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Published: September 4th 2006
Poppa at El AlameinThis is going to be another of my war history blogs like the one on Crete. It's really more about me recording my personal experience rather than entertaining you lot, so skip it if you aren't interested. For those who do read it hopefully I can give you more of an appreciation of just what went on and the important contributions and sacrifices that the NZ soldiers made.
This picture was taken at dawn on 23 October 1942 while the NZ Division were waiting at the start line for the battle to commence.
Perhaps my main motivation for coming to Egypt was to visit El Alamein, the scene of a major WWII battle that my grandfather had fought in. Anyway being based in Alexandria for a few days made it easy to organise a day trip to El Alamein, which is about 100km west along the coast from Alexandria. The battle that was fought there was one of the largest in history and it actually consisted of 4 months of smaller engagements culminating in a decisive battle which turned the tide in Egypt and perhaps in WWII itself. For those who are interested I will fill in the gaps with some historical context about the battle, but if you aren't fussed then by all means skip the next paragraph.
In a past blog from
Crete I'd already talked a bit about how the NZ soldiers were part of a Commonwealth effort to stop the Germans from seizing control of the Eastern Mediterranean. The main part of the German strategy was to conquer Egypt and with that in their possession they would control the all important Suez Canal and be on the brink of the Middle Eastern oilfields. The British (and Commonwealth soldiers from NZ, Aust, SA, India etc) had been fighting seesaw battles across the deserts of North Africa against the Germans and Italians for the past couple of years, however a series of decisive victories by the Germans had pushed the Allies back deep into Egypt to the village of Alamein and almost to the gates of Alexandria. Basically with the Allies on the ropes the fate of Egypt, the canal and the oilfields was hanging on the outcome of El Alamein. The Allies managed to hold the Germans at Alamein in July 1942 and both sides dug in while they regained strength for a stronger offensive. After their involvement in Greece and Crete, the NZ Division was one of the more battle hardened and experienced Allied units so they were often among
the first set into a scrap with the Germans throughout this time. In fact when the major Battle of El Alamein was fought in October and November the Kiwis and Aussies were instrumental in breaking the back of the German line and forcing them into retreat from Alamein. The plan was called Operation Supercharge and it involved the Australian tank division attacking north to draw the attention of the enemy armour , allowing the NZ infantry to attack the weakpoint in the German lines that the diversion had created and pour through the gap with support from the British and South Africans. This breakthrough forced the Germans and Italians into full retreat and a few months later they had been pushed from North Africa and the tide of WWII had been turned. As Winston Churchill famously said afterwards: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."
These days the village of Alamein has become a major tourist resort by virtue of its great beaches. However a lot of the legacy from the great battle remains behind and it a fascinating place to visit if you are into your war history. The Egyptian Government
has established an excellent museum which tells the story of Alamein in just the right detail for tourists. The museum also contains a lot of weapons, vehicles, uniforms and photographs from the battle and much of the rest of the war in the desert and in many ways it was the best set out and presented museum that I visited in Egypt. Just down the road from the museum is the Commonwealth cemetery, which is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Association, just like the one I visited in Crete. 7367 Allied soldiers are buried there, although sadly another 11,945 soldiers have no known grave and have their names recorded on the Alamein memorial. About 2000 Kiwis were killed in action at Alamein, with 1108 being buried in the Commonwealth cemetery and another 880 listed on the Alamein memorial.
Just as I found in Crete, the NZ soldiers all have their graves grouped together and they are prominently located on your immediate right as you enter. Interestingly all of the graves belonging to Indian soldiers face to the east, which I suppose is for religious or cultural reasons. Just beyond the cemetery the desert battlefield begins and even
If you look beyond the boundary you can see the flat and featureless desert where all the fighting took place.
64 years on it is a no-mans land due to the minefields and unexploded ammunition laced throughout it. Apparently a good number of kids have been killed or injured by venturing out there. The desert itself isn't the romantic rolling sand dunes that you picture when you think of a desert. Instead it is a barren featureless expanse, devoid of any sort of ridge or dune and covered with rocks the size of cricket balls. Spending months manning the line out there without any natural cover must have been hell enough before you even consider that 100,000 Germans were shooting at you!
Indeed if there is one thing that I have gained from visiting these historic battlesites it is an added appreciation for how it must have been to have been in those battles. In Crete I stood amongst the olive groves and could almost imagine the confusion and panic that they must have endured with elite paratroopers dropping all around you. Similarly in Egypt the summer heat gets unbearable and I found myself drinking 10-15 litres of water a day and relying on airconditioning to stay cool. However the old soldiers spent almost every minute out in the
desert, with water rationed to them and only their tents, trenches or a vehicle to offer shade from the hot sun. Compounding their discomfort was that there was not enough water to properly wash themselves, that their uniforms were mostly made from thick wool and that the air was thick with flies (you can guess why they hung around a battlefield).
My grandfather Ian Thomas was a Sergeant in the NZ 25th Battalion by this time and he was among the first wave of NZ soldiers who attacked the German lines in the decisive battle. He was wounded in the hip at Alamein and after recovering from his injury he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and transferred to 22nd Battalion where he was given his own platoon. He saw the rest of the war out in Italy, fighting in major battles at Monte Cassino, the Sangro and receiving the Military Cross for leading his men in the capture of a village called La Romola, which is just outside Florence. These days Poppa is 89 years old and on to his 4th replacement hip (a legacy of Alamein). I went to visit him the day before I left NZ and
The NZ section of the War Cemetery where 1108 Kiwis are buried.
explained that I was off to follow in his footsteps, and I'm sure he will be pleased when Mum tells him that I've been here for a visit. Italy will be my next stop in my quest to visit his old haunts and I hope to get there in the next northern summer!
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