‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat,’ Churchill said. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, a turning point for the Allies in World War II. At an event in Cape Town on Sunday, veterans of the Battle paid tribute to fallen comrades. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The Battle of El Alamein has a special significance for Leslie Rose. He turned 21 years old on the night that followed the first day’s fighting.
“I got a bottle of Scotch, and they fired 750 rounds from a 25-pounder for me,” Rose remembers. (A 25-pounder was the British Army’s major field-gun.) “I said to the commanding officer, 21 rounds would have been enough!”
Rose is today a spry 90-year old who will turn 91 on Wednesday, 70 years after his days in the North African desert as a member of the Royal Army Service Corps. These servicemen were responsible for transport, logistics, supplies and communication during World War II. To enlist, you were required to be at least 5 foot 2 inches, and under 30 years old.
“We spent every day going backwards and forwards from the Front,” Rose told the Daily Maverick. “But it wasn’t as hot in the desert as people would imagine. With the Mediterranean right there, you could always go and bathe in the sea. I was with a wonderful group of men. Probably the worst part was that we had to eat powdered eggs and hard biscuits, which I hated. But we did have corned beef, which was nice.”
There were two battles of El Alamein during World War II, the first fought in July 1942. South African forces actually played a more significant role in the first battle, where, under the command of charismatic Major-General Dan Pienaar, they helped stall the Axis advance into Egypt. Pienaar, who died in an air crash in December 1942, was described in an obituary in the Chicago Tribune as being acknowledged by all military authorities as “one of the best fighting leaders the British have found in this war”, as well as being “loved like a father by his men”.
It is the second battle of El Alamein under General Bernard Montgomery (23 October - 4 November 1942), however, which provided the critical victory for Allied Forces. It is this second battle that former members of the South African armed services come together to commemorate each year. Leslie Rose is originally British, but moved to what was then Rhodesia straight after the war, and to South Africa 11 years ago.
Rose was one of a small number of El Alamein veterans present at a commemorative service at the Castle of Good Hope on Sunday. Other El Alamein veterans were simultaneously gathering on the other end of the continent to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle. One Briton, 24 Kiwis, 21 Australians – with an average age of 92 – and even two Germans who had served in Rommel’s forces came together for a ceremony in El Alamein cemetery in Egypt this weekend. The Telegraph reported that the sole British veteran accepted a German handshake “with visible reluctance”.
Back at the Cape Town service, Memorable Order of the Tin Hats Padre Errol Sadler noted that “veteran numbers are dwindling at a rapid rate as they get called to higher service”. As veterans’ associations close down all over the world, he said gloomily, soon World War II’s traces will be found only in historical documents. Sadler said the current generation sees World War II as part of the distant past, irrelevant to the present day.
“But what if the Axis forces had taken Cairo, and then headed south, country by country, until they reached Cape Agulhas?” he asked darkly. “What if the flag flying overhead today was that of the Third Reich?” One unfortunate element of the service was the fact that the hymn chosen to open proceedings was sung to the tune of composer Joseph Haydn’s Das Lied der Deutschen – the German national anthem.
An aspect of South Africa’s World War II history which was not touched on by anyone present was just how close South Africa came to either staying neutral in the conflict, or fighting on the other side. Prime Minister Hertzog’s parliamentary resolution proposing that South Africa proclaim neutrality was defeated by just 80 votes to 67, in September 1939. In the ensuing political kerfuffle, Jan Smuts stepped up to form a new cabinet and South Africa joined the war – thankfully, on the right side.
And indeed, South African forces went on to make a tremendous contribution. We owe much to the turning-point of El Alamein, which was “the greatest desert battle ever fought,” Sadler said. “Many paid dearly so that we could be here today to pay respect to the departed of El Alamein.”
Sydney Ireland, 91, was one of the lucky ones at El Alamein. As a wireless operator for the 3rd Brigade SA Services, it was Ireland’s job to carry a roll of cable as the battle went forward.
Proceeding behind the infantry, Ireland had a close shave when a mortar bomb hit the man next to him. “It was Corporal Gilchrist,” Ireland remembered. “But he was hit in the head, and fortunately he was wearing his tin hat, so he was only knocked unconscious.”
Rose remembers the battle atmosphere changing as they progressed from Alexandria. “The tension was growing all the time,” he said. “Because we were moving forward with the troops, we followed the battle all the way through to Tunisia, because we were supplying the New Zealand troops there.”
Remembering the battle’s final skirmishes, Rose said: “Too many were killed. There was terrible loss.” The Allied losses were small compared to the Axis casualties, however – 37,000 Axis troops died at El Alamein, as opposed to 13,500 Allied losses. When it became clear that victory would fall to the Allied troops, were there scenes of celebration?
“Did we celebrate? We were just very happy,” Rose told the Daily Maverick. “There was no booze. Montgomery wouldn’t allow any booze. But we were very happy. I had two cousins, and I just ran into them, separately, in the streets of Tunis.”
The South African veterans reported a similar response to the end of the battle, of joy mixed with sadness. “After the Battle we were very well looked after, it was quite nice,” said former wireless-operator Ireland, who sported a “World War II Veterans” cap on Sunday. “But unfortunately a lot of people died.”
El Alamein was the first major offensive victory against the Axis forces. It was after Alamein that Winston Churchill made his famous statement on 10 November 1942: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” DM
“Last Post for El Alamein veterans as they gather in the desert to mark 70 years since Second World War battle,” on the Telegraph
Photo: Current and former servicemen pose for a photo at the 70th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Sidney Ireland, 91, is pictured with cap and walking stick. Leslie Rose, 90, is pictured wearing a hat on the right. By Rebecca Davis.