[Oil on canvas 76 x 56 cm AWM ART22864]
[AWM 3DRL PR00368 Folder 4]
[AWM PR00368 Folder 5]
'Ali Baba and his 20,000 thieves'
[AWM 052619, AWM 024772]
'Ali Baba' Morshead, so called by Lord Haw Haw, led the 9th Australian Division in both Tobruk and El Alamein. Among his personal papers in the collection at the Australian War Memorial are a number of copies of this poem. It was apparently written in response to a statement made by the German propagandist, Lord Haw Haw, that 'Ali Baba' Morshead and his 20,000 thieves had despoiled Syria and had then moved on to desecrate Egypt. Among his own troops, Morshead was known – apparently affectionately – as “Ming the Merciless”. Ming was the name of the villain in the popular science fiction comic strip, Flash Gordon.
[AWM PR00368 Folder 5]
Leslie James Morshead was born in Ballarat in 1889. He became a school teacher and taught in schools in regional Victoria and New South Wales before enlisting in the First AIF in September 1914. He took part in actions in both Gallipoli and on the Western Front in Europe before returning to Australia at the end of World War I. He joined the Orient shipping line but also remained active in the CMF (Citizen Military Forces) during the next twenty years being promoted to the rank of temporary Brigadier in 1938.
Morshead was appointed to the Second AIF when war broke out again and was given command of 18th Brigade. In 1941, he moved to the Middle East to command the 9th Australian Division. He was ordered to prepare to defend Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt but after being pushed west by Rommel's Afrika Korps, the newly promoted Major General Morshead took his 9th Division to Tobruk where they stayed throughout the Siege. After handing over the Tobruk garrison to the British 70th Division in October 1941, Morshead took the 9th Australian Division to Palestine and Syria where they remained until early 1942.
Two other Australian Divisions, the 6th and 7th Divisions, returned to Australia and the south-west Pacific (after some controversy between the British and Australian governments) in early 1942 but Morshead, now promoted to Lieutenant-General, remained in the Middle East and returned to Egypt with the 9th Division to fight at El Alamein.
Among the large collection of personal papers, official correspondence and records documenting Morshead's experiences in both World Wars at the Australian War Memorial is a letter to his wife Myrtle. It was written on 23 October 1942, on the eve of the battle of El Alamein.
Between 24 October and 4 November 1942, the units of the 9th Division took part in 'the greatest battle ever fought in the Middle East' until Rommel broke and started to withdraw to the Libyan border. It was the last major battle fought by Australian ground forces in the Middle East and the Australians had played an important role in the German defeat in North Africa. The Australians acquitted themselves well in the battles and Morshead received congratulatory cables from American President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin.
Morshead was full of praise for his troops and his pride in his Division was evident in a letter he wrote to a friend after the battle.
It was a very hard and long battle, twelve days and nights of continuous and really bloody fighting, and it was not until the last day that the issue was decided.
A big battle is very much like a tug-of-war between two very heavy and evenly matched teams, and the one which can maintain the pressure and put forward that last ounce wins. Our men were truly wonderful and our reputation here has never been so high. It's a great feeling for a commander to be sure that his men will respond to every demand and God knows I demanded a great deal of them in this battle.
[Letter to D L Dowdell, 12 November 1942. AWM 3DRL 2562]
At their final parade at Gaza Airport, Palestine on 22 December 1942, Morshead addressed his 9th Division:
The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory. Your reputation as fighters has always been famous but I do not believe you have ever fought with greater bravery or distinction than you did during that battle when you broke the German and Italian armies in the Western Desert.
[Barton Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein, Canberra, 1966, p. 752]
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In February 1943, Lieutenant–General Sir Leslie Morshead and his 9th Division returned to Australia where they prepared for action against the Japanese in New Guinea. He and his men were involved in battles around Finschhafen and Lae and he led the final campaigns in Borneo in 1945.
After the war ended Sir Leslie Morshead returned to work with the Orient Line and he became the Australian General Manager of the company in 1948. Despite his senior position and busy life he still spent a lot of time delivering lectures and talks about his wartime experiences. He also played a prominent role in the Legacy organisation in New South Wales.
When Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead died on 26 September 1959, Australians had not forgotten his leadership in World War II. Newspaper reports vary on the size of the crowds that lined the streets in Sydney to see his funeral cortege: between 70,000 and 150,000 according to observers. Amongst the crowds farewelling 'Ali Baba' Morshead were many of his 20,000 thieves.