70th Commemoration of the Battle of El Alamein: 19 October 2012

The New Zealand Division played a major role in the attack and breakout at El Alamein in October/November 1942, with 22 Battalion part of the initial phase of this campaign. The New Zealand Division, as part of the 8th Army then chased Rommel all the way west to Tripoli. Part way through this drive to the west it was decided that 22 Battalion would be withdrawn. The Battalion returned to Maadi Camp in Cairo and was refitted as a highly mobile, motorised battalion - 22 (Motorised) Battalion - with its own transport, armoured cars and support. As a result the Battalion did not play any further part in the final phases of the battle in North Africa.

Nearly 2,000 New Zealanders are buried or commemorated at the Commonwealth Cemetery at El Alamein. It is the site of annual commemorations, but this year marked the 70th anniversary. The New Zealand Government agreed to fund the return to El Alamein of all the veterans who were able to make the pilgrimage. Finally, 22 were able to attend the ceremony.

I attended the commemoration service in a private capacity, along with 15 other New Zealanders. I was able to honour the efforts of the 22nd Battalion and to photograph the graves of the men buried there, and those commemorated on the wall of the memorial. There were two services, a small intimate one for New Zealand on the Friday and a large international service on Saturday. My impressions of the services are recorded here.

The Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein

The Commonwealth Cemetery at El Alamein is one of the largest worldwide, with over 20,000 casualties buried or recorded at the site. Of these, 1053 New Zealand men are buried in the cemetery and a further 859 are recorded on the commemoration panels in the entranceway. This the largest cemetery containing New Zealanders outside of the country itsself.

The cemetery is approached from a carpark, down a sloping path towards the entrance containing the commemoration panels. The Cross of Scarifice and Memorial Stone can be seen in the distance. When we arrived early in the afternoon there were signs of final cleaning and tidying in perparation for the services, including a hasty repainting of the safety lines on the steps (the paint and brush had been left behind the steps....).

All Commonwealth war cemeteries that I have visited previously in France, Belgium, Italy, Britain and Egypt have been laid out with carefully manicured lawns with trees and flowers throughout graves. El Alamein immediately struck me by the absence of grass. This is after all part of the desert and water is scarce. There are flowers near the entranceway but beyond that the graves are planted with succulents, olives trees and wattles. The trees are particularly welcome as a source of shade. A rare shower of rain the day before our arrival had left the pathways clear of footprints - it gave me the impression that I was the first to visit some of these graves. And perhaps I was. I had 37 men from the 22 Battalion to locate, photograph and pay my respects to. These men and my photographs of their headstones are recorded on another page.

The sign at El Alamein
Entrance to the El Alamein Cemetery
The path down to the main entrance arches
The Cross of Sacrifice viewed through the main entranceway
The Cross standing at the rear of the Cemetery.
Looking back towards the main entrance
A rare splash of colour in the desert sands
Signs of a hurried clean up of the site

The New Zealand 70th Commemoration Service

The New Zealand service was a small, intimate event, held close to the main entrance to take advantage of the seating and the shade offered by the foyer. The service was timed for 4pm to gain some respite from the hot sun. The setting sun also cast a softened light and added a sense of poignancy as it dropped below the trees and headstones.

The Order of Service for the New Zealand 70th Commemoration Service at El Alamein

Photographs of the Service

The official party with the veterans arrives at El Alamein
Start of the Service
The veterans resting in the shade of the entrance foyer
Some of the audience
The official party in the shade of umbrellas
More of the veterans in the shade
The Minister of Defence Hon Jonathan Coleman
Chief of Army Brig Tim Keating
Chief of Army
Mr Watt McEwan, veteran
Stewart Frame and WOII Britanny Philps laying the wreath on behalf of veterans
Robbert Gillies and Cadet Gareth Shaw on behalf of the 28th Maori Battalion
The New Zealand flag
Pte Thomas Baker playing the Last Post
Singing "Now is the Hour"
Members of the Sinai Peacekeeping Force perform the haka
View over the cemetery from the entrance foyer
Topsy seated under the umbrellas. Her father is buried at El Alamein
The indefatigable Cameron Bennett talking with Topsy
Minister of Defence Hon. Coleman walking through the cemetery, accompanied by Josh and Cdr Mark Chadwick
The Minister laying a poppy on the grave of Lt Col John Russell, who he referred to in his speech
Lt Col John Russell, Commanding Officer of the 22nd Battalion
Topsy and grand-daughter Renee beside the grave of her father
Pte Wereta's headstone
Topsy and Renee with Cameron Bennett again
The sun sets over El Alamein

El Alamein Railway Station

Close to the Commonwealth Cemetery lies the Alamein Railway Station. This station was used by troop trains bringing emn and supplies up from Alexandria to reinforce the New Zealand Division at Elamein. The old station is till tere, dilapidated and unused. A new(er) station has been built nearby.

The sign at El Alamein Railway Station
The old El Alamein Station
Looking west along the tracks
Yes, that is a train coming....
Pulling into the new station
Departing with security riding at the back

Return to Day 5

The International Commemoration Service

The International Commemoration was held the next day, Saturday 20th October. This was a large event attended by several hundred people from a large number of countries. Unlike the previous day, when we New Zealanders were the only people in the cemetery, today saw a large security presence. Armed police and other security people and the ubiquitious metal detector at the gate. Not unreasonable in a region that has seen indiscriminate acts of violence in the recent past.

The International Order of Service

Photographs of the International Service

The international parties start to arrive
Buses, embassy cars galore and the odd ambulance
The Australian Memorial near the entrance to the Commonwealth cemetery
Crowds gathering in the entrance foyer
Looking across to umbrellas where the service will be held
Crowds around the service
The Italians arrive with typical dash and self-importance....
And a purpose in mind
Australian veterans....
and more Australians....
Kiwi veterans.....
and a wreath in a kilt, than turned into the piper.
The trumpets playing the Last Post
and wreaths being laid
The walking wreath became the Piper - from the South African Irish Reginment no less
Trumpets at rest
The catafalque party lining up, mostly Kiwi peacekeepers
And the Kiwi soldier who had to stand still for the whole service
The Minister of Defence with the Chief of Army
and laying the New Zealand wreath
Not all people were focussed on the service
The Egyptian Navy was well controlled throughout.

The El Alamein War Museum

Close to the Cemetery lies the El Alamein War Museum, containing an outside grqveyard of military wrecks and relics. Inside are some excellent displays about the battles in the desert, and a whole wing on the role played by the glorious Egyptian Army.

Entrance to the El Alamein War Museum
The War Museum
Mural on the war depicting the tank battles
Italian 90mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun
Italian M13 tank
Remains of a British Spitfire
Crusader, Indian and Grant tanks
Grant tank
A "British Indian" tank
Crusader tank
Sherman tank
German 55mm (left) and British 6 pounder (right) anti-tank guns
The much-feared German 88mm anti-tank gun
The typically-Egyptian sign beside the gun

The German and Italian Memorials

Several kilometres to the west lie the German and Italian war memorials. They are close to the coast and appear to be in positions close to the furtherest advance of these forces. Both buildings are of striking design. The German one is a circular tower with an open courtyard. The Italian one has a high vaulted ceiling similar to a cathedral, a memorial window facing the Mediterranian Sea (and Italy) and annexes of filled with ossiaries - the remains of many Italian soldiers, many simply "Incognato".

The German Memorial

Approaching the German memorial in the bus
The entrance to the German memorial
Memorial stone at the entrance
Inside, the obelisk at the centre of the courtyard
Each alcove around the courtyard has a symbolic grave and lists of the dead, by province
Chairs arranged for the ceremony
Wreaths at the foot of the obelisk
The view east towards Alexandria, the closest view the Afrika Corps had of their objective

The Italian Memorial

A communications centre close to the Italian memorial
The tall tower of the Italian memorial
Walking up the steps to the memorial
The Eternal Flame made from barbed wire at the entrance
Looking up to the roof of the vaulted tower in the centre of the memorial
The window looking out over the Mediterranena Sea towards Italy
Lists of the Italian missing on the walls
The East Wing containing the remains of many Italian men
The lines of name plates
And another alcove
Many are simply "Ignoto"
Looking south across the Alamein Line
More of the Western Desert
Memorial to the Italian who collected up the remains

Return to Day 5

Return to Day 6

Return to Index

Last updated: 02/07/2017