World War II veterans and delegates from former foes gathered on Saturday in the Egyptian town of El-Alamein to mark 70 years since the decisive battle that sealed the Allied victory in North Africa.
Many on wheelchairs or using walking sticks, the veterans — most now in their 90s — wandered the cemeteries where their comrades were buried, handkerchiefs in hand as emotions welled.
“I already came for the 50th and 60th anniversaries. When you walk here between the graves of these young fellows, when you see names that you knew, you feel sad,” said Joe Madeley, an Australian veteran who also fought in the Libyan town of Tobruk 70 years ago.
“I’m happy to able to be here, but it’s difficult to express my feelings,” said William Bristow from New Zealand, who was 24 when he fought in the war.
With so few surviving World War II veterans, the ceremony could be the last of its kind.
The international commemoration, organized by Britain, was held in the Commonwealth cemetery in the Mediterranean town where more than 7,000 soldiers from the member countries have been buried, as well as around 100 soldiers of other nationalities.
About 60 veterans, including Australians, New Zealanders, British, French, Greeks, Italians and Germans traveled to El-Alamein, now a sprawling seaside resort 120km west of Alexandria.
“It’s a more emotional trip than I had imagined,” Frenchman Jean-Mathieu Boris, 91, said.
Today’s Mediterranean coast, dotted with hotels and holiday compounds, is a far cry from the one Boris remembers.
“You have to use your imagination, because in 1942 it was only a dot on the map in the desert,” he told reporters.
Dignitaries at the ceremony included New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman and Italian Chamber of Deputies President Gianfranco Fini.
Other countries were represented by their ministers for veterans’ affairs, while the British and German military attaches in Egypt gave speeches.
“Together we celebrate all that has been achieved since those days through cooperation with people across the world, especially our reconciliation and friendship with former enemies,” Reverend Mike Parker of Cairo’s All Saints Cathedral told attendants.
Separate national ceremonies were also held on the site of the battle, notably at the Italian cemetery where about 5,200 soldiers are buried and the German cemetery, the final resting place for 4,200 German soldiers.
The battle of El-Alamein — which began on Oct. 23, 1942 — saw British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s forces fight the Afrika Korps of Germany’s Erwin Rommel.
The defeat of the German and Italian forces put an end to Axis leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s ambitions to take over the port of Alexandria on the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal.
The battle was a major turning point in the war, halting the advance of the Axis in North Africa before the final victory a year later.
Several protesters gathered outside the cemetery holding signs recalling that, 70 years after the war, the area is still littered with mines.