A Visit to the World War II Allied War Cemetery, El Alamein

Post No. 6 — Looking back forty-years to 22 January 1981

Looking back forty years to our full-day visit to the El Alamein War Cemetery, it is bizarre to realise that more years have now passed since that visit than had elapsed between the actual battles and the day we were there… Tempus fugit, and all that!

Quite rightly, all war cemeteries are sobering and saddening places to visit, but the barrenness of the setting at El Alamein, together with harsh winds constantly blowing sand in from the Sahara, makes this very under-visited memorial all the more poignant. [Copyright image, 1981.]

The photograph above was taken after a morning wind had abated, a wind which when we arrived was powering a very modest dust cloud — enough to be blowing-in some small amounts of sand from the Sahara Desert in which it is located, reducing visibility to something like mist, but nowhere near being a major sandstorm.

The dust cloud when we arrived was more than enough to reduce visibility and be unpleasant to breathe but fortunately it dissipated before too long. [Copyright image, 1981.]

This gave at least some insight into how much work must be done at El Alamein simply to clear out the sand that incessantly must get blown in.

Because of the dictates of where we were able to pitch our tents the night before, and again on the night of our visit, there was no rush, so we were able to spend a large part of the day there.

A view from the south west, towards the entrance hall. [Copyright image, 1981.]

For obvious reasons, this was popular with my fellow travellers from Britain, Australia, and Canada, all of which countries had men among the fallen in the cemetery.

The First Battle of El Alamein (1–27 July 1942) was a battle of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II, fought in Egypt between the Axis forces (Germany and Italy) of the Panzer (tank) Divisions (which included the Afrika Korps under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel) and the Allied (British Imperial and Commonwealth) forces. 

The Second Battle of El Alamein, just three months later (23 October – 11 November 1942) took place near the Egyptian railway halt of El Alamein. Critically, the First Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Alam el Halfa had prevented the Axis powers from advancing further into Egypt, where a major goal was control of the Suez Canal.

Australian soldiers played a big part in the First Battle.

Incongruously, “the modern town of El Alamein is a now a favourite retreat for affluent Egyptians, drawn to white sand beaches edged by grand resorts.”

By a happier circumstance, the visit to El Alamein was where I started to get to know an Australian fellow-traveller, Joe Tolley, who subsequently became a lifelong friend and who no doubt will be mentioned again in future posts.

El Alamein is one of several allied war cemeteries that I have had the sad privilege to visit over the years.

It is at once one of the most hauntingly beautiful but savagely barren places I have ever been.

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