Former enemies remember El Alamein

MIKE CREAN AT EL ALAMEIN
Last updated 05:00 22/10/2012
WAR STORIES: Veterans Jean Parry, 93, and Joe Madeley, 92, share memories during commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Second Battle of El Alamein in El Alamein, Egypt.
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WAR STORIES: Veterans Jean Parry, 93, and Joe Madeley, 92, share memories during commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Second Battle of El Alamein in El Alamein, Egypt.

HONOURING THE DEAD: Kiwi veteran Harry Spencer, 96, of Hastings, at El Alamein.
MIKE CREAN/Fairfax NZ
HONOURING THE DEAD: Kiwi veteran Harry Spencer, 96, of Hastings, at El Alamein.

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The chants calling the faithful to noon prayers at the El Alamein mosque rang out over the 1000 people gathered at the war cemetery nearby.

The Muslim chanting came as an English minister ended a Christian prayer and an Indian colonel began a reading from Hindu scriptures.

It pushed home the point of Saturday's international commemorative service at the cemetery for the 70th anniversary of World War II battles in the area.

The focus was on remembrance of those who died in the battles and on the duty of all to bring peace to the human family.

In this spirit, 92-year-old Italian De Bortoli Valentino reached forward from his chair and embraced 93-year-old New Zealander Norman Leaf.

"We fought the New Zealanders but we are friends now," the former parachutist said.

Mr Leaf responded that the old enmity had gone "but the sadness is always there".

He was one of 21 New Zealand veterans of the North African Campaign attending the service.

New Zealand Defence Force personnel played a prominent part in the multinational service, just as their grandfathers had in the battles.

Army chief Major-General Tim Keating and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman laid a wreath, one of many, on the catafalque at the heart of the vast cemetery.

The Kiwi veterans sat next to former foes from Germany and Italy, as if to demonstrate the ideals from the book of Ecclesiastes expressed at the New Zealand service the day before: "A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace".

Outside the cemetery in the dingy little town of El Alamein, it was a time to protest. People leaving the service were confronted at the gates by about 30 placard bearers demanding compensation from the combatant countries of World War II for the millions of explosive mines they had left buried in the sands over thousands of square kilometres.

Friday's New Zealand service was smaller and more contemplative and the Defence Force's Maori Cultural Group gave it a distinctively Kiwi flavour.

It allowed the veterans to walk among the headstones as the sun went down. Several pored over the graves of old comrades, knowing they would not pass that way again.

Saturday's service was crammed and exhausting in the midday heat. The veterans, seated under large umbrellas, had difficulty hearing the speakers.

Dick Spraggs summed it up as "just another memorial service". He was disappointed that the Last Post was not played.

Some of the New Zealand contingent attended the Australian service earlier on Saturday.

Australia and New Zealand each fielded one army division at El Alamein, with sailors and airmen also fighting. The bodies of 1200 Australians and 1100 New Zealanders lie in the El Alamein War Cemetery.

Greymouth couple Matt and Linda Lysaght, who had uncles fighting in North Africa, attended the international service but regretted missing the New Zealand service.

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They were on an English company's guided tour of the battlefields that did not include the Friday service.

"We felt it was important to come here," Linda said. "Lest we forget," said Matt. "And we didn't forget."

The New Zealand delegation to the commemorations departed from the small, rundown airport in the desert, about 50 kilometres from El Alamein town, by air force jet yesterday.

The plane is due to land at Whenuapai on Thursday evening. Fairfax NZ

- Fairfax Media

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