Veterans mourn those who fell at Alamein

By Michael Dickison

Veterans (from left) Maurice Abrahams, Thomas McNab, John Wills, Eric Wilson and Bill Bristow at the commemorations.  Photo / Michael Dickison
Veterans (from left) Maurice Abrahams, Thomas McNab, John Wills, Eric Wilson and Bill Bristow at the commemorations. Photo / Michael Dickison

As the sun set over El Alamein's war cemetery, New Zealand veterans walked amid the gravestones of their fallen comrades.

Maurice Abrahams paused and looked over the scene.

"This is unbelievable," said the 93-year-old. "I didn't know whether I would be fit enough to do this or not."

Mr Abrahams had gone for walks and taken up swimming three times a week to prepare for the return to World War II battlegrounds in Egypt.

At the weekend, he and 20 other veterans marked 70 years since the Battle of El Alamein at commemorations held at the cemetery and memorial.

"It's the first war graves overseas I've been to visit, and I'm very impressed by it," he said.

"It does the people justice. It's kept in such a beautiful condition. It's a peaceful place."

Mr Abrahams said he had not looked up particular headstones beforehand, but was hoping he might come across someone he knew.

John Wills, 95, said there were a few names he had carried in his memory for 70 years. He walked and read out names, registration numbers and units inscribed on headstones, which stretched in neat rows in every direction.

The hour-long service for the 70th anniversary featured religious readings and speeches from dignitaries, who praised the courage shown at El Alamein in 1942, a turning point in the war.

Norman Leaf, 93, gave a reading of the Soldier's Psalm, and Stewart Frame, 96, laid a wreath on behalf of the party.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said the German commander at the time, Erwin Rommel, had questioned why New Zealand troops were fighting against him in Europe.

Dr Coleman said it had been about standing up for principles and honouring international responsibilities.

An international commemoration was also held during the weekend, when wreaths were laid by representatives of about a dozen countries whose soldiers were involved.

About 600 people attended, including the families of some veterans.

Andy McGovern, 94, was buoyed by having three generations of his family in attendance. He was joined at the ceremony by his daughter and granddaughter, Jo and Louise O'Sullivan, who live in Dubai.

But for some locals, the effect of the battles fought 70 years ago has yet to end.

Outside the cemetery, a protest group raised placards about landmines left scattered around Egypt.

Organiser Amer Hamid said there were 19 million mines over two million acres, and 1000 people had been killed by them since the war ended. He said he hoped to return to commemorations next year with the participant countries committed to removing the mines.

One veteran travelling with the air force was not able to make it all the way to Egypt. He was taken to hospital in transit in Dubai last Thursday and turned back to New Zealand with two caregivers. His name has not been released.

The veterans visited historical sites around El Alamein during their stay. Richard Spraggs, 89, said he was amazed by how much the area had grown in 70 years. At the time of the battles, it had been a barren desert and a lone railway stop.

The veterans begin their trip back to New Zealand today.

Almost 2000 New Zealanders died in North Africa during the battles of World War II.

- NZ Herald

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