Westminster Abbey service commemorates Battle of El Alamein

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To mark the 70th anniversary of the famous Battle of El Alamein, hundreds of people attended an evensong service at Westminster Abbey to remember the thousands of UK and Commonwealth Armed Forces personnel who fought in the conflict.

Widely regarded as the major turning point in the Second World War, El Alamein halted the Axis Powers’ expansion in North Africa. However, after 13 days of intense fighting, more than 4,000 members of Allied Forces were listed as killed or missing, and nearly 9,000 wounded.

The service, which took place on Saturday, paid tribute to the thousands of men from all three Services who took part in the battle.

The commemoration was attended by Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Peter Wall, Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans Mark Francois and Viscount Montgomery, son of the Field Marshal who famously commanded Allied Forces at the battle.

Viscount Montgomery gave a reading, and an address was given by The Reverend Jonathan Woodhouse QHC, Chaplain-General of the Army.

Two wreaths were laid at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior during the service. The first was by Gen Richards on behalf of The Duchess of Cornwall, whose father Major Bruce Shand served with the 12th Lancers at El Alamein, followed by a second wreath laid by General Wall on behalf of the Armed Forces.

Major Peter Watson MC, a former Black Watch officer, pays his respects at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior
Major Peter Watson MC, a former Black Watch officer, pays his respects at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior [Picture: Sergeant Adrian Harlen, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

General Richards said:

It’s a very poignant day for all of us in the Armed Forces. The Battle of El Alamein for most of us was a very iconic event in that it was the turning point of the war and to meet the 42 veterans of the battle who are here today is a huge privilege for people like me. This is the most wonderful thing I’ve done for a long time.

In the Abbey I felt huge poignancy because you’re aware when you lay the wreath on behalf of all those thousands of men who died at Alamein and just around you are just a few who really knew them and felt their pain, so I think I felt honoured and privileged.

General Wall said:

This is the 70th anniversary and it was a key turning point of course of the Second World War, not just in Africa, but across the globe for British forces, for the Allies. Most importantly of course its fantastic to see those who took part and the families of those affected by it here in such numbers for what was a very poignant service.

I thought one of the addresses that was talking about the sacrifice and service of all those who took part in very demanding and dangerous circumstances, that the hope that we should derive from that as we look to the future as a nation and face more challenges; I thought that summarised the whole mood of the service and why everybody was so delighted to have travelled from far and wide to be here.

Both the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff took time to meet and chat to many of the veterans who attended the service.

General Wall said:

It’s almost embarrassing to meet them to the extent that they are so humble and blase about what we would have regarded as life changing experiences had we been there in a tank, in an armoured car, on the gun line, or as sappers clearing fields, all of the things you read about when you study El Alamein were described to me by those who actually did it. It’s a unique experience.

Robert Lay, is a 91 year-old Desert Rat veteran who served with the 5th Armoured Tank Regiment at El Alamein. Speaking at the service he said:

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein is for me a timely opportunity for remembrance of all my close friends and associates, particularly my first tank crew - closer than brothers - who I travelled with almost all the way to Tunis. All of them I believe were killed by the time we crossed the Seine in 1944.

Many of those who attended the service were family members of those who fought in the Battle of El Alamein. John Newson’s father fought at the battle and often spoke of his experiences.

Mr Newson attended the service in his father’s memory.

My father was in the Royal Marines and he had been seconded to the Fleet Air Arm before the war and he was flying out in the Middle East at the time of El Alamein,” Mr Newson said.

He was CO of 821 Squadron that was flying Albacores and their main duties were going out and spotting for concentrations of armour and supplies, dropping flares on them so that the Wellington bombers would bomb the supplies. It was all part of the policy of trying to restrict the Afrika Corps supplies as much as possible on land and at sea as well.

My father died about five years ago and I thought this was a good opportunity to think about what he did. He used to talk about Alamein. He was in the air apparently at the time it started and he used to say that suddenly the sky lit up with this huge bombardment so obviously it had been pretty indelible on his mind.

This service at Westminster Abbey followed international commemorations for the anniversary of the Battle at El Alamein over 19-21 October 2012, co-ordinated by the British Embassy in Cairo and attended by the Minister for International Security Strategy, Dr Andrew Murrison.