60 years on, foes of El Alamein are united in tribute

They were the men who fought for Britain and the Commonwealth, for Mussolini and for the fuhrer, and yesterday they came from around the world to jointly honour their dead.

They were the men who fought for Britain and the Commonwealth, for Mussolini and for the fuhrer, and yesterday they came from around the world to jointly honour their dead.

But almost 60 years to the day after Britain’s Lt Gen Bernard Montgomery launched his artillery attack at El Alamein, it was in the spirit that defined the desert war – camaraderie and respect – that veterans from each nation came together for one last time.

From Australia and New Zealand, Italy and Germany, Britain and the dominions, Greece and France, they sat under a searing Egyptian sun to remember the estimated 32,000 Germans and Italians and 13,500 allied troops they had left behind.

At the end of the year, the British veterans of El Alamein will formally lay up the Eighth Army’s standards following those who fought at Dunkirk and in other decisive second world war battles.

“Enemies yesterday, friends today, that’s how we see it,” said the former royal artillery commander, Andrew Brown, as he greeted Alfred Steussloff, who had served in the tank division of Germany’s Afrika Korps.

“You know,” he said as he shook Mr Steussloff’s hand outside the German war cemetery at El Alamein, “we thought (Erwin) Rommel was a very good commander. How wonderful it is, at the age of 83, to be shaking the hand of someone from the Afrika Korps.”

The German concurred. The old men, he explained, should have met long ago. “You are right. Rommel was good because he respected the rules of war,” he said of the field marshall who had led the Axis forces in North Africa.

El Alamein is widely seen as the turning point of the second world war. It was at the tiny Egyptian railway stop that the Nazis suffered their first major defeat at the hands of a disparate force united under Montgomery’s leadership.

The victory, three months before the battle of Stalingrad, gave a boost to the flagging spirits of the British after the loss of France in 1940 and the Far East in 1941-42.

It prompted Winston Churchill to say: “Before Alamein we never had a victory; after Alamein we never had a defeat.”

But with reconciliation the order of the day, yesterday, there was no talk of winners and losers - even if German veterans remained conspicuously understated. Most preferred to wear only their regimental ties as reminders of their wartime past.

As they filed into the Italian cemetery for the memorial service, veterans from both sides stood side by side to chat and be photographed together. Many said they had been unable to relive the drama of their youth before this time.

“I’ve always wanted to come and revisit those left behind,” said Ted Kelly, who served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery. “I knew this was going to be the last time I could come and thought ‘I’m going to muster the courage once and for all’,” said the 83-year-old from Doncaster.

Contributor

Helena Smith in El Alamein

The GuardianTramp

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