Alamein remembered

EL ALAMEIN, Egypt – Old veterans from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy and other countries paid homage in the Egyptian desert on Saturday to the tens of thousands who died 60 years ago during the decisive World War II battle of El Alamein. Some of the scores of octogenarian ex-soldiers fought back tears at the ceremony held Saturday at the Commonwealth Cemetery, where gravestones stood in neat columns in the sand, cultivated with cactus and other desert flowers. «It’s a bit emotional. We all lost friends,» said Jack Cromwell Balmforth, who was a British artilleryman in the 150,000-strong Eighth Army led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. A bagpiper in Scottish tartan played laments as color guards accompanied Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, the Duke of Kent and other Commonwealth dignitaries to a stone memorial where they laid wreaths. Viscount David Montgomery, the son of the late general, also took part in the ceremonies, which was set to end yesterday with a full international gathering of Axis and Allied veterans at the Italian cemetery. Enmities were long buried with the dead. «We’ve got no animosity whatsoever toward them. No, in fact, the Germans we admire very much,» said Ken Beamish, 80, an artillery gunner for the Ninth Australian Division, which delivered some of the key blows in the Allied victory at El Alamein. Beamish admired the bold Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who led the estimated between 90,000 and 100,000 German and Italian troops, as a «clean fighter.» «He was a good soldier, and after all, the Germans were doing what we were doing, fighting for what they believed was right,» he said. Rudolf Schneider, who fought in the second company of Rommell’s personal combat unit, was impressed that one of the Commonwealth speakers hailed the German Panzer army as full of «brave men.» «That’s what I liked to hear,» said Schneider, 84, from Stauchitz, Germany. Even in Germany, because of guilt over the war, such a tribute cannot be heard 60 years later, he said. Earlier several Italian veterans laid a wreath at the graves of the Commonwealth troops and allied Polish and Greek soldiers. Norman Kamper, 82, whose South African First Anti-Tank Division was under Montgomery’s command, said the enmity «felt in the heat of battle» does not take long to forget. «Once a war is over, everybody becomes mates.» He said he sometimes wondered whether the «world would have been any worse or any better» if the war had not been fought. Other veterans said they considered it a terrible but unavoidable event. Keith Hansen, another Australian veteran, spoke of an enormous sense of loss as he searched for four friends whose names were written down on a white piece of paper he clutched. «It’s a lot of wasted life, when you look at it, but it was a job that was necessary,» said Hansen, who was a ground controller in the Royal Australian Air Force during the two-week battle, when the Allies enjoyed air superiority. Jean Perry, a nurse in the 27th Australian General Hospital unit, recalled how brave the young wounded soldiers were because they worried more about their comrades left on the battlefield. «Their main concern was for their mates,» said the 82-year-old Perry, a resident of Beaumaris, Victoria. The battle at El Alamein, a culmination of two years of successive advances and retreats by the two sides in North Africa, proved a decisive Allied victory, helping to establish control in the Mediterranean and securing the Suez Canal, the link with Middle East oil supplies. The victory led to the final expulsion of the Axis forces from North Africa in April 1943, and was one of the most intense battles – involving almost 2,000 tanks – fought at that time. The battle, fought about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Alexandria in a narrow desert strip south of the sea, proved how crucial logistics were, as the Allies sunk Axis shipping and prevented Rommel from getting badly needed supplies. Church bells rang in Britain for the first time in the war, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said later, «Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat.»