20 Oct 2012

Veterans at El Alamein commemorate battle

8:45 pm on 20 October 2012

A New Zealand commemoration service has been held in Egypt to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, a turning point in the North African campaign during World War II.

Laying a wreath at El Alamein.

Laying a wreath at El Alamein. Photo: RNZ

Twenty-one veterans attended the service along with Defence Force personnel and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman. Hundreds of New Zealand men fell in the 1942 battle, near the Mediterranean coast about 100km  west of Alexandria.

The service - held at the El Alamein Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, in a corner next to the New Zealand section - included the Defence Force cultural group, led by the force's principal chaplain, Lance Lukin.

"We deliberately wanted it to be a New Zealand feel," says Mr Lukin, "so that it would say 'We are Kiwis, we are here and we want to honour our own'."

New Zealand's ambassador to Egypt, David Strachan, spoke of the final days of the battle, when the New Zealand Division of the Allies' 8th Army spearheaded an attack that penetrated the enemy's defences.

'After Alamein we never had a defeat'

The decisive battle (technically the second Battle of El Alamein; the first had been in July 1942) lasted from 23 October to 4 November and ended with German and Italian forces in full retreat.

British historian Neil Barr told the BBC there's no question that after a run of defeats and humiliations "this final battle at El Alamein marks the turning of the tide - that now, possibly, there might be a chance of victory."

In his speech at the service, Dr Coleman quoted Winston Churchill: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."

Addressing the veterans, he said: "You have all lived a whole lifetime in the seven decades since your service here in the flower of your youth. I know that the experiences of the North African campaign will have shaped those years in ways that only your fellow comrades could truly appreciate.

"Subsequent generations of New Zealanders are forever indebted, to you and those who rest here in North Africa... You made sacrifices which have meant that we who have followed have been able to live in prosperity and peace."

'These New Zealanders of the desert'

In memory of those who fought, the Chief of Army, Major-General Timothy Keating, read an excerpt from a book by the New Zealand writer John Mulgan, who fought in the frontline at El Alamein. Mulgan wrote:

"They were mature men, these New Zealanders of the desert, quiet and shrewd and sceptical. They had none of the tired patience of the Englishman, nor that automatic discipline that never questions orders to see if they make sense. Everything that was good from that small, remote country had gone into them, sunshine and strength, good sense, patience, the versatility of practical men. And they marched into history."

A veteran of the campaign read the soldiers' psalm, Psalm 91, and that was followed by the reading of Laurence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen" and the laying of wreaths.

Reporting from the scene, Radio New Zealand's Andrew McRae says that as dusk fell, the New Zealand veterans - none younger than 88 - fanned out across the cemetery, perhaps hoping to find a fallen mate or just pondering on what happened there 70 years ago.

The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at El Alamein.

The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at El Alamein. Photo: RNZ

New Zealand was the first Commonwealth country to officially commemorate the 70th anniversary; an international service was due to begin late on Saturday night NZ time.

Photos from El Alamein during World War II