Heroes of the Battle of El Alamein remembered on the 75th anniversary

Article and photos by S Sgt Itumeleng Makhubela

The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula echoed her sentiments to the gallant heroes of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) who died after joining the then South Africa’s Union Defence Force in the North African campaign at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt during the II World War 75 years ago.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) had earlier coordinated the ceremony of the Commemoration of the 75th Battle of El Alamein, which preceded the SANDF commemoration parade on behalf of more than 35 countries that participated in the war, including South Africa, France, India, New Zealand, England among others.

More than 7, 350 soldiers have been buried in El Alamein war cemetery of the commonwealth nations including more than 800 unidentified soldiers. It is said that the battle marked a turning point in the course of II World War.

“We are gathered here on this solemn occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein to pay homage to the fallen heroes of this battle, in particular South Africans. Our country’s participation was as a colony of the British Empire and member of the Commonwealth nations

It is important to note that over 500 South African soldiers lie in this cemetery whereas some 1, 200 were declared missing in or unaccounted for. South Africa must be proud to have been part of the battle that made history; a battle that marked the defeat of Nazi forces.” Minister Mapisa-Nqakula said.

The South African elements that were part of the North African expedition were the 1st Infantry Brigade, Second Infantry Brigade, Third Infantry Brigade, Tank Regiment, Engineering Companies, Armoured Reconnaissance among other

She however indicated that South Africa’s racial dynamics then were clearly noticeable, even in the theatre of war. Black soldiers who enlisted for war were not expected to bear arms as their white counterparts and only supported the war effort as labourers, trench and grave diggers.

Minister Mapisa-Nqakula explained that it was unfortunate for them as the opponent did not discriminate or distinguish if they were enemies or not. She added that the South African government at the time did not honour some of the promises which were made to them.

“The irony of this war is that very little is said about black South African soldiers’ involvement or even acknowledged. We need to let our people know that all South Africans were part of the war effort against Nazism.” She said.

The Chief of the SA Army, Lt Gen Lindile Yam who accompanied the Minister on her visit to Egypt said the South African soldiers’ remains that lie in the cemetery represented the fight for preservation of peace and prosperity of human kind. He said the concerted effort in engaging in military campaigns is part of an obligation as part of the international community to prevent conflict and attain peace.

He said that the SANDF is commemorating the Battle of El Alamein and other campaigns to give hope to soldiers who are still active within the SANDF ranks and involved in operations and, in a way assure them that they would always be remembered in the same manner.

“Besides the SS Mendi tragedy, the El Alamein has got more numbers of the members who were part of the South African Native Labour Corps of whom mostly were people of the African origin. Their contribution was excluded in the country’s history, so we are here to commemorate and celebrate their involvement of the Battle of El Alamein and other campaigns.

We have become a good example as the South African Military because we an embodiment of what people in our country aspire, which is a non-racial society” He said.

The SANDF participation in the 75th anniversary Battle of El Alamein was in collaboration with the Department of Military Veterans (DMV) and the Reserve Force Council Association (RFAC). Lt Col Molofe Diseko, who oversaw the SANDF ceremonial participation of the commemoration said over 500 remains of the South African soldiers lie in the cemetery.

“Most were from the South African Native Labour Corps, the Coloured Corps and other South African regiments at the time. Most of them fought in the front lines and as a result suffered a huge number of casualties.

Their contribution to the battle actually prevented the Nazi forces to further advance in other territories. As a way of recognising their brave deeds, the South African government is honouring all these fallen heroes in the actual sites where the battle took place.” He said.

The Second Battle of El Alamein began on 23 October 1942 with a huge Allied artillery bombardment – the first seen since the First World War. Lasting 12 days, the battle marked a turning point in the North African campaign fought between Commonwealth forces and German and Italian forces.

For both sides the ultimate aim was control of the Mediterranean, the link with the East through the Suez Canal, Middle East oil supplies and the supply route to Russia through Persia.

El Alamein War Cemetery is the largest Common Wealth Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in Egypt. The cemetery contains more than 7,200 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, of which more than 800 are unidentified. It contains the graves of servicemen who died during all stages of the campaigns in the Western Desert and whose remains were brought into the cemetery from a wide area, but especially those who died in the Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and in the period immediately before. There are also some 100 war graves of other nationalities.

At the entrance to the cemetery is the CWGC Alamein Memorial. It bears the names of almost 12,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen who have no known grave. Like the cemetery, the memorial was designed by Worthington and both were unveiled on 24 October 1954 - the 12thanniversary of the Battle of El Alamein - by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, who commanded British forces in the desert during the war.

The memorial takes the form of a cloister, some 80 metres long, and is entered through three arches which lead to a wide hall where the names are inscribed in stone. Within the cloister are Land Forces panels commemorating more than 8,500 soldiers, and Air Forces panels commemorating more than 3,000 airmen of the Commonwealth. Broad stairs lead to a roof top terrace with stunning views across the desert and in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea.

The Alamein Cremation Memorial, which stands in the south-eastern part of El Alamein War Cemetery, commemorates more than 600 men whose remains were cremated in Egypt and Libya during the war, in accordance with their faith.


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