Former enemies remember El Alamein

Under a roaring flypast by Italian jets, former enemy soldiers gathered here on Sunday to remember comrades who fell at El Alamein 60 years ago, a battle in the Egyptian desert that turned the tide for allied forces fighting Nazi Germany.

Octogenarian veterans from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth nations, after holding a solemn ceremony at their own desert cemetery on Saturday, joined old warriors from Germany and Italy for prayers and a colorful tribute at the Italian war memorial.

Italian President Carlo Ciampi struck a chord when he reminded his audience of 1 500 people, among them scores of El Alamein veterans, how far Western countries have come since the defeat of totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

“We, the ones who returned home (from World War II battles), took an oath in our hearts: never again shall we go to war between ourselves,” Ciampi said, stirring applause from the mixed group of old and young soldiers, nurses, nuns, and elegantly dressed civilian women.

“The generations that have never known the war have to be fully aware of the value of the freedom and democracy that has been won for them. And to defend it, with the same courage and dedication that you displayed on this battlefield,” Ciampi said.

“In the Balkans and in Afghanistan, keeping vigil over a peace often precarious in many parts of the world, the armed services of our countries are acquitting themselves together of difficult and dangerous tasks,” he said.

Speakers from Commonwealth countries throughout the weekend echoed the current dangers, such as the threat from terrorism, including the bombing in Bali earlier this month which left many young Australians dead.

Australians here wore black arm bands in solidarity with the dead from Bali. The Very Reverend Anthony Andrew, the British dean of All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, standing beneath the towering stone memorial before a table with a silver crucifix, prayed to God to heal the “wounds” of those who suffered from war and terrorism.

Turning to Egyptian officials in the crowd, he recalled how much the Egyptians, who were non-combatants, had suffered during the battle at El Alamein, which is just south of the Mediterranean coast, around 100 kilometres west of the port city of Alexandria.

He asked Egpytians to help Westerners to understand Islam better.
Different parts of the ceremonies struck more emotional chords with the veterans, many of them wearing red berets and blazers bedecked with medals.

“I cried when they sounded the bugle,” said 81-year-old Salvatore Bettini, who was a sergeant in a mortar company of the seventh batallion of the Folgore parachute brigade. At a moment of silence, a loan bugler played out another lament, which was then suddenly drowned out by the roar of eight Italian acrobatic warplanes flying low overhead and trailing red, white and green smoke, the colors of the Italian flag. The flypast drew gasps from the crowd.

Bettini, who was wounded in the leg at El Alamein and taken prisoner by the British, spoke fondly of his former enemies, saying they took him to a British hospital near Cairo and treated him well.

His comments were echoed by other veterans from Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. “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 Marshall Erwin Rommel, who led the estimated 90 000 to 100 000 German and Italian troops against the 150 000 Commonwealth and allied forces under the command of the cautious and meticulous Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery.

Rommel’s son Manfred, who German officials said was ill and could not attend the ceremonies, sent a message of reconciliation between nations that was read out by a friend during an earlier ceremony on Sunday at the German cemetery.

Montgomery’s son Viscount David Montgomery took part in the ceremonies Saturday at the Commonwealth cemetery, where thousands of graves stand in neat sandy rows amid cactus and other desert flowers.

“I’m always very moved when I come here,” Montgomery said Saturday. “You see all these graves and these young men who died in a great cause.”

The battle at El Alamein, a culmination of two years of fighting in north Africa, proved a decisive allied victory, helping to establish control in the Mediterranean and securing the Suez Canal, the link with the east and Middle East oil supplies. It began on October 23, 1942, and ended 12 days later. - Sapa-AFP

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