Veterans return to battlegrounds

03:45, Oct 15 2012
Veteran Maurice Abrahams with RNZAF Medic CPL Russell Cowling wave goodbye before boarding the flight for El Alamein.

More than 20 war veterans left New Zealand today for Egypt where they will visit battlegrounds they fought at 70 years ago and remember the 380 men who never made it home.

Twenty two veterans of the North African campaign, all aged between 88 and 96, today boarded a plane for Egypt, to return to the place where they fought through blood and tears, but survived.

Seventy years has passed since the Battle of El Alamein, where 380 New Zealand soldiers were killed and a further 1300 wounded in just one week.

Many have probably never returned to Egypt and their visit to former battlegrounds is sure to bring back memories.

The veterans will attend a New Zealand National Ceremony to mark the anniversary on Friday, followed by an International Commemoration Service on Saturday.  

Both ceremonies will take place at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in El Alamein, which contains the names of 11,945 Commonwealth servicemen and the graves of men who died at all stages of the desert campaigns.

Veterans' Affairs New Zealand General Manager Rick Ottaway, who sent the men off in Auckland today, said it was an opportunity for them to pay their respects to their colleagues who never returned.

"It will be a very emotional time, as many have family members, colleagues or friends who rest in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in El Alamein," Ottaway said.

"They will also have the opportunity to see some of the places they once fought, which I'm sure will bring back many memories they have of their time in North Africa."

The story of the battle begins in June, 1942, when the New Zealand Division was urgently recalled back to Egypt from Syria, according to information on the Returned Services Association's website

"It was a long protracted period of living dangerously," veteran Alan Johnston said 10 years ago, when he travelled to Egypt to mark the 60th anniversary.

"For those who were present in Egypt at that time, El Alamein has a certain instant recall because so much happened to so many New Zealanders during this particular action that it remains indelibly printed on one's memory. It tested the mettle of all who were involved."        

Victory was achieved by the allies in early November, but the loss of life was great.

"A victory it was - but not a glorious victory, there is no glory in war, only human tragedy and suffering," Johnston said.        

In the greater North African campaign, New Zealand lost 1300 soldiers, 3700 were wounded and 2000 taken as prisoners.

"This was a disastrous price to pay for victory, especially when those figures only apply to one country's casualties," Johnston said.

Johnston was an infantry sergeant in the war and suffered severe leg wounds during the early campaign. He was the RSA's national president before his death a few years ago.

The veterans are flying to Egypt on an Air Force plane, which will also transport 18 Australian veterans from Dubai to Egypt and back. The New Zealand veterans will return on October 25.