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Saturday, 23 Apr 2016

ANZAC reflection: 'God that we can end it all soon and get it over with is my one and only prayer,' VX21753

Lance Sgt Keith Potter 2-12 Field Regiment 1941
Lance Sgt Keith Potter 2-12
Field Regiment 1941

By a grateful Garth Morrison Editor and

On ANZAC Day Lest we Forget honors the Fallen, but across all of Australia and New Zealand's military commitments there are many who return locked in a Black Dog battle with a silent enemy and so ill they struggle daily to find a way to live.

So in an insane war world my Mum's cake was second only in importance to the long delayed mail for a bunch of exhausted, battered, bloodied, but unbowed young men, of about 22, as they rested "near the beach" while serving "Abroad".

Desert Rat VX21753, mum's big brother, Lance Sgt. Keith Potter of 2/12 Field Regiment wrote to her on November 12, 1942 in a typically understated neat long-hand.

The president and members of his beloved Lakes Entrance sub-branch RSL remembered him at his passing on July 18, 1984 in the way soldiers do:

Keith Harold Potter, Reg. No. VX21753. Rank Lance Sgt. 2nd/12 Field Regiment 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Eight Army Clasp, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, War Medal, Australian Service Medal, Imperial Service Medal, Tobruk Siege Medal, Efficiency Medal, Imperial Service Order Medal.

CMF Fort Queenscliff, Palestine, Tobruk, El Alamein, New Guinea and Borneo.

His letters from North Africa reflect the considerate understatement bred into 'gentle' men of his time for the women of our family when their own lives were deadly serious.

This studied understatement repeats in written and spoke family war experiences from my father John Morrison VX128022 on a tropic island north of Australia in the South Pacific called Bougainville fighting the army of the invading Japanese.

He, his father Alexander who went with the British Expeditionary Force to Japan, his brother Alex, RAAF and sister Jean, VAD and my aunt Jean's husband Gil Anderson of the 2/9 Div. Cav. Regt and 2/12 Commando Squadron,all did their bit.

Gil, who served in the Middle East and South-West Pacific was wounded in action.

Jean Morrison (l) and VAD women by William Dargie
Jean Morrison (l) and VAD women by William Dargie

Beautiful Jean Morrison, who nursed at Heidelberg Military Hospital in 1941, remains forever young on the left of the 'Women in War' painting of Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses by William Dargie to be seen in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Sir William Alexander Dargie CBE is renowned for his portrait paintings. He was an official Australian War Artist during the Second World War. Dargie holds the record for the most Archibald Prize wins; eight.

In addition to Dargie the War Memorial has works on a military theme by Sir Arthur Streeton, Sydney Nolan, Norman Lindsay and Donald Friend

Keith Potter and the 2/12 Field Regiment fought in three major battles as an element of the 9th Division in the North African campaign.

The 9th Division is one of Australia's most decorated Divisions and has the distinction of spending more time in combat than any other.

They did it desperately tough, poor food, often ill and tormented by desert flies and fleas.

Their Long Tan was a six month combat marathon.

The 2/12 Field Regiment saw action during the Siege of Tobruk and then the First and Second Battles of El Alamein.

Three major battles occurred around El Alamein between July and November 1942, they were the turning point of the Second World War in North Africa. The Australian 9th Division, led by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, played a key role in two of these battles, enhancing its reputation earned defending Tobruk during 1941.

Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel

The Axis forces comprised German and Italian troops and were known as Panzerarmee Afrika, led by the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, 'The Desert Fox'.

Opposing him was the British Eighth Army commanded by General Claude Auchinleck. This army comprised British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, and Indian troops.

Before dawn on July 10 the 9th Division launched an attack on the northern flank and succeeded in taking the important high ground around Tel el Eisa.

The Australians spent the next few days fighting off heavy counterattacks as Rommel redirected much of his forces against them.

On the last day of August Rommel launched another offensive. In this last and desperate attempt to oust the Allies from the Alamein line, German and Italian armoured forces massed in the southern sector and made a sweeping hook that drove the Allies back to the Alam el Halfa Ridge.

On the night of 23 October 1942, a massive artillery barrage heralded the great Allied offensive.

As Keith Potter of the 2/12 Field regiment reports to his sister "there was not even time to spit". The infantry successfully captured most of their objectives; however, the tanks were unable to follow through and continue the thrust.

With the Axis forces stubbornly holding their lines intact, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery worried that his offensive was becoming bogged down. But Montgomery's assumption of command transformed the fighting spirit and abilities of the Eighth Army.

General Montgomery watches his tanks move up North Africa, November 1942
General Montgomery watches his tanks move up North Africa, November 1942

Changing tactics from the drive westwards, he ordered the Australians of 9th Division to switch their attack northward.

What followed was a week of extremely fierce fighting, with the Australians grinding their way forward over well-defended enemy positions.

As had happened in July, their gains so worried Rommel that he again diverted his strongest units to stop them. Places such as Thompson's Post, the Fig Orchard, the Blockhouse and the Saucer became an inferno of fire and steel as the Australians weathered the storm of bombs, shells and bullets.

With Rommel's attention firmly on the Australians in the north, naturally this left his line weakened further south, and on 2 November the British tanks struck a decisive blow there.

The Panzerarmee suffered crippling losses and Rommel was forced to order a general withdrawal, or face total annihilation. His army now began a headlong retreat that would soon see them ejected from Africa altogether.

Between July and November 1942, the Australian 9th Division suffered almost 6,000 casualties.

Although the price was fearfully high, they had without doubt played a crucial role in ensuring an Allied victory in North Africa.

2/12 Field Regiment arrived at the port of Tobruk on HMAS Vampire in mid-May without any guns and was allocated to the western sector, where they took over an assortment of British and captured Italian guns.

According to The Mercury newspaper, during the Siege of Tobruk the regiment "spent more days in action than any other Australian artillery unit."

Keith Potter softens the reality for his sister: "I received a letter from you Lorna about a fortnight ago along with some from Jean (his wife) and Mother, but I haven't had a chance to answer it until now, things were very busy at the time. I was right in the thick of it and was more or less flat out finding time to spit as the saying is," Keith Potter says.

"I was very glad to get all those letters Lorna and certainly found time to read them a few times."

Booby trap do you reckon
Booby trap do you reckon

"I received your cake last week; a bit early for Christmas, but that is only a minor detail. It was bonzer and disappeared in quick style."

"The boys I shared it with voted it excellent. Many thanks Lorna it certainly was appreciated."

"I am still out of the Big Stunt and don't think will see any more of it."

"The Do was something I will always say I was proud to be in, by the immensity and awe fullness I will never forget, we had everything and more for Jerry and he sure got it, one also can say that he is a fighter, there is no doubt of that by jingo, but he never had a chance in this show," Keith Potter says.

In an earlier letter to his sister in October 1942 Keith Potter touches on the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues which are the silent enemy for young men (and women) in War.

The DVD Young Men in War. A History of the 2/12 Field Regiment speaks of the compassion within the Regiment for their comrades when stress made a casualty of a mate.

Keith Potter speaks briefly of the horror: "I don't want to be writing too much about the whole hellish business. God that we can end it all soon and get it over with is my one and only prayer," he says in a rare expression of his pain.

2/12 Field Regiment President Hugh Melville and other members of the Regiment said they and their comrades where in combat for six months.

Keith Potter survived World War Two against particularly long odds as he fought in successive actions in four theatres of the Second World War with 2/12 to be a Returned Soldier.

But like many others who come home from combat he found the battles with stress continued until his death in 1984.

Editors note: Background research pictures and cartoon from Australian War memorial, Young Men in War A History of the 2/12 Field Regiment, various private sources, Soldiering On, 1942 and Khaki and Green, 1943 plus Wikipedia:

It is a matter of typically quirky Australian family pride that that Keith Potter was one of the famous Rats of Tobruk.

The 9th Division casualties at Tobruk were 832 killed, 2177 wounded.

Tobruk was the first defeat for the German Army under Hitler and a ray of hope for the Allied nations in the darkest days of the Second World War.

I love the fact that Australia does not take itself too seriously.

Only Aussie humour takes pride in "RAT" the  title Radio Berlin and traitor broadcaster William Joyce, derisively known as Lord Haw Haw, gave the men the brilliant desert warfare officer Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korp could not defeat. (Joyce was  hanged as a traitor in 1946).

Good men from many nations stood together at Tobruk to stop the mad evil of Hitler. Good bridges all nationalities.

Keith Potter and the RAT's respected Rommel.

"They did their job and we did ours", Hugh Melville and the men of the 2/12 Field Regiment remark in Young Men in War.

Rommel later joined an assassination attempt to rid the world of Hitler. It failed and Rommel was forced, by Hitler to commit suicide by poison to protect his family.

The 2/12th Field Regiment was an Australian Army artillery regiment formed as part of the all volunteer Second Australian Imperial Force for overseas during the Second World War.

Recruited in the state of Victoria in early 1940, the 2/12th was initially formed as a medium artillery regiment, but was later converted to a field regiment due to a lack of medium guns.

As a field regiment, the 2/12th deployed to the Middle East where they supported the 9th Division in several battles during the North African Campaign in 1941-42, and undertook garrison duty in Lebanon.

In early 1943, the regiment returned to Australia and subsequently fought in New Guinea, seeing action against the Japanese during the Huon Peninsula Campaign in 1943-44 and then the Borneo Campaign in 1945.

In January 1943, the regiment returned to Australia aboard the transport Ile de France as part of the final of the transference of Australian ground troops from the Middle East to the Pacific.

After leave, the 2/12th re-formed at Kairi, on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland in April 1943. A period of reorganisation and training followed as the 2/12th was prepared for the rigours of jungle warfare.

In late July, they embarked by detachments at Cairns upon several transports including HMAS Manoora, Van Heutz, W Ellery Channing, USS Henry T Allen and the Van Der Lijn, bound for New Guinea where they were to join the fighting against the Japanese.

Typical Australian Desert Rat soldier
Typical Australian Desert Rat soldier

After arriving at Milne Bay in August, they subsequently took part in landings around Lae and then Finschhafen in September, and saw action during the Huon Peninsula campaign supporting the 20th Infantry Brigade during the initial landing around Scarlet Beach, once Finschhafen was secured, the regiment's guns supported the attack on Sattelberg from the coastal plain, before supporting further advances north as part of the drive towards Sio before returning to Australia in early 1944.

After a year-long interlude training around Ravenshoe, Queensland, the regiment undertook its final campaign of the war in 1945, providing fire support during the Battle of North Borneo.

Assigned to support the 24th Infantry Brigade, during the landing on Labuan two troops of the 2/12th came ashore alongside the assaulting infantry in LVTs, something the Australian Army had not done before. Later, during June, 14 guns from the regiment were moved by barge to support operations around Beaufort.

At the end of the Second World War, the regiment was disbanded with its last war diary entry being made on 1 March 1946.

Over 2,000 personnel served in the regiment during the six years it existed. Of these, a total of 71 members of the regiment were killed in action or died on active service, either from wounds sustained or as the result of an accident.

A further 138 wounded are recorded on the regiment's casualty list. Members of the regiment received the following decorations: three Distinguished Service Orders, four Members of the Order of the British Empire, six Military Crosses, six Military Medals, and 44 Mentions in Despatches. A plaque commemorating the regiment's personnel is included in Anzac Square in Brisbane.

The 9th Division is one of Australia's most decorated Divisions and has the distinction of spending more time in combat than any other. The 9th fought in the critical battles of Tobruk in Lybia, North Africa from April to November 1941 and El Alamein July and October 1942 in the Western Desert.

In the second battle of El Alamein British, Indian, Australian, South African and New Zealand forces drove German and Italian Axis troops back into Tunisia.

The 9th fought again in New Guinea against the Japanese landing at Lae in September 1943 by January 1944 the 9th had suffered 1028 casualties with 283 men killed.

In May 1945 the Division was in action again in Borneo in fierce fighting 900 Australians died. In a final action in Boneo in May 1945 114 men of the 9th died before the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945.

The 9th Division lost a total of 2,732 men killed and 7,501 wounded.

The 9th is the most highly decorated of the four AIF divisions raised during the Second World War. Seven members of the 9th won the Victoria Cross, five posthumously.

Editors note El Alamein Battles source: El Alamein battles

Further sources include Soldiering On, 1942 and Khaki and Green, 1943.

For more information
contact: Garth Morrison
Editor Go See Australia and Go See New Zealand Directory

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