During the year of 1942, a series of dramatic battles unfolded around the remote railway halt of El Alamein, located 120 kilometers west of Alexandria in Egypt. The 9th Australian Division, fighting as a member of the Commonwealth Eighth Army, thwarted a determined German-Italian offensive aimed at invading Egypt and seizing control of the strategic Suez Canal. It stands as a defining moment for the Australian division, who played an instrumental role in securing a decisive Allied victory during the Second World War. In fact, British general Bernard Montgomery said of the battle that, ‘the more I think of it, the more I realise that winning was only made possible by the bravery of the 9th Australian Division.’

Australia’s commitment to the war effort included land, sea, and air operations in North Africa. Following the Nazi conquest of Western Europe, the British Empire, along with its Commonwealth partners, served as the last line of defense against Axis ambitions. Australian, Indian, New Zealand, and South African forces collectively formed a sizeable part of the Allied defense in North Africa, safeguarding the vital Suez Canal—a lifeline connecting Britain to its Asian and Australasian territories.

The Mediterranean and its surrounding shores emerged as a major theater of conflict from the onset of hostilities in the region in mid-1940, coinciding with Mussolini’s entry into the war. Australian troops were already training in the Middle East when Italy’s forces crossed into Egypt in late 1940. Their engagement spanned land, sea, and air, encompassing relentless combat over the Mediterranean.

Early in 1941 the Italian forces faced mounting challenges, and the arrival of the German Afrika Korps, led by the charismatic and formidable Erwin Rommel, escalated the intensity of the conflict. This marked the beginning of significant offensives in Libya and Egypt throughout 1941 and into 1942.

The Royal Australian Air Force played an important role in North Africa, notably 3 and 450 Kittyhawk fighter squadrons, that made up part of the Desert Air Force. Hundreds of Australian aircrew served alongside their British and New Zealand counterparts. Approximately ten percent of aircrew in ‘British’ squadrons hailed from Australia, having been trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme. Their service encompassed a wide range of roles, from the first Spitfire squadron to arrive in Egypt in mid-1942 to Blenheim and Boston light bomber squadrons. RAAF personnel also operated Hudson bombers, targeting Axis supply lines. Furthermore, over 200 RAAF aircrew were integral members of the long-range Wellington bomber squadrons within 205 Group, stationed in Egypt and conducting missions across North Africa and the Mediterranean.

One outstanding Australian fighter pilot who fought in this North African theatre was Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes, otherwise known as “Bobby Gibbes”. During his two years flying Kittyhawks in the Middle East he completed 473 operational flying hours, took part in 224 separate sorties, engaged in 33 combats, and destroyed 10 enemy aircraft with 5 probable and 9 damaged. He had a keen knowledge of tactics, had superlative judgment and was an outstanding leader.