Seeking to solve some lingering family mysteries, Roderick Eime went looking for a quiet, shy bloke and found a hero.
My childhood is full of fond memories of my funny old grandma. The tales Nanna told of her early childhood and the tough times the huge rural Lutheran family had eking out a living on various farms always enthralled me. What she lacked in fiscal skills, she more than made up for in sheer hard work. Of her fourteen siblings, only three were boys, so the girls had more than their fair share of farm duties under the strict governance of their father, Heinrich Benjamin Noack.
One story she often told was that of her little brother Arthur, who bravely, or perhaps naïvely, volunteered for service soon after the outbreak of World War II. As she got older, the “facts” of many of these stories varied and it had always been my intention to set the record straight on the matter of Arthur. My innate interest in military history, some skills in journalism and an undying curiosity made me determined to record what I could of his last years of life. Clearly the longer I delayed this task the harder it would be to gather any remaining first-hand accounts.
Arthur enlisted with the 2/48th Battalion of the 9th Division AIF on 20th July 1940, and embarked on HMT Stratheden on 7th November 1940. He disembarked Port Said on 17th December, just prior to his 30th birthday. He was graded a Group II Signaller in April 1941.and joined his D Company comrades in Tripoli, Syria. (yes, Syria)
[trying to find out whether he was in Tobruk. Not clear]
Despite his above average height and strong build, Arthur was variously described as a quiet, unassuming sort of bloke who was not a big mixer with the other chaps.
“He was always the first at morning parade,” recalls fellow signalman, Sam Starling, “bright, pleasant enough and a thoroughly conscientious soldier.” Traits which, I’m certain hark back to his strict upbringing back on the farm and are totally in line with his sisters’ fastidious ways.
Many colourful accounts already exist of the heroic actions of the 2/48th during the Battle of El Alamein and I won’t try to recall them all here, but the day Arthur died is of particular significance. It was the 31st October 1942.
His unit, D (Don) Company, was amongst numerous others moving around the northern flank of a topographic feature known as Ring Contour 25 in Phase Two of Brigadier Leslie Morshead’s bold three-phase plan to isolate the main German force and thereby expedite Rommel’s collapse.
The desert landscape is ostensibly hard, flat and barren, interspersed with valuable and hotly-contested elevated features often not much higher than a big mound. Protective cover was scarce and was usually little more than a hastily dug, or scraped, depression in which to shelter or secure weapons.
A ten minute extract from the 1943 Academy Award winning documentary "Desert Victory" covering the part of the campaign where Arthur was killed.
After an intense artillery barrage had largely failed to dislodge the deeply dug-in and well-prepared Germans, the already depleted Australians advanced under cover of darkness on their positions. In the months Rommel’s men had to prepare these formidable defences, tanks, artillery and machine guns were strategically placed to thwart any advance.
“I was switched to Don Company at the last minute,” remembers Sgt Murray Jones, “and I was asked to deliver a message up the front where Arthur’s unit was advancing on the German positions. I’d just arrived when all hell broke loose. The Germans were only fifty yards away and they let go with everything they had. They tore us to shreds. Everyone around me was killed. How I got out I’ll never know, but it took me another two days to get back to my unit. Only forty of us got out that night”
Sgt Jones’s vivid account held me in awe. Two hundred men had gone in that night and were all but annihilated by overwhelming enemy fire. In spite of this horror, one of D Company’s heroes emerged. Sgt Bill Kibby was not one of the surviving six members of D Company, but was awarded a VC all the same for single-handedly destroying several enemy positions. (Arthur's name appears immediately below Kibby's on the same casualty list) According to Sam Starling, Arthur was badly wounded and evacuated to the famous Blockhouse field hospital where he subsequently died. The so-called Blockhouse was another contested focal point in the numerous actions around the immediate area. So hectic and intertwined were the events that both German and Allied medics treated wounded soldiers side-by-side while each other’s bullets and shells flew around them.
Despite incredible casualties, the remaining Australians were able to gather themselves up and achieve their original objectives, then go on to make history in one of the most decisive battles of the entire war. Unfortunately Arthur was not among those left to enjoy the subsequent victory and he now rests, along with over twelve hundred mates, in the El Alamein war cemetery.
The efforts of the Australians that night are recalled by the acclaimed author and military historian, Dr Mark Johnston.
“I think that the efforts of the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions on 30/31 October 1942 show Australian soldiers at their finest: fighting for a noble purpose, persisting beyond what one could expect, working efficiently and cooperatively. Arthur Noack was a member of the company that nearly achieved the impossible goal it was set that night. Heroism is a concept debased through overuse, but even the strictest definition of the term would have to apply to the efforts of Noack's company that night.”
Ironically, after two years in the desert and several months of intense fighting, the surviving men of 9th Division were withdrawn from battle just a week after that fateful night. They set off for Australia in January 1943 to prepare for their next campaign in New Guinea.
|At rest with his mates at El Alamein|
My quest for some simple answers had revealed much, much more. Not only was Arthur a member of “That Magnificent 9th”, as his Division (about 18,000 men) was subsequently known, he belonged to a Battalion (about 800 men) that became the most highly decorated (4 VCs) in all Australian military history. His company (about 150 men) was virtually wiped out in the twelve day battle, but emerged, if only as a result of their sacrifice, as one the most tenacious and fearless groups of men in the entire British Eighth Army.
Perhaps I’m swayed by a personal bias, but based on the evidence uncovered, I believe Uncle Arthur and his mates rank as heroes in the true sense of the word - and that’s the way I’ll remember him – always!
Arthur on the Roll of Honour