El Alamein - 65 years on

To this day the British Army's victory at El Alamein in Egypt is widely recognised as the turning point of the Second World War. After the the Duchess of Cornwall attended a memorial service in Thetford Forest, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the start of the battle, feature writer JAMES MARSTON meets two of Suffolk's last surviving veterans of that campaign.

To this day the British Army's victory at El Alamein in Egypt is widely recognised as the turning point of the Second World War.

After the the Duchess of Cornwall attended a memorial service in Thetford Forest, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the start of the battle, feature writer JAMES MARSTON meets two of Suffolk's last surviving veterans of that campaign.

WINSTON Churchill knew it was a crucial victory.

Just days after the battle of El Alamein, he was at London's Mansion house for the Lord Mayor's lunch.

The war leader rose to deliver one of the most famous speeches of the Second World War.

He said: “The Germans have received back again that measure of fire and steel which they have so often meted out to others.

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“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Field Marshall Montgomery's greatest triumph, El Alamein took place 65 years ago.

Since 1940 the British Army had been in a war of attrition. Fighting first the Italians, later joined by the Germans, the British and Imperial forces skirmished their way across the North African desert.

Under resourced, out numbered and out gunned, the allies were in trouble.

Morale was at rock bottom and the allies had been pushed back by Rommel's mighty Afrika Korps to within 30 miles of the Nile.

To lose Cairo and the Suez Canal beyond would have been a total disaster.

But the tide was turning and it was largely thanks to the arrival of a small man with a squeaky voice - Field Marshall Montgomery.

Richard Heseltine, of Assington, near Sudbury, is now aged 92, but back in August 1942 he was a camouflage expert in the 3rd The King's Own Hussars . He remembers his first encounter with Montgomery.

He said: “I was a fruit farmer before the war and I was called up as a supplementary reserve officer. I got a telegram the day after war was declared telling me to report to Tidworth. I had to go.”

Initially serving as a navigational officer Major Heseltine got to the North African desert in August 1940.

He said: “Rommell came on the last day or March 1941. There was a huge increase in the number of black Arab tents over the border in Libya, of course, underneath were Panzer divisions. We were surprised.”

For the next eighteen months or so Major Heseltine was among the Imperial forces trying to retain control of the region.

He said: “By 1942 no one was winning. Morale was very low. We had been pushed back and pushed back. Churchill came out and changed the command.

“Within a few weeks the whole situation changed. It was remarkable. We knew what we had to do.”

Major Heseltine puts this change at Montgomery's door.

He said: “It was an extraordinary achievement and El Alamein was Montgomery's greatest achievement. I met him on the second day of his command. He came to look at what he had got and he was incognito really. I had no idea who he was. He was a little man with a squeaky voice but a penetrating eye. But there really wasn't anything that made him stand out.

“He was lost and I marked his position on his map, I remember saying to him “God man, you're not desert material.” but I found him pleasant enough. It was an extraordinary meeting really.”

By October the two armies faced each other from the Mediterranean in the north to the Qattara Depression in the south, not far from a small railway halt called El Alamein.

Major Heseltine said: “I remember Montgomery used rather schoolboy like parlance. He said “We are going to knock Rommell for six right out of Africa.” and everybody believed him.”

At 9.40pm on the night of October 23 the barrage began.

Major Heseltine said: “It was tremendous. We were very keyed up. But it didn't all go according to plan. The Afrika Korps were a very efficient and clean fighting army.”

Major Heseltine admitted he find the events themselves difficult to talk about.

He said: “I was in a tank. It's hard to explain what happened. The battle lasted 12 days and comprised of a number of actions over that period. I lost a lot of my friends.”

Involved in an action at a place called Aqqaqir the major was one of only nine officers left standing.

He said: “We knew it was a suicidal action. It was pretty terrifying but the worst was before when we knew what we were being asked to do. I survived just by luck.”

Mentioned in dispatches Major Heseltine said the battle came at the right time.

He added: “Montgomery and Rommell were both superb generals. It was just a question of who was going to strike first and once we broke through they were on the run.”

Reflecting on the battle Major Heseltine summed up his feelings in two words. He said: “Never again.”

For 88-year-old Harry Buckledee El Alamein was a precursor to capture by the Germans.

He said: “I was in the 11th Hussars, the cherry pickers. I joined the army in May 1939. In February 1940 I was guarding a petrol dumps and I wasn't very happy. They wanted volunteers to the regiment and I joined. It was the best decision I made.

“The regiment had already been out in Egypt for a while and they were part of the 7th Armoured Division. They were ready for battle even though two thirds of their armoured cars were Roll's Royce's from the First World War.”

In June 1940 Harry found himself cutting the wire into Italian occupied Libya.

he said: “We wanted to destroy their communications. We cut gaps in the wire which was ten feet thick and 10 foot high of entangled barbed wire and went round the Italian positions.”

A member of the regiment's a squadron Harry was pone of a handful of men in the north african desert.

Harry, of Assington Road, Newton Green, near Sudbury, said: “Later in 1940 the Italians were building up forces. We only had about 30,000 men and they had 300,000. Rommell came in 1941 and we withdrew and went back to Cairo to refit. The Afrika Korps were vastly superior in number and equipment.”

A reconnaissance regiment the 11th Hussar's prided themselves on being at the front all the time, Harry said.

He added: “In August 1942 Rommell attacked at a place called Alum Halfa. But we defended ourselves and he couldn't sustain the losses and withdrew. Montgomery gave the order not to chase from our defensive position and it was a success.

“There was an air of confidence about Montgomery and it permeated very regiment. We had had two years of stalemate and now it was coming to an end. We all knew there would be an offensive. You have to attack in the end.

“We were on patrol duty and we were called back. I couldn't believe the amount of equipment that had built up. There were tanks and guns everywhere.”

Harry remembered the barrage of guns firing at 9.40pm on the first night of the battle.

He said: “Our objective was to get through a minefield. I was commanding an armoured car supported by infantry from the Queen's regiment.

“It was a beautiful clear and moonlit night and strangely enough there was so much happening I wasn't really scared. Suddenly our barrage lifted and it was quiet. All you could hear was the running of the engine. It was unnerving but it didn't last, all of a sudden the German's threw everything they had at us. There was smoke and dust and it go so you couldn't see.”

After clearing one minefield, Harry said he remembers the military police in the field putting up lights so he could drive through the areas cleared of mines.

He said: “Our losses weren't all that great. Afterwards the Germans had very few tanks left, they had lost so much equipment.”

After following the German army as it retreated across the desert the war abruptly ended for Harry.

he said: “I got captured on December 30 1942.”

Harry said he was with a group patrolling the desert when his group literally walked up to a group of Germans.

He said: “The officer said “Get off your cars and put your hands up.” We did what we were told and he said to me “This is too bad for you isn't it.”

“He was almost sorry for us. I was very angry. I had thought about being killed but being captured never crossed my mind.”

Both men returned to Suffolk after the war, Harry worked as a gardener and Major Heseltine as a fruit farmer. Both had families and today have grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Harry said: “What I remember most is the comradeship. It's something that no one can explain. Everyone who served in the 7th Armoured Division are proud of that and rightly so.

“We had a pride in our country, our regiment and ourselves and I am proud of being an 11th Hussar to this day.”

Do you know a veteran of El Alamein? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

By July 1942 the Panzer Army Africa, comprising the German Afrika Korps and Italian and German infantry and mechanized units under General Erwin Rommel, had struck deep into Egypt, threatening the British Commonwealth forces' vital supply line across the Suez Canal.

Faced with overextended supply lines and lack of reinforcements and yet well aware of massive Allied reinforcements arriving, Rommel decided to strike at the Allies, while their build-up was still not complete.

This attack on August 30 1942 at Alam Halfa failed; expecting a counter-attack by Montgomery's Eighth Army, the Afrika Korps dug in.

After six more weeks of building up their forces the Eighth Army was ready to strike, 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks under Montgomery made their move against the 100,000 men and 500 tanks of the Afrika Korps.

The nephew of a RAF wing commander has today paid tribute to his uncle by publishing his war time experiences.

Entitled Gunnery Leader, The World War Two Chronicle of Wing Commander Ken Bastin DFC, by Ipswich-based author Tom Williams, the book narrates Mr Bastinb's experiences as an air gunner in Bomber Command and relates his rise to the rank of Wing Commander.

Tom said: “Essentially the book is a tribute to my late uncle and his wartime RAF colleagues. His rise through the ranks was a remarkable achievement for an air gunner even in the Second World War.

“The book is sprinkled with entries from my mother's wartime diaries which give a taste of the spirit of ordinary families at home.

Tom said the book has not been written as a commercial venture.

He added: “I wrote the book because I felt strongly that my uncle's story should be told. He was one of the many ex-servicemen who very rarely spoke about their experiences and so their service to their country is never fully understood.”

The book is published by Woodfield Publishing Ltd and is available from their website www.woodfieldpublishing.com

Do you have an untold war story? Was a member of your family a serviceman or woman? What do you think? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

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