On Sunday 25 October 2015, the Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town hosted the 73rd anniversary commemoration service of the Second Battle of El Alamein. This annual service was organised by the Cape Western Provincial Dugout of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTHS), the Department of Military Veterans and the Cape Town Highlanders.
Tourists who happened to visit the Castle that morning for a guided tour looked on with much curiosity, as the atmosphere suddenly became quite solemn and the service began. The SA Army Band Western Cape, with WO2 Jerome Mecloen conducting, had been playing some beautiful background music to set the scene. During the service, the Army Band and the Drums and Pipes of the Cape Town Highlanders together played the beautiful and melancholic “Highland Cathedral” and “Amazing Grace”.
One of the 25-pounder guns of the Cape Field Artillery’s saluting troop stood on the front parade ground, facing several rows of chairs that had been set up in the shelter of the colonnade. Captain John Manning of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiment welcomed the invited guests, participants and visitors to the event, and explained the protocol.
Then it was time for the sentries and the flag orderly to march on; once the sentries had taken up positions all around the big gun, the MOTHS standard bearers, followed by a large group of MOTHS members, marched onto the parade ground, and the standard bearers all stood in a line on the far side.
Lieutenant Colonel Tienie Lott, the Officer Commanding the Cape Town Highlanders, was first at the podium to address the gathering; he spoke about the significance of the Battle of El Alamein and the reason why it is still remembered today.
The Second Battle of El Alamein, which was fought from 23 October to 11 November 1942, marked a turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Previously, the First Battle of El Alamein from 1 to 27 July 1942 had stalled the advance of the Axis powers (Germany and Italy), more specifically the Panzerarmee Afrika commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, preventing them from reaching Egypt and the Suez Canal and thus of gaining access to the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields via North Africa.
The Second Battle represented the first major offensive against the Axis powers since the start of World War II, and thus the victory revived the morale of the Allies.
The Cape Town Highlanders fought in all of the major battles in the Western Desert Campaign of 1941-43, all the way through to El Alamein. The Highlanders are only one of three regiments in the world (interestingly, all of them are South African) to have not only the usual two Alamein battle honours, “Alamein Defence” and “El Alamein”, but also a third, “Alamein Box”, resulting from a separate action during the initial defence which played a significant role in halting Rommel’s advance on the exhausted and thinned-out Eighth Army. Two other Reserve Force regiments, the Royal Durban Light Infantry and the Imperial Light Horse – now known as the Light Horse Regiment – also have this battle honour.
Thereafter, MOTH Chaplain Reverend Errol Sadler led us in prayer, which was followed by the singing of hymns and a scripture reading. He spoke about the fact that there are very few veterans of World War II still alive today, mentioning El Alamein veterans Charles Holloway and Sydney Ireland who were present at the service that day. The commemoration of these significant battles is a tradition that is effectively dying out too, as the current generation sadly regards the events of World War II as ‘a thing of the past’ and as irrelevant to the present. This is not only the case in South Africa, but around the rest of the world too.
One of the reasons why I like going to these events and taking photographs of them is that it is wonderful to see familiar faces, as it is often the same people who lay the wreaths for the various organisations, regiments, and associations. I often find them quite moving too – and part of me wonders for how many more years these commemoration services and parades will continue, or whether our current government will at some stage decide that they are an anachronism and a reminder of a time, a history and a culture that has no relevance to South Africa of today.
Even though I was born many years after the end of World War I and World War II, I do remember how profoundly my grandparents’ and my mother’s generations were affected by having lived through those years.
And it seems to me important to remember that the present would be very different, if the various significant battles had ‘gone the other way’ – we are forgetting to be grateful for the freedoms we take for granted now, and that are being steadily eroded right under our noses. I think it is also important to acknowledge with gratitude the sacrifices and selfless service of the men and women who fought so bravely, leaving behind their families and loved ones to fight and die in a country far, far away – as so many soldiers still do today.
As so many countries of our world are being torn apart by wars, I fear that we seem to be standing on the brink of another World War, with more and more countries being sucked into regional conflicts… I find it desperately sad that the memories, stories and words of caution of those who survived the destruction and devastation of all the armed conflicts of the 20th century are no longer powerful enough to compel us – the present generation of the early 21st century – to shy away from conflict, war and terror – and to seek peace, healing, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion instead.
Wreaths were laid by, among others, the Executive Deputy Mayor of the City of Cape Town, Alderman Ian Nielsen and Mr Shaun Booth of the Department of Military Veterans, as well as veteran Mr Sydney Ireland. As is tradition at all these commemoration services, trumpeters blew the Last Post, as the MOTHS standards were lowered, whereafter we stood in reflective silence for two minutes – until the playing of Reveille.
This was followed by the laying of the wreaths at the gun, with piper Hugh Veitch playing a lament. Finally, we all sang the National Anthem, with the soldiers in uniform saluting; the MOTHS standards and the sentries marched off, and that was the end of the service.
I wanted to end with the moving 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.”
The MOTHS News page has an excellent summary of this day’s service here. Also see: DefenceWeb; Wikipedia: Western Desert Campaign; Wikipedia: First Battle of El Alamein; Wikipedia: Second Battle of El Alamein; Wikipedia: South African Battle Honours; Daily Maverick.