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Peter Dornan. The Last Man Standing: Herb Ashby and the Battle of El Alamein.

Peter Dornan. The Last Man Standing: Herb Ashby and the Battle of El Alamein, Allen & Unwin, ISBN: 9781741149890, paperback, 248 p., $26.95

Peter Dornan's latest work tells the story of Herby Ashby, a South Australian soldier in the 2/48th Battalion who fought through the siege of Tobruk and the Battle of El Alamein. Dornan has extensively interviewed Herb Ashby and so the reader gets to see the war through Ashby's eyes.

From growing up in Mt Gambier through the Great Depression, Dornan takes the reader through Ashby's early life in that farming district which would help to physically shape him for the unseen tasks yet ahead. As he was only 18 at the time war was declared Ashby put up his age to 23 and was accepted into the 2nd AIF, much to his father's displeasure.

After his initial training in South Australia, Ashby was among a large group of reinforcements which were headed for the Middle East and after some time in staging camps, were finally transferred to Tobruk in June 1941 where they would be allotted to various units. Herb was assigned to the 2/48th Battalion, part of the 9th Division, who were currently holding a section of the perimeter.

Almost immediately Herb was introduced to the horrors of war but after learning the ropes from the old platoon hands, settled in to life in the Tobruk garrison, with the constant patrolling, German attacks & bombs, the flies, heat & sand. Ashby was wounded at Tobruk and was evacuated back to a hospital near the harbour where he had the horrible experience of hearing the German bombs falling directly towards their position. Eventually evacuated back to Alexandria, Ashby recovered from his wound and was able to greet the battalion as they arrived in Egypt after their relief from Tobruk.

As the Battalion recovers from their Tobruk ordeal we get to meet more of the men of the 2/48th who gave the battalion such a good name and who would play a large role in the fighting to come at El Alamein, including their new commanding officer Lt-Colonel 'Tacks' Hammer. The too and fro & often vicious fighting at El Alamein from July to November 1942 is described vividly with the 2/48th in the middle of many of the attacks in the coastal sector. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to the Battalion in this period including two to Ashby's platoon mates, Stan Gurney & Bill Kibby. All three Victoria Crosses were awarded posthumously. The reader gets to relive their brave efforts through Ashby's eyes. Ashby was by now himself a Sergeant and would be decorated for his own brave actions.

Dornan creates some vivid images of the fighting against Rommel's Afrika Korps and the constant tank & air battles, some of which were in view of Ashby's battalion. The 2/48th was constantly attacking the German line, and along with the rest of the 9th Division was used by Lt General Montgomery to keep up the pressure on the Germans while he assembled a large force behind the line which would ultimately defeat the Afrika Korps. The attacks by the 2/48th were generally successful assaults but casualties were immense and one by one, Herb's mates were being killed or wounded around him. After one of their final successful attacks on the German positions, the 2/48th was relieved and walked back to the transport lines where 40 trucks waited to pick up the survivors; only two trucks were needed.

For the reader no prior knowledge of the war in the Middle East would be necessary as throughout the book Dornan draws on JG Glenn's history of the 2/48th Battalion as well as other histories on Tobruk and El Alamein. Maps are also placed through the text to let the reader know of the positions of the unit. The story of Herb Ashby is a worthy addition to Australia's WW2 literature.
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Author:Pittaway, Andrew
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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