A New Zealand Defence Force press statement on Sunday, advising that Kiwi veterans of the North African campaign had attended commemoration ceremonies in Egypt to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, quoted 90-year-old Alan Peart, from Hamilton.
Mr Peart was one of 21 veterans, aged between 88 and 96, who attended a New Zealand national ceremony to mark the anniversary on Friday (he described the service held near the graves of New Zealanders as "humbling") followed by an international commemoration service on Saturday attended by around 600 veterans from a dozen countries that took part in the battle. It is instructive that Kiwi veterans are reported to have sat next to former foes from Germany and Italy. Mr Peart was a flight lieutenant during the campaign, mainly combat with enemy fighters and strafing attacks. He has family members among more than 1100 New Zealanders buried in the El Alamein Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
The North African campaign took a heavy toll on a generation of his (and our) countrymen: 10,000 New Zealanders were killed or wounded, and more than 4000 became prisoners of war.
To what purpose? Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman answered that in a speech during the ceremonies, recalling that German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put the same question to a captured New Zealander in September 1942: "Why are you New Zealanders fighting? This is a European war, not yours! Are you here for the sport?"
No, not sport. As Mr Coleman explained, our forces were deployed to El Alamein and other Middle East battlefields, during both World Wars, because of New Zealand's commitment to doing the right thing internationally and to defending the right of people to live in freedom and peace. It is a commitment that persists to the present day, reflected in the ongoing service of New Zealanders in peacekeeping missions in the region.
Whether we are doing the right thing internationally is more arguable today than it was when we played our part in defeating Hitler. El Alamein was a turning point, critical in thwarting the Axis powers' ambitions. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."
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