27 Oct 2012

Britain's Desert Rats commemorate El Alamein

8:48 am on 27 October 2012

British and Australian veterans gather at London's Westminster Abbey on Saturday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein, a decisive moment in the North African campaign in World War II.

Last weekend 21 New Zealand veterans attended a service in Egypt to mark the 1942 battle in which hundreds of New Zealand men died.

The duel pitted British Lieutenant-General Bernard "Monty" Montgomery's Eighth Army against German Field Marshal Erwin "the Desert Fox" Rommel's German and Italian forces.

British veteran Ron McBride remembers a continuous cacophony of noise when 1,000 guns opened up. "We were just so grateful we weren't on the receiving end," the 92-year-old says.

After almost three years of war, the Allies were reeling from a string of defeats across the globe and the morale of the British Eighth Army in Egypt was at rock bottom.

On the eve of the battle, the British and their Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Greek and Free French allies had been pushed back to within 150 miles of Cairo.

Finally, on 23 October Montgomery ordered a counter-attack with almost 900 guns levelled at the German positions to be discharged at once.

Amid the ensuing mayhem, former Sergeant McBride's armoured car unit was able to drive right through enemy lines. "They must have thought we were Italians, as they just let us right through," he told Reuters.

While previously the Suez Canal was threatened, and with it Allied access to the rich oilfields of the Middle East, now the Allies were able to press their advantage and eventually push the Germans and Italians out of Africa.

Some 40 British and Australian veterans are expected to be at Saturday's service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.