Return to El Alamein

In 1942, a group of young New Zealand soldiers travelled to North Africa to fight one of the pivotal battles of World War II. Seventy years later, Michael Dickison travelled with them as they retraced their journey

Veteran Bill Bristow arrives at El Alamein airport. Photo / Michael Dickison
Veteran Bill Bristow arrives at El Alamein airport. Photo / Michael Dickison

Departures

1942: The captain shoved a finger at the chest of Private Regi Frew. "You're name is Baby," he said. "And I'm the captain."

Private Frew was 20, and headed for Egyptian battlefronts at the height of World War II. Germany and Italy were pressing into Britain's territory in North Africa, threatening oil supplies, and run-down Arab freight trains carried the latest shipment of fresh-faced men into the desert.

The men had left home more than a month before, thousands crammed into huge ships sailing halfway round the world. At a stopover for water, Sergeant John Wills watched replenishments being brought in in a barge's fuel tank. The taste of diesel followed them across the Indian Ocean.

Earlier in the campaign, ships paused for raucous farewells at Fremantle, on Australia's west coast, and for mischievous havoc in Colombo, lifting the young men with pride and excitement.

In the thick of war, many would think back to their departures and last sightings of home.

Setting sail from Wellington, the peak of Mt Egmont had lingered long over the horizon.

2012: "It stood out for ages before it disappeared - gone," says Bill Bristow, now 93. Seventy years on, 22 war veterans are wobbling into the departure lounge of Whenuapai Air Force Base in West Auckland. They are to be flown to Egypt for 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of El Alamein - a critical turning point in the war.

Mr Bristow has spent two days in Takapuna for medical checks and briefings, and to get to know the trip's carers. The men have been given top treatment. "A great time," he says. "You couldn't scratch your backside without someone helping you."

Journeys

1942: Trooper Roye "Smiler" Hammond had got himself through the battles in Crete, and he was getting himself through Egypt. The initial rush of taking to the world had long worn out. In its place were desert flies, sandstorms and the massacre of friends. The bed bugs just about carried you away.

At the coastal railway stop of El Alamein, two battered armies were staring each other down. The Axis troops had forced the Allies east from Libya into Egypt until depleted supplies ground down the battle at El Alamein. The area was a 65km-wide bottleneck between impassable salt marshes and the sea, and the arrival of New Zealand troops - considered an elite division - bolstered the Allies enough to halt their retreat. The deadlock lasted for months.

Gunner Andy McGovern poured petrol into a drum full of sand, and lit the mixture into a smoulder. Over it he cooked tins of bacon; to raise the heat he stirred up the petrol from the bottom of the barrel.

Gunner McGovern manned an anti-aircraft gun that blasted just above his ears. At the end of a round of shooting, he lay on the ground and could hear nothing.

In July 1942, New Zealand's infantry brigades led two charges deep into German territory. Both times many were slaughtered when British tanks failed to follow behind them. Casualties were high and morale low. On the wounds the doctors couldn't treat, the soldiers applied diesel.

During one skirmish, Sergeant Bill Bristow pursued a line of retreating German tanks. His team dragged 10 anti-tank guns, carting them by trucks through a minefield in the dark. The trucks were nose-to-tail without lights, and enemy shells fell all around. The leading truck suddenly exploded. Sergeant Bristow ran out to see what had happened, and felt metal blocks under his feet. The convoy had been driving right over mines. They turned around, carefully.

The onus of attack was shifting to the Allies. For the next month, they planned and trained an offensive that could overrun the enemy. On October 23, 1942, as the full moon rose on the desert night, they made their move.

2012: The veterans take seven minutes to disembark from their hotel bus. Through windows you can see them clasp anything that's around them - seats, curtains, window sills - to push themselves up on their feet. They pull through the aisle, reaching forward to lean on the headrest to the left, then on to the next one to the right.

With a carer's hand on their arms, they step off the bus - and what canes! They aren't so much walking sticks as wizards' staves, gripped three-quarters up and swinging like ski poles.

In the humid heat of Darwin, a stopover on the way to El Alamein, the veterans take to the pleasures of a beach resort. Roye Hammond - who is 94 years old, and could still go by "Smiler" - says he has been thoroughly spoiled.

A $50 allowance for the day brings a few veterans straight to the bar. Eric Wilson, 93, finishes a glass of beer with satisfaction. "That's not a bad drop." He likes to tell war stories about the "booze-ups". The other experiences have always been hard to talk about.

In the lobby, John Wills says that after five years in the war he was too unsettled to restart his life back home. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says. "Some of the guys came back and they're drinking too much. I was with them and I was drinking too much too. So I got on a train and left." Mr Wills doesn't drink anymore. At 95 he's still driving.

Mr Bristow, after a spell at the bar, is among the first to get to breakfast the next morning. "A couple of beers - put me right to sleep," he says.

The trip isn't about sentiment. "I don't get excited. I can't get excited. You know how it is. I don't get emotional."

Arrivals

1942: Seven men slammed metal picks into the rocky desert ground under moonlight. They raced against the coming dawn - once again New Zealand soldiers had broken into enemy territory in a night raid, reaching another desolate ridge. As one of the spearheads in the Allies' October offensive - which would become the official Battle of El Alamein - they needed to build cover against the German panzer tanks that would strike them in morning light.

Sergeant John Wills reckoned you had to have worked on a farm; some fellas just didn't know how to dig.

"Don't get too friendly with anyone," his superior had told him soon after he joined the army. "Don't get too friendly, or you'll get yourself killed." If losing a friend could hit you too hard, you were bound to go out and do something stupid.

The Allies' charge during the night had been supported by relentless, concerted bombing. Scattered artillery aimed for the same spot and timed their shots to hit the ground simultaneously. Huge explosions blasted up the ground into snow-like dust 30cm deep. It spread through the night as a thick fog. Sergeant Wills' men had moved to an area beyond the shelling. Seven soldiers took about an hour and a half to dig a hole big enough for their gun.

When day broke, 20 German planes passed Sergeant Wills in the distance. He didn't see them turn. The resulting bomb blast struck him down, and he was rushed to hospital. But when he got there, he made up his mind to discharge himself, and walked out at night. Three days later, he rejoined his unit.

The fighting continued for several days, but the enemy was buckling. The whole army knew it. Anticipation surged through the troops. Private Regi Frew sped toward the front line with the vital supply for victory - New Zealand beer.

And by November 6, when a sudden downpour flooded the desert, the Axis army was in full flight. Bottles were smashed and drunk, smashed and drunk, the celebrations tearing across the landscape.

2012: "You should've been there - the roar and the yells as we chased up to the front ..." says Regi Frew, now 91. Flying over Egypt, the war veterans shuffle up and down the plane raising a hand in greeting, leaning over, saying hello, and shuffling some more. El Alamein now has an international airport, a barren airstrip surrounded by flat, desert nothingness. The veterans' plane touches down to a stretch of lifeless land.

Along the coast, though, resorts have sprung with irrigated patches of lawn and ornate hotel lobbies.

The war veterans have been dining in splendour to the toast of assembled dignitaries. They drink and unfurl rolling yarns, and they're keenly aware of death.

None of the veterans will be around too much longer, Mr Frew says. It's what these commemorations are about. When he came home from the war, doctors gave him "a couple years" to live. His body was beat-up - leg, internal organs, miscellanea. He spent Christmas with his family in 1945, but was back in Waikato Hospital after the New Year.

Andy McGovern, 94, says he hasn't really spoken about the war till now, not even to his family. Six months after returning to New Zealand in 1945, he suffered from anxiety and neurosis until his wife nursed him back.

He has struggled with his hearing. "The biggest regret in my life is I was deaf. "When my grandchildren visited, they would say, 'Grandy won't listen to us. Grandy won't talk to us'." He has hearing aids now that help, but only one of his 10 grandchildren is still in New Zealand.

When the veterans are with each other, they can open up. They know they share something. And, equally, they're wary of letting others in if it won't be understood, cautious and fastidious to check their tales from any creeping vanity or cheapening. It's as if the experiences loom so large in their lives, the realities that are lingering in dwindling memories have become sacrosanct.

"Don't think we weren't sad when we lost someone. It was quite emotional. When you're on a gun and some chap ..." Mr McGovern trails off. There were 1100 men in his regiment. He doesn't know of any others still alive. "I miss all my old comrades," he finally says.

The world has changed many times over since the veterans left New Zealand for the first time. They may now have their bags carried for them, may take a helping hand to step off buses, but they won't let go of their experiences of war. These affable, generous old soldiers still fight to keep tight guard over the authenticity of what only they have known.

This morning (NZ time), the veterans will be recognised in official commemorations at El Alamein.

- NZ Herald

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