Commemorating the Battle of El Alamein: 75 Years On (2017)

On a sunny and hot Sunday, 29 October 2017, I made my way to the Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town to take some photographs at the 75th Annual Commemoration Service of the Second Battle of El Alamein. As in previous years, the service was organised by the Cape Town Highlanders Regiment, the Cape Western Provincial Dugout of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTHs) and the Department of Defence and Military Veterans (DODMV).

I had only attended this parade twice before – once in 2010, and a second time in 2015. I still remember how completely out of my depth I had felt in 2010, because it was only the second military parade that I had ever attended (the first had been the Battle of Square Hill Commemoration Service of September 2010).

At the time, I didn’t have a clue how these parades worked, and I didn’t know where I was allowed to stand, how close I was permitted to get to the action, and what was going to happen when. I had no idea who was who. And I was still learning how to use my camera (I had just bought my very first DSLR, the Canon 550D) and how to take photographs at these kinds of events; I didn’t know what would work, how to compose and frame shots for best effect, how to anticipate and time the shot correctly, or what settings to use.

Before the parade, Capt (SAN) Trunell Morom and Staff Sgt Pat Greyling organise the wreaths

Now, in 2017, it is a different story – thankfully!

Since those baby steps in 2010, I have attended a fair number of military parades and memorial services; I have a far better sense of how they are structured, so I am better able to anticipate where I need to be to get a good shot. I have learned to compose my shots more effectively and I am more confident of which settings to use, depending on the conditions. I’m more familiar with the various venues and the possible angles – though the organisers still surprise me when they change the seating, or the exact location of the memorial, or any of the other elements that affect my lines of sight! I also still make mistakes and get caught in the wrong spot sometimes, but I’ve become better at dealing with it. And, instead of letting my nervousness get in the way, I usually end up having a wonderful time!

Just a few of the many bright and colourful wreaths

When I arrived at the Castle, there was a fair bit of activity in the front courtyard, with soldiers dashing hither and thither, setting up rows of chairs in the shade of the colonnade – it soon turned into a hot day, so I’m sure all the guests were relieved to sit in the cool shade.

The PA system, loudspeakers, podium and red carpet were being moved into the optimal positions, the Cape Town Highlanders’ RSM, MWO Alfie Wort (the Parade Commander today) was sorting out the flagpoles and flags and a myriad of other things that needed to be finalised. The focal point of the parade was one of the 25-pounder GV1 guns of the Cape Field Artillery Saluting Troop; I thought this was quite fitting, since guns just like it had been part of the actual Battle of El Alamein.

I walked across to where Capt (SAN) Trunell Morom and Staff Sgt Pat Greyling were busy taking receipt of the wreaths and making notes of who would be laying the wreaths on behalf of which organisation, regiment, association, etc. The two of them have been doing this for years; I always marvel at how they keep track of the correct order in which their assistants need to hand the wreaths and flowers to the next person – strict protocol governs the specific sequence.

The Drums and Pipes of the Cape Town Highlanders

Shortly after 11h00, the Drums and Pipes of the Cape Town Highlanders, led by their Pipe Major WO2 Charles Canning, marched onto the parade ground. Behind them came the MOTHs standard bearers, followed by a long column of MOTHs, all in dark suits and looking suitably solemn. The standard bearers strode across to the far side of the arena, where a row of chairs had been set up just in front of the big flagpole. Moments later, a group of sentries arrived, taking post around the gun, and the SA national flag was unfurled.

Now that the stage was set, the service could begin.

Lt Col Tienie Lott, Officer Commanding the Cape Town Highlanders, delivers his address

After we had been welcomed by the Master of Ceremonies, Philip McLachlan, Provincial Adjutant of the Cape Western Provincial Dugout of the MOTH, he requested Lieutenant Colonel Tienie Lott, Officer Commanding the Cape Town Highlanders to give his speech. Then it was time for Chaplain Ben Smit to give the scripture reading and to lead us in prayer. The Drums and Pipes of the Cape Town Highlanders accompanied us in singing the hymns “Abide with me” and “Amazing Grace” – it was impossible not to get goosebumps.

The scripture reading and prayer are given by Chaplain Ben Smit

Staff Sergeant Marius Pheiffer of the SA Army Band Western Cape, looking resplendent in the Army Band’s scarlet uniform, played the Last Post and the Reveille, as the flags were lowered during the Two Minutes’ Silence: The first minute is in thanksgiving for those who survived, and the second is to remember the fallen. (You can learn about the background to this tradition, which actually originated in South Africa, on the South African Legion’s website).

Staff Sergeant Marius Pheiffer of the SA Army Band Western Cape, plays the Last Post and the Reveille

And then it was time for the busiest part of the parade for the photographers among us!

Wreaths were laid all around the base of the gun by, among others, Mr Mike Masala on behalf of the Department of Defence and Military Veterans, Brigadier General Debbie Molefe, Director Defence Reserves, and the Executive Deputy Mayor of the City of Cape Town, Alderman Ian Neilson. Alderman Neilson is a frequent speaker at and long-time supporter of these military parades and commemoration services.

Pipe Major Charles Canning piping the Lament

I was aware of the fact that many of the people attending the parade were veterans who had seen active service, in World War II, during the Bush War in Namibia and Angola, and in other conflicts. Although there are World War II veterans still alive today around the world, they are all in their 80s and 90s by now, so their numbers are dwindling.

Two South African veterans of El Alamein attended this year’s service: Major Charles Holloway (age 99) and Sergeant Sydney Ireland (age 97). Both of them are members of the Signals Association, as is a third veteran of El Alamein, Mr Eddie Mills (98), who unfortunately could not attend. All of them were part of the Cape Town based Signal Unit, and participated in both the First and the Second Battle of El Alamein. Major Charles Holloway, a signaller, was attached to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles, as part of the 1st South African Brigade in North Africa; he later became Officer Commanding of the Cape Town based 3rd Brigade Signal Unit. Sergeant Sydney Ireland served as a wireless operator in both East Africa and North Africa during World War II.

Major Charles Holloway, assisted by Staff Sergeant Pierre Fourie and Sergeant Peter Longbottom of the Signals Association, and Mr Sydney Ireland and his grandson Craig Portman, at the memorial

It was a particularly emotional moment when they laid their wreath at the base of the gun, with the assistance of Sergeant Ireland’s grandson, Craig Portman, as well as Sergeant Peter Longbottom and Staff Sergeant Pierre Fourie of the Signals Association. As they returned to their seats, everyone applauded warmly, in an evident display of respect.

Once all the wreaths had been laid, Pipe Major Charles Canning piped the hauntingly beautiful Lament, as he walked slowly around the ceremonial gun. It gave us time to reflect on the lives lost and ultimate sacrifices made in these battles, which changed the course of history. Everyone stood at attention, with the soldiers in uniform saluting, during the singing of the South African National Anthem. And finally, to conclude the parade, Dave Revell, the Provincial Old Bill of the Cape Western Provincial Dugout, delivered the MOTH Credo and Prayer:

“I shall pass through this world but once;
any good thing that I can do
or kindness I can show any human being,
let me do it now and not defer it,
for I shall not pass this way again.”

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

And with that, the MOTHs standard bearers marched off, the sentries withdrew, and the Commemoration Service of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein came to an end. And my work – of sorting through the morning’s photographs and drafting an article about the parade – began. 🙂

Lt Col Tienie Lott, Alderman Ian Neilson, Brig Gen Debbie Molefe and Lt Col Johan Conradie salute during the playing of the National Anthem

As usual, I had been too busy taking photographs and trying to find good vantage points to make any notes during Colonel Lott’s speech. As a result, I spent the next couple of days doing online searches on the Battles of El Alamein, on their significance in the historical context, and why particularly the Second Battle is still commemorated today – 75 years later. I also wanted to learn why it was especially significant for the Cape Town Highlanders.

I thought it might be helpful to summarise the information I gathered here.

The 25-pounder GV1 gun of the Cape Field Artillery’s Saluting Troop

The Cape Town Highlanders regiment fought in all of the major battles in the Western Desert Campaign of 1941-43 of the Second World War.

The First Battle of El Alamein was fought around the small railway siding of that name in Egypt, on the North African coast, throughout the month of July 1942. The conflict involved, on the side of the Axis forces (Germany and Italy), the Panzer Army Africa under the command of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, and, on the side of the Commonwealth forces, the Eighth Army (consisting of troops from Britain, British India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand), under the command of General Claude Auchinleck. Taking advantage of the terrain, the British Eighth Army constructed three ‘boxes’ (dugouts surrounded by minefields and barbed wire); one of these was at El Alamein.

Here, the 1st South African Division played a pivotal role in halting Rommel’s advance from their frontline in Libya towards Cairo in Egypt and the strategic Suez Canal and the oilfields of the Persian Gulf further east. Total South African losses, from 26 June to 30 July 1942, were 433 officers and other ranks of whom 164 were killed, 253 wounded, and 8 taken prisoner of war, while eight received treatment for shell shock (Roll of Honour, World War II, 1939-1945; Div Docs 105, File1 SAD/A2/2: Battle Casualties, 1-30 July 1942).

Colourful wreaths surround the 25-pounder GV1 gun of the Cape Field Artillery

The Second Battle of El Alamein, which was fought from 23 October to 11 November 1942, marked a turning point in the North African Campaign. The new commander of the British Eighth Army, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, launched a multi-pronged offensive focusing on the north, involving a massive artillery barrage of the German tanks, infantry actions, the advance of Allied armour tanks through vast minefields, and bombing raids by airplanes, coupled with diversionary attacks from the south. The Eighth Army succeeded in breaking through the defences of Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa, leading to the eventual defeat of the German and Italian forces in North Africa.

Among the Commonwealth forces, and part of the 1st South African Division, were troops from various regiments, including, among others, the 1st Cape Town Highlanders, 1st Dukes of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles (known today as the Cape Town Rifles [Dukes]), 1st Royal Natal Carbineers (Natal Carbineers), 1st Transvaal Scottish, 1st Natal Mounted Rifles, 1st Imperial Light Horse (Light Horse Regiment), 1st Rand Light Infantry, and 1st Royal Durban Light Infantry (Durban Light Infantry).

The Second Battle of El Alamein represented the first major offensive against the Axis powers since the start of World War II; the victory revived the morale of the Allies when it was sorely needed. The South African casualties during this battle alone amounted to 734, killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war.

Drums and Pipes of the Cape Town Highlanders

In acknowledgement of their participation in these historic battles, the Cape Town Highlanders regiment earned three battle honours. Interestingly, it is only one of three regiments in the world to have not only the usual two Alamein battle honours, “Alamein Defence” (relating to the First Battle) and “El Alamein” (relating to the Second Battle), but also a third, “Alamein Box” (which, I now knew, was related to the First Battle). Two other Reserve Force regiments, the Royal Durban Light Infantry (Durban Light Infantry) and the Imperial Light Horse (Light Horse Regiment) have also received this battle honour.

This is why the commemorations of El Alamein hold special significance for the Cape Town Highlanders.

Like the Cape Town Highlanders and the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiments, Cape Field Artillery too had seen active service in the North African Campaign, under the name of 1 Field Regiment; 1 and 3 Field Batteries, joined by 14 Field Battery, participated in both Battles of El Alamein. It was thus particularly fitting that one of its ceremonial guns was used as the memorial during the parade on Sunday, 29 October 2017.

—–

Note: With grateful acknowledgement to Lieutenant Colonel Johan Conradie, SO1 of the Defence Provincial Office of the Western Cape, to Captain Jacques de Vries, National Communications Chairpersons of the Junior Officers’ Association of the Reserve Force Council, and to the Signals Association (see especially: http://www.signalsassociation.org.za/page33.html) for their input.

Here are my photographs. Remember that you can access the slideshow by clicking on any of the images. Enjoy!

 

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