Historian, Writer, Commentator, Consultant.

Alamein: the Australian Story

Posted by on Jan 18, 2012 in Books | 0 comments

Alamein coverAlamein: the Australian Story (with Mark Johnston, OUP, Melbourne , 2002)

Having written Tarakan I was able to represent myself as a Second World War specialist. The exhibitions 1945: War & Peace (1994-95) and the Memorial’s permanent Second World War gallery (1996-99) and various smaller projects deepened both my interest and proficiency in this period.

In the mid-1990s, conscious of the approaching sixtieth anniversaries of the war I began to ponder whether I should embark on another Second World War book. Having become interested in the 9th Australian Division through Tarakan I wondered about a book about the division’s greatest test, the battle of El Alamein. In the meantime, I had come into contact with Mark Johnston, who had just published his doctoral thesis as At the Front Line. Mark visited the Memorial in about 1996 and we naturally asked after each other’s next project. We both said ‘Alamein’. Rather than compete we decided to collaborate, a decision which I certainly never regretted, and indeed am still glad that it brought me into contact with one of Australia’s most knowledgeable military historians – and like me a time-and-a-half writer.

We divvied the project up between us, began preliminary research (rather dilatory in my case, since I was still preoccupied with the Second World War gallery) and sought support under the Army History Unit’s Research Grants Scheme. We secured support, both together (to enable us to visit Alamein, in October 1997) and individually (to enable us to travel to Britain to conduct research on British collections) in 2000 and 2001.

The trip to Alamein (despite the frustrations of dealing with Egyptian military bureaucracy) remains one of my most enjoyable and productive battlefield visits, largely because Mark knew his stuff, down to company level and proved to be a most stimulating explorer of this difficult battlefield. (My skills proved to be more in the practical line, in navigation, and in dealing the maddening formalities with the Egyptian Army’s military intelligence staff.) We were messed about something chronic by the military intelligence captain at Alamein, who was reluctant to allow us to travel south of the railway line (for fear of mines) even though we had (we thought) secured permission through the good offices of the Australian Embassy in Cairo. Eventiually we were allowed to travel as long as we had Corporal Mohammed in the back seat (and even though he spoke no English). In spite of these idiocies we got to everywhere but Ruin Ridge and learned a great deal on and of the ground, knowledge that proved invaluable in writing the book.

Writing the book turned out to be a relatively painless process, largely I think because Mark and I respected each other’s respective strengths, and proved to be a complimentary team. We finished the book late in 2001 without any tension (as far as I can recall). By the time it appeared in 2002, in time for the seventieth anniversary of the October battle, we were able to return to Alamein as part of the Australian War Memorial-Imperial War Museum Study Tour to Crete and Egypt. Unfortunately, in ever sense, the book’s launch, on the anniversary of the opening of the October battle, was marred and overshadowed by the Bali bombing, which had occurred ten days before.

The original Oxford hardback edition sold out and a paperback edition was produced in 2006.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>