Memories of Egypt

FALLEN SOLDIERS: The Commonwealth  War Cemetery at El Alamein.
FALLEN SOLDIERS: The Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein.

Bill Bristow almost didn't make it to the battle of El Alamein.

But he will be there with 23 other New Zealand veterans of the North Africa campaign when they commemorate the battle's 70th anniversary next week.

The 93-year-old from Takanini will be among those flying to Egypt on Friday aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757 on a trip funded by Veterans' Affairs New Zealand.

REMEMBERING: Bill Bristow is travelling to Egypt to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of the battle of El Alamein
REMEMBERING: Bill Bristow is travelling to Egypt to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of the battle of El Alamein

They will also be paying their respects to more than 1100 Kiwi comrades buried in the El Alamein Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

Mr Bristow knows how lucky he was not to be among them.

He was 20 and under-age when he enlisted in the army and spent 1940 in the Egyptian desert as a scout, preparing for the Italian invasion.

He was captured during the fateful battle of Crete and put in a German prisoner of war camp "for a wee while".

"One month - and I'd had a gutsful. I thought, to hell with this."

A barbed wire fence and two guards stood between him and freedom.

"They'd shoot you if they caught you but if you watched yourself you could get through."

He and three others lay in the shadow of a tent waiting for the guards to pass.

"We waited and waited and waited and no sign of them, so I thought, ‘Righto, I'll go'."

He crawled under the fence and started to run for a stand of bamboo across the road.

"I suddenly saw a cigarette glowing there so I stopped and went back smartly," he says.

"Next thing we saw two Jerries [German soldiers] move out of there. They were the guards, out sitting there having a quiet smoke."

Crisis averted, the young sergeant made his escape then spent five months wandering the island trying to get off.

He was fed and clothed by the Greeks, who he says were "marvellous people".

"They'd give you their last crust of bread," Mr Bristow says.

He managed to escape by boat and rejoined the 18th Battalion in Egypt.

But the first battle of El Alamein began while he was recuperating from illness away from the front line.

The battle was halfway through when he arrived in the town but he spent several weeks fighting to defend the Allied position.

Then his brigade was withdrawn so it could train as an anti-tank platoon.

"Of course, while this was happening the [second] big battle of El Alamein was all over and done with.

"The Allies chased the Germans right out of Egypt, right up to Tunis and out of North Africa altogether.

"New Zealanders were there - all except the fourth brigade. That was us."

It was bitterly disappointing to miss out on the action, he says, especially as the battle was a turning point in the war.

"Home is where your unit is and my unit was the 18th Battalion. All I ever wanted to do was get back to rejoin the unit. But somehow I got left behind quite a few times."

Soldiers often heard that mates had died when they returned to the fray, he says.

But he will be among friends at the commemorations, including Pukekohe's Roye Hammond, 94, also from the 18th Battalion.

"We've been cobbers all the way through," Mr Bristow says.

Veterans' Affairs New Zealand general manager Rick Ottaway says the trip will be an emotional experience for the men. "These are brave men who have some incredible stories to tell from their time serving in the North Africa campaign."

Papakura Courier