilled surgery hour after hour. Anaesthetics, pain killing injections, swabs, sutures, tubes in gaping wounds, antiseptic dressings, expert bandaging. The medical orderlies did a fine job assisting.

Stretcher bearers were standing by for the change-over. Two on either side lift the stretcher clear of the stands, and replace with the next patient all within two minutes. The pace never slackened!

Here, out in the field at night, surgical work of the first order was performed. This was the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance at work! About 2 a.m., after six hours of dedicated work by all hands, the last of our 45 wounded was put through. All patients by now were bedded down under canvas and made as comfortable as possible. Most slept through sheer exhaustion or under drugs. We arranged shifts and lay down on the hard ground fully clothed for a few hours’ rest.

In total, over 1,500 prisoners had been taken. During its charge on the town, the 4th ALH Brigade had suffered surprisingly light casualties – two officers and twenty-nine men killed, and four officers and twenty-eight men wounded. The 60th Division had suffered three officers and sixty-seven men killed, and thirteen officers and 358 men wounded. On the Ottoman side, the III (OT) Corps had been almost destroyed, although they had no reason to feel ashamed. While accusations and recriminations flew between the corps and Kress von Kressenstein, with the fact that the corps had a high proportion of Arab troops being often cited as a reason for its ‘poor’ performance, they had in fact behaved admirably. The Ottoman lines had held against great odds and heavy attacks through most of the day, longer than the British had thought they would. It was only the late, desperate charge of the 4th ALH Brigade that had finally shattered their lines.

With Beersheba taken, attention now turned to the western end of the line, and the great fortress town of Gaza.

Lone Pine

There were to be feints that were intended to draw Ottoman attention away from the main assault on the peaks at dawn the next day. The first of these was in the south at Helles, once more the focus of the 88th Brigade of the unfortunate 29th Division, committed to battle at Fir Tree Spur, across the patch of ground known as ‘The Vineyard’. As was customary at Helles, the attack was in broad daylight in the late afternoon of 6 August, the assault at 5pm following a 2½ hour bombardment. Like others before it, it was a failure; trenches were taken and lost to the seasoned Ottoman troops. Inexplicably, the battle was rejoined with another bombardment the following day, the 42nd Division taking the brunt. It too was to achieve nothing. The diversion would drag on until 13 August; the Ottomans were aware of both the feint and the likely British intent, and, unconcerned, committed two divisions from Helles to the battlegrounds of Anzac.

Closer to the point of conflict was another diversion at Lone Pine, the distinctive single-pine ridge across from 400 Plateau, along Second Ridge. The intention here was an all-out assault to distract the Ottomans, while the British were similarly engaged in the south. Yet, at Lone Pine, trench warfare had been developed to a high science. The Ottomans had created a formidable fortification, their trenches reinforced and roofed with timber baulks to prevent losses by shell and grenade. Like the battles at the Vineyard, Lone Pine has become a microcosm of the whole Gallipoli campaign at Anzac; hard-fought, but ultimately futile. So, on 6 August, at 5.30pm the attack was launched by the Australian 1st Division, following an artillery bombardment in ‘lifts’, the line of exploding shells moving progressively inland. Attacking over open ground, they found their route blocked by barbed wire, the roofed trenches with loopholes almost impossible to assault from the front. Not to be outdone, the Australians found their way into the underground maze from the rear, along communication trenches; the resulting hand-to-hand fighting below ground bitter and bloody, its aftermath, a charnel house.

Our casualties in this fighting amounted to 2,000 men, but the Turks themselves acknowledge losses totalling 6,930 in their 16th Division, and of some 5,000 were sustained in a small sector of the Lone Pine trenches. God forbid that I should ever see again such a sight as that which met my eyes when I went up there: Turks and Australians piled four and five deep on one another.

Lieutenant General W. Birdwood, ANZAC

Like the diversion at Helles, this battle was to rage for three days, and though capturing the Ottoman trenches, it failed in its prime purpose. Rather than diverting the attention of the Ottomans at Anzac away from the main assault, it was to attract reinforcement of two regiments from the 9th Division in Helles, and this at a cost of 2,200 Australian casualties, and goodness knows how many Ottomans.

The assault against the peaks of Sari Bair was to be commanded by Major General Godley of the Australian and New Zealand Division. On the night of 6 August, as the two feints were being fought out, the two assaulting columns were to leave the Anzac perimeter, striking out to the west to circle around the westwards facing foothills of the Sari Bair Range. The left-hand column was composed of the Australian 4th Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade; closer to its target the two brigades would separate to form three assaulting columns, the Australians targeting Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe), the Indians Hill Q. The right-hand column was composed of the men of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, its main focus was to be Chunuk Bair. However, both columns were understrength and included men weakened by dysentery, an inevitable by-product of the summer months’ campaigning in Gallipoli.

The two columns moved to the margins of the Anzac perimeter, in the hands of guides who had knowledge of the intricate mass of gullies and ridges caused by the action of wind and water over centuries. Any Ottoman defences soon evaporated, but the left-hand column, commanded by Brigadier General Monash, got into difficulties. Fighting its way through the scrub to a watercourse, the Aghyl Dere, Ottoman resistance stiffened. Exhausted, the 4th Brigade would go no further that night: Hill 971 would have to wait. In fact, the left-hand column would never get close to Hill 971; though resuming the attack approach on the morning of 8 August, there was still confusion about which direction to take. Hill 971 would remain unassaulted. Behind them was the Indian Brigade; slowed up by the tortuous terrain, they too would be dispersed, a long way off their objective.

Only the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles got anywhere near Hill Q, within 200ft of their objective by 6pm. They would make their assault the next morning at 5am, following a naval bombardment. With no other battalions in support – all the others were lost in the gullies – they made a heroic assault on the hill that drove off the Ottomans. Tragically, they would become victims of their own naval support, and with no reserves, they lost their tenuous grip on Hill Q.

The right-hand column of New Zealanders, operating within the more familiar Anzac perimeter, fared a little better – but were still held up by Ottoman resistance. By dawn on 7 August some had reached Rhododendron Ridge, a spur that leads right up to Chunuk Bair; while others were lost in the complex terrain of ridges and gullies. Brigadier General Johnston, commanding the column, waited until he had sufficient men to continue the assault against what was still an unknown level of resistance. This was to prove a costly decision; it was to deeply influence the outcome of the attack by the Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, which was to take place at 4.30am on the 7th.

As the Light Horse were pushing to Baby 700 – the hill that had been the focus of so much attention during the landings – it had been intended that the New Zealanders would be pressing on from their newly captured positions at Chunuk Bair, thereby crushing the Ottoman defenders between them. It was not to be. In the absence of the New Zealanders, the attack at the Nek went ahead on the orders of Godley. Rising out of their trenches, the attackers were armed only with unloaded rifles and bayonets. The Ottomans wrought havoc with their withering fire, and the three successive waves of light horsemen were mown down – 378 casualties out of 600, 230 of them killed. Their bodies would remain on the battlefield, only to be gathered in after the war was finally ended.

For the New Zealanders on Rhododendron Spur, things were difficult. The Ottoman defenders were stiffening, the commander of the 9th Division, Colonel Kannengiesser was in position on the hilltop. Godley issued the terse order: ‘Attack at once’. The Auckland Battalion took heavy casualties; while Johnston ordered the Wellington Battalion into position, its commander refused to attack in daylight. Dug in as best they could, the New Zealanders were reinforced by two newly arrived battalions of the 13th (Western) Division, the 7th Gloucestershires and the 8th Welsh. At 3am, the peak of Chunuk Bair was to be taken by the Wellington men, and the Glosters. The navy had played its supporting role – the Ottomans had no way of digging down into what was hard and rocky soil, and were hopelessly exposed. However, this factor would come to count against the Allies.

The new defenders of the peak now found themselves in Ottoman crossfire, from Battleship Hill to the south and from Hill Q to the north – both of which would have been taken by now if things had gone to plan. By 5am, the Ottomans launched a desperate counterattack, reinforced by the 8th Division recently arrived from the Helles front. As the scale of the assault unfolded, von Sanders appointed Mustafa Kemal as commander in charge of the defence of Sari Bair. By that evening, the New Zealanders and New Army men held on grimly, their casualties mounting – the Wellington Battalion would lose 711 out of 760, the New Army battalions suffering similarly.

With Chunuk Bair holding, Hill Q would be assaulted on 9 August by a mixed force, led by Brigadier Baldwin, of four battalions from the 38th, 39th and 40th brigades of the 13th Division, and two battalions from the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division. Climbing to a flat area called ‘The Farm’, they moved up a feature known as Chailak Dere in order to take the assault to Hill Q, while New Zealanders from Chunuk Bair and the Indian Brigade would also attack the hill. Baldwin’s men met with stiff opposition. The only force to reach Hill Q was a battalion of Gurkhas, but they would be driven off by their own naval artillery fire, delivered from the newly arrived ‘monitors’ (gunships sent out to replace the capital ships) and the ageing battleship HMS Bacchante.

On the morning of 10 August Mustafa Kemal led an overwhelming Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair at 4.30am, narrowly avoiding being wounded. Turkish historian Kenan Çelik has described the action:

When Mustafa Kemal gave the signal, 5,000 men in 22 lines charged on the New Zealanders and the British at Chunuk Bair. One second later there was only one sound – ‘Allah … Allah … Allah.’ The British did not have time to fire and all the men in the front-line trenches were bayoneted. The British troops were wildly scattered. In four hours’ time, the 23rd and 24th Regiments regained the lines at Chunuk Bair. The 28th Regiment regained Pinnacle (the highest point on Rhododendron Ridge). Just after the Turks regained Chunuk Bair, the Navy and artillery began firing. Hell let loose. Iron rained from the skies over the Turks. Everybody accepted their fate. All around people were killed and wounded. While Mustafa Kemal watched the fighting, a piece of shrapnel hit his pocket watch. The watch was broken but protected his life. He had a bruise on his chest, but nothing else. He was destined to save the country.

Kenan Çelik

The exhausted New Zealanders had been relieved by the 6th Loyal North Lancashires, who had arrived at 10pm (a second battalion, the 10th Wiltshires, had not yet arrived). The force of the Ottoman attack was to prove too much; breaking over the British battalions and sweeping them down the slope into the confusion of gullies below. Baldwin’s men at the Farm would suffer the impact of the Ottoman charge. Hill Q was no longer occupied and Chunuk Bair, so fleetingly held by the Allies, was now firmly back in Ottoman hands. The struggle for the heights was over; the campaign effectively finished, dead in the dark waters of the Dardanelles Straits.