Tuesday, October 23, 2012

El Alamein at 70 – “The End of the Beginning"

Memorial to the Australian 9th Division
at the El Alamein Cemetery
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the WWII Battle of El Alamein in the western Egyptian desert.  It was the first great successful Western Allied offensive of the war, and marked the turning point in Allied morale.  It placed Rommel’s famed German Afrika Corp on the run – for good.  It marked the first appearance in battle of the newest American tank, the Sherman, which would finally give the Allied troops a tank with which to counter those of the Germans.  The victorious British Eighth Army Commander Montgomery became "Viscount Montgomery of Alamein" when he was knighted after the war.   

Some years ago, eight to ten perhaps, on a long late evening flight from Los Angeles to Chicago I found myself sitting next to a small, quiet man who sat peacefully in his seat.  Somehow we struck up a conversation, unusual for me on such flights, where I preferred to rest or read.  We spoke quietly so as to not to disturb (much) our fellow passengers.  I discovered he was an Australian from Tasmania off to visit his son in Rhode Island, and was an avid sailor (like his son if I recall correctly).  Turned out he had been in the Eighth Army and served at El Alamein and later Italy, a courier or messenger as I vaguely recall.  His stories were remarkable, and I wish now I had a tape recorder with me.  We talked and talked and suddenly four hours later the plane was landing at O’Hare.  One of those remarkable little, memorable life experiences, so unplanned and so unexpected.   

Veterans of the battle, the few left, and others gathered at the British war cemetery in Egypt to commemorate the battle (link; link).  I can only wonder if my plane-ride acquaintance made it.   

About two weeks after the start of the battle a large American and British force would land in western North Africa and ultimately trap the Germans between the two advancing Allied armies.  Then on to Sicily and Italy and points beyond.  But it was about this protracted, bitterly fought, but ultimately successful battle, when all had been looking so grim for the Allies, that Winston Churchill famously said: "This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."    

R Balsamo

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