Some 40 Israeli war veterans who served in the British army’s Jewish Brigade during World War II took part with other veterans Sunday at ceremonies in Egypt commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein.
They were joined by nationals of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada who fought in Egypt’s desert against the forces of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in 1942.
Of the 26,000 Jewish men and women of Palestine who volunteered for service in British ranks, some 5,000 served in the Jewish Brigade, which took part in the fighting around the desert railroad station of El Alamein.
The Jewish Brigade was formed in September 1944 under the aegis of Brig. Ernest Frank Benjamin, an English Jew. The brigade fought in Egypt, northern Italy and northwestern Europe.
Other Jewish volunteers served with British forces in Palestine, other parts of Egypt, Cyprus, Malta and Iraq.
Unlike virtually every other national component of the British and Commonwealth forces, the Jews of Palestine were not permitted to fight under their own blue and white flag or define themselves as representatives of the Zionist Yishuv.
They wore a shoulder insignia identifying themselves as Palestinians.
The Jewish Brigade served under Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army, the so- called Desert Rats, which formed a counterpoint to the forces fighting the Nazis at the Battle of Stalingrad.
Both thrusts were aimed at halting the Nazi advance toward the Middle East oil fields.
Montgomery’s forces launched the assault on El Alamein on Oct. 23, 1942. They stemmed the advance of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which included more Italians than Germans, to the Suez Canal and the Middle East. The battle was one of the major turning points in the German army’s assault on the West.
Montgomery’s forces were very well prepared for the battle, on land and in the air, and Rommel soon saw his attempts to quash the British forces were futile. He withdrew forces but was urged to reverse this by Adolf Hitler.
His troops were pummeled and were forced to pull back. The forces on foot who did not withdraw surrendered.
That loss was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s army.
In the two weeks of fighting, some 13,500 British troops and 10,000 Germans and Italians lost their lives.
Twelve Israelis are buried in the El Alamein cemetery, where Sunday’s observances were held.
Germans and Italians are buried at El Alamein, too. In an irony of history, this year’s ceremony was arranged by German representatives, under an annual rotation plan of participating countries who clashed in battle there.
A ceremony was held at the German memorial and another ceremony at the British Commonwealth cemetery a few miles away.
The once-opposing forces stood together at the commemorations. Also present were the prime ministers of Britain, France and Greece, and other ministers from Germany, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.