October 26, 2012 / 12:32 PM / 5 years ago

Britain's "Desert Rats" celebrate El Alamein's 70th

LONDON (Reuters) - “It was one continuous cacophony of noise when those 1,000 guns opened up. We were just so grateful we weren’t on the receiving end,” 92 year-old British veteran Ron McBride remembers.

There aren’t that many survivors left from Britain’s World War Two breakthrough North African victory at El Alamein. The battle was bloody and the sands of time have not been overly kind to many of those old soldiers.

But the handful who will gather in London’s Westminster Abbey on Saturday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle are under no illusion as to the significance of the duel which pitted British Lieutenant-General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery’s Eighth Army against German Field Marshal Erwin “the Desert Fox” Rommel’s German and Italian forces.

After almost three years of war, the Allies were reeling from a string of defeats across the globe and the morale of the British Eighth Army in Egypt was at rock bottom.

“The food was deplorable,” McBride says. “It was all bully beef, biscuits and water that was so contaminated that if you tried to make tea, the condensed milk just went into a lump.”

On the eve of the 14-day battle, the British and their Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Greek and Free French allies had been pushed back to within 150 miles of Cairo.

Finally, on October 23 Montgomery - the commander credited with reversing Allied fortunes in North Africa - ordered a counter-attack with almost 900 guns leveled at the German positions to be discharged at once.

Amidst the ensuing mayhem, former Sergeant McBride’s armored car unit was able to drive right through enemy lines.

“They must have thought we were Italians, as they just let us right through,” he said. Surprisingly, his unit sustained its worst casualties after the battle when it was accidently targeted by an American bomber in Tunis some months later.

While previously the Suez Canal was threatened, and with it Allied access to the rich oilfields of the Middle East, now the Allies were able to press their advantage and eventually push the Germans and Italians out of Africa.

“It was enormously important in terms of morale as well,” said Phil Reed, Director of the Churchill War Rooms museum. “It was our first victory for some time, and provided a terrific boost back home.”

McBride, along with an expected 40 other British and Australian veterans, will be at Saturday’s service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.

Reporting By Peter Schwartzstein, editing by Paul Casciato

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